San Diego GOP power brokers map out comeback after Filner debacle

SAN DIEGO — Republican Party leaders and their allies in the business community did not like it when a Democrat was elected mayor last November.

Still shaken by the chaotic nine months of Bob Filner’s tenure, including his feud with the tourism industry and his orders to halt several construction projects, Republicans are determined to see the mayor’s office returned to GOP hands.

So on Aug. 31, the day after Filner’s resignation became effective, an invitation-only meeting was held in the La Jolla home of Tom Sudberry, a prominent developer and Republican contributor.


Depending on who is commenting, the meeting was either an attempt by civic-spirited citizens to return stability to a shaken and demoralized city government or a throwback to the days when a small group of kingmakers could decide San Diego’s future.

In any case, it was politics, San Diego style.

The meeting’s goal was to find a candidate that the Republican Party and various business groups could rally behind. In the 2012 mayoral primary, when three prominent Republicans were on the ballot, the moderate and conservative vote was split.

The fight left the party splintered for the runoff, helping Filner become San Diego’s first Democratic mayor in two decades.

From the three dozen people at the August meeting came an informal consensus that the best candidate was Councilman Kevin Faulconer, 46. Ex-Councilman Carl DeMaio, 39, a loser to Filner in 2012, should stick with a race for Congress, the thinking went, and Supervisor Ron Roberts, 71, should run for reelection.

A pollster reminded attendees that for all its reputation as a bastion of Republicanism, San Diego has become a Democratic city with 40% of voters registered as Democrats, compared with 27% as independents and 26% as Republicans. Democrats hold five of nine seats on the City Council.

With his more agreeable personality and reputation as a moderate, Faulconer was seen by many at the meeting as standing a better chance of attracting centrists than DeMaio, known as brash and uncompromising on issues such as pension reform and outsourcing of city jobs.

DeMaio was clearly eager to make a second try for mayor. Just days earlier he had unveiled what he called a blueprint for restoring ethical behavior to City Hall in the wake of the sexual harassment allegations that swept Filner from office.

DeMaio had his vocal loyalists, most notably Douglas Manchester, 71, hotel developer and owner of the U-T San Diego newspaper who likes to be called Papa Doug. San Diego has not had a decent mayor in 15 years, Manchester loudly told the group.

Manchester’s comment did not sit well with Jerry Sanders, who was mayor from 2006 to 2012 and is now chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce. Sanders, 63, had backed Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis over DeMaio in 2012 and was among those who considered Faulconer the party’s best choice now.

Sanders, a former police chief known for a low-key, courteous manner, looked Manchester in the eye and used an obscenity to describe the newspaper owner’s comment, according to people in attendance and an account on the Voice of San Diego website.

Manchester and Sanders have had their differences: Sanders opposed Proposition 8, the anti-gay-marriage initiative, while Manchester supported and financed the measure. Manchester wants a football stadium built near the waterfront, whereas Sanders prefers an expansion plan for the waterfront convention center. Manchester wanted the city to bid for a Republican national convention, Sanders was not interested.

When Manchester did not immediately back down, Sanders explained that he had spent seven years as mayor cleaning up what he described — again deploying an obscenity — as a “mess” caused when other Republican mayors had let the city’s pension deficit spiral.

After the heated exchange, Manchester apologized. DeMaio left the meeting without indicating whether he would run for mayor or stick with a bid for Congress in the 52nd District in hopes of ousting one-term Democrat Scott Peters.

Two days after the meeting, Manchester’s newspaper ran an editorial urging DeMaio not to join the mayor’s race. The reasoning tracked closely with what was said at the La Jolla meeting.

When DeMaio announced that he would stay in the race for Congress, an editorial praised his “statesmanship” and loyalty to his city and political party.

Manchester is traveling in Europe, according to an aide, and unavailable for comment. Sanders declined to comment.

Faulconer is the only big-name Republican in the Nov. 19 race against three well-known Democrats — former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, Councilman David Alvarez and former City Atty. Michael Aguirre — as well as a lineup of little-known hopefuls. If no candidate gets more than 50%, a runoff will be held between the two top vote-getters.

Carl Luna, political science professor at San Diego Mesa College, said those at the gathering are probably right, “their best hope in winning back the mayor’s office lay in circling the wagons around” Faulconer rather than making a second attempt with the more divisive DeMaio. But nudging DeMaio out “was definitely hard-ball real politik.”

But Tony Krvaric, chairman of the county Republican Party, who attended the meeting, called it a case of trying to find a candidate to keep San Diego fiscally sound and repair the damage done by Filner.

Krvaric also notes the possible larger significance of the mayor’s race in California’s second-largest city, given that Republicans hold none of California’s statewide offices.

“With a Republican mayor, San Diego could be the only bright spot in the state, the only place with a different, taxpayer-friendly, pro-business management style,” he said.

Not surprisingly, the Manchester-Sanders dust-up has been much discussed in media and political circles.

Political consultant John Dadian said that the spat “shows there’s not a complete monolith in the old-boys network.”