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by Claire Trageser | KPBS
edited by Lorie Hearn | inewsource
Kevin Faulconer has the Republican party firmly on his side in his race for San Diego mayor. And there is plenty of money to show for it.
But Faulconer’s campaign is also at times distancing him from the GOP.
“He did not set foot inside that convention.” That’s what Tony Manolatos, Faulconer’s campaign spokesman, said when asked about Faulconer’s trip to San Diego during the 1996 Republican National Convention. Faulconer was in San Diego to network for jobs, not to hear Republican speakers, he said.
“If you think Kevin is a conservative, toe-the-line Republican—and it appears you do based on the multiple GOP references and lack of balance—please show me the evidence,” he wrote.
While the mayor’s race is technically nonpartisan, party affiliation, backing and financial support are widely considered crucial. Some strategists say if Faulconer’s playing both sides of the fence, it’s a smart move.
Faulconer is described as a social moderate, both in the media and in his campaign’s press releases. His campaign highlights his moderate social stances, his work on environmental issues and neighborhood services and his support from Democratic leaders like former City Council President Tony Young.
Faulconer is also the Republican establishment’s chosen candidate. By the end of October, the Republican Party of San Diego County had spent almost $100,000 on Faulconer—$2,500 in campaign contributions and $94,000 in member communications supporting him. The local GOP has also given $75,000 to conservative group The Lincoln Club, which has sent out almost daily mailers attacking Faulconer’s opponent Nathan Fletcher.
The GOP brand is suffering nationally, which has led many Republicans, especially those in big cities, to distance themselves from the party, said UC San Diego politics professor Steve Erie.
“Republican leaders are an endangered species in big cities,” Erie said. “San Diego was just one of the last to join the Democratic surge. Crime rates are down to historically low levels in all big cities, and the economy is on the mend, so it’s hard for Republicans to play their usual issues, which are crime and the economy.”
Faulconer’s campaign is sometimes reluctant to call him a Republican at all.
Faulconer was raised a Democrat, became a Republican in college and was a close ally of former Republican Mayor Jerry Sanders. Faulconer became a Republican, he said, because of his belief in economic opportunity.
KPBS was not able to ask Faulconer directly whether he’s distancing himself from the GOP. After KPBS profiled Faulconer, Manolatos said in an email that due to the “lack of balance” in KPBS’ coverage, the campaign was “going to hit the pause button” on allowing Faulconer to do interviews with KPBS.
Reached by phone yesterday, Manolatos said the campaign’s strategy is not to distance Faulconer from the Republican Party, and that he objected to the KPBS profile because “it didn’t capture who Kevin is.”
“I thought you didn’t tell your readers and viewers who this guy really is with all the Republican references,” Manolatos said. “I don’t mind all the Republican references, but you should balance it out with, he is a Republican, but he’s also a moderate, and here’s what I mean by that, the campaign includes in their press releases that he’s a social moderate and he has demonstrated many times that he’s had a lot of success on the City Council working with Democrats.”
Political experts say the efforts of Faulconer’s campaign to emphasize his moderacy illuminate not only GOP branding problems but also San Diego’s changing voter demographics. They say San Diego’s shift to a voting block that elected progressive Mayor Bob Filner helps explain Faulconer’s emphasis on his environmental and neighborhood services accomplishments and less frequent mentions of Republican talking points such as pension reform and managed competition.
UC San Diego’s Erie said Faulconer has a moderate record and is not a Tea Party Republican, so it’s smart for him to distance himself from the GOP to attract independent and Democratic voters.
“Right now Faulconer is all about scrubbing off the Republican label,” Erie said.
Mesa College politics professor Carl Luna said part of Faulconer’s “run down the middle” strategy is likely meant to steal voters from Republican-turned-Democrat mayoral candidate Fletcher, both before the primary election Nov. 19 and in advance of a runoff election. The runoff would be held early next year if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote.
“With Republicans only having one major candidate with Kevin Faulconer, unless there’s a huge Democratic turnout, it seems unlikely that Mr. Faulconer won’t make the runoff,” Luna said. “Mr. Faulconer knows that if he can start lining up moderates now, that will build his base for the runoff in January.”
A new poll of likely voters out yesterday put Faulconer in the lead with 41 percent of the vote over Fletcher’s 28 percent. If Faulconer and Fletcher were in the runoff, the poll found Faulconer beating Fletcher 46 percent to 41 percent with 12 percent undecided. Those numbers were reversed a month and a half ago, when Fletcher beat Faulconer in a hypothetical runoff 44 to 30 percent.
Tony Krvaric, the chairman of the Republican Party of San Diego County, said he doesn’t know why Faulconer’s communications director Manolatos objected to the Republican National Convention anecdote and said he doesn’t think Faulconer is distancing himself from the GOP.
“It’s a nonpartisan race, so voters are going to judge a candidate on his merits, not his party,” Krvaric said.
But he said the Republican Party is supporting Faulconer because he’s the only Republican in the mayor’s race.
“He’s exactly the right man for the job, a fiscally conservative mayor who’s going to continue the reforms we started under Sanders,” he said.
Former Mayor Filner was the first Democrat elected mayor of San Diego in more than 20 years, and his resignation over sexual harassment claims was considered a major blow to the Democratic Party. But Filner’s 2012 win over Republican Carl DeMaio also highlighted the strength of Filner’s campaign—an emphasis on neighborhood services over downtown development—and San Diego’s changing voter demographics. A National University System Institute for Policy Research study found that between October 2005 and October 2012, Democrats gained 36,491 voters, independents increased by 48,270 voters, while Republicans decreased by 18,465 voters in the city of San Diego.
Faulconer and Traditional Issues
While criticizing KPBS’ Faulconer profile, Manolatos wrote that Faulconer is “pro-choice, supports the Dream Act, supports California’s gun control laws, which are the most liberal in the country, etc.”
These issues are not addressed on Faulconer’s mayoral campaign website, and a web search for quotes from Faulconer on each comes up dry. It makes some sense that Faulconer hasn’t outlined his stances on these social issues because they rarely relate to city government. But his campaign’s work to highlight them justifies a look into his positions.
Abortion and Gun Control
Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest has sent Faulconer a questionnaire on his views on abortion, birth control and other reproduction issues during each of his City Council runs and his mayoral run, but he has not returned any of them, said Jennifer Coburn, a spokeswoman for the organization.
Ron Marcus, a spokesman for the San Diego chapter of the Brady Campaign, a gun control advocacy group, said Faulconer did not respond to a request for his positions on gun control.
He later sent another email outlining Faulconer’s support for an April 2013 City Council resolution encouraging national immigration reform. Faulconer voted against a council committee resolution proposed by City Councilman and mayoral candidate David Alvarez, but supported a more toned down resolution that removed wording asking for a “reasonable” pathway to citizenship not tied to border security.
Faulconer also voted for a council resolution calling for a repeal of Arizona’s controversial anti-immigration law. While neither vote relates directly to the DREAM Act’s proposal to grant permanent residency to illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, both show Faulconer’s willingness to work on immigration issues.
Manolatos said Faulconer has not had the opportunity to vote on gun control or abortion issues at the City Council, but supports both.
Same Sex Marriage
Faulconer’s stance on another social issue is well documented: same-sex marriage.
Faulconer told KPBS in mid-October that his shift was a “deeply personal decision” and he reconsidered his stance after realizing same-sex marriage was becoming a national issue.
“I did a lot of thinking, a lot of talking to friends, both gay and straight,” he said. He also talked to both his current pastor at Point Loma Community Presbyterian and his childhood pastor.
“Not everybody, particularly in my party, was happy with my decision and my stance, but it’s one that I came to personally and one that I’ve never looked back on,” he said.
Port Commissioner Bob Nelson, who used to be Faulconer’s boss and mentor at Nelson Communications Group, said he saw Faulconer’s transition on the issue.
Nelson said the issue of marriage equality “gnawed on” Faulconer.
“It wasn’t easy for him, going through this conflict where what he had been programmed into by his environment was conflicting with what he believed was the right thing to do,” Nelson said.
Downtown Homeless Shelter
Faulconer’s thoughts have also evolved on the permanent downtown homeless shelter, an issue more directly related to his work as a city councilman.
Faulconer’s district used to include downtown, and he said he faced pressure from business owners to not let the shelter be built there. In 2010 he delayed a Land Use and Housing Committee vote on the shelter, asking first for a series of meetings to solicit input from downtown residents. He then voted against the committee’s proposal for the shelter, saying while he supported the idea, he wanted to be sure shelters would be built in other neighborhoods outside of downtown as well.
Katie Keach, a spokeswoman for Interim Mayor Todd Gloria, was involved in the early discussions about the shelter with Faulconer. She said Faulconer’s position evolved in a way that mirrored changes in overall views of homelessness in San Diego. At first city leaders did not want to talk about the problem, she said, but then they became more willing to focus on the issue.
Faulconer was part of the sea change of realization that “if we address this as a community, we may actually be able to solve it,” she said.
“I said this could work, and we’ll make it work,” he told KPBS in mid-October. “And it was actually one of the best things that I’ve ever seen in terms of a transformation, where people who came out and fought it originally, when we opened that center, all those businesses were there, residents were there saying, ‘you know what, this is going to make a difference.’”
While that pushback from business owners is still going on, Faulconer sticks to his support for the shelter.
At a recent Faulconer fundraiser, Mark James, a downtown business owner, asked Faulconer what the city could do about the downtown homeless, and Faulconer said the city is helping people instead of just getting them off the streets. James later said he wished Faulconer answered the issue from a business standpoint instead of “a humanitarian standpoint.”
Faulconer still hopes to replicate the downtown shelter in other neighborhoods, both to increase access to homeless services and to make the downtown shelter less of a magnet for homeless people.
“There was a lot of pushback saying, ‘Kevin, all of these services keep coming downtown and you know we have these issues in other parts of the city,’” he said. “Yeah, we do. But at the same time, if I’m going to tell other parts of the city that this type of model can work, we have to prove that it can work in downtown.”
Mission Bay Park Initiative
While campaigning for mayor, Faulconer continues to champion some of his signature City Council issues like street repairs, pension reform and managed competition, which allows the city to put some of its services out for bid.
He also frequently highlights one of his first achievements on the City Council, the Mission Bay Park Initiative. The 2008 voter-approved measure requires some of the lease money collected from hotels in Mission Bay Park be dedicated to Mission Bay and other parks instead of going to the city’s general fund.
Faulconer was chair of the Mission Bay Park Committee and said he first ran for City Council largely to bring about that redirection of lease money. Although the initiative was passed five years ago, Faulconer often cites it as his proudest accomplishment.
That emphasis on an environmental issue over cutting pensions and managed competition aligns with the shift in San Diego’s political focus, said politics professor Luna.
“What Mr. Faulconer’s trying to show is that he was a stable manager as a city councilmember, that he was good working against Bob Filner, working to get him replaced, and that he’s a man in the middle, that he’s not just going to slash this, close that, like more of the Republicans of yore,” Luna said.