Ahead of 2016 election, San Diego’s new mayor sidesteps party ties

San Diego mayoral candidate Kevin Faulconer celebrates with his wife, Katherine, as their daughter looks up from below after Faulconer addressed his supporters at a rally last month in San Diego.
(Lenny Ignelzi / Associated Press)

SAN DIEGO — When Councilman Kevin Faulconer raises his hand Monday and is sworn in as mayor, he will take over the final 33 months of Bob Filner’s scandal-shortened tenure.

But in political terms the key number is not 33, but 20, or maybe 24 — the number of months before Faulconer, a Republican, will need to begin campaigning for a second term.

Historically, that has not been a problem here.

No San Diego mayor has been denied reelection since a Democrat lost in 1971 — one mayor, a Republican, was even reelected while he was fighting corruption charges that ultimately drove him from office.

But San Diego has changed: Democrats and independents are ascending and Republicans declining, prompting questions about Faulconer’s second-term prospects.

The 47-year-old former public relations executive beat Councilman David Alvarez, a Democrat, in the Feb. 11 special election when turnout was about 43%. Low voter turnout tends to favor Republicans.


But in November 2016, when both the San Diego mayor’s race and the presidency will be on the ballot, a turnout approaching 70% is expected — the kind of participation that propelled liberal Democrat Filner into office in 2012.

The city’s shifting registration has already led to putting Democrats in five of nine seats on the City Council. That will probably increase to six of nine when the council names a replacement for Faulconer’s beachfront district.

“Faulconer doesn’t necessarily start his mayorship as a lame duck, but he certainly starts with his wings a bit clipped by a Democratic majority,” said Carl Luna, a professor of political science at San Diego Mesa College.

Acting Mayor Todd Gloria, a Democrat, earned praise for taking over after Filner’s departure but is noncommittal about running for mayor in 2016. “I don’t have an answer for that,” he told reporters last week.

Faulconer says San Diego residents are more interested in seeing improvements in their neighborhoods than in party affiliations.

His campaign slogan was “One San Diego,” and he spent considerable time in Democratic strongholds south of Interstate 8.

He opposes raising the minimum wage in San Diego and boosting a tax on developers to pay for low-income housing, actions favored by Alvarez and Gloria. To Faulconer, those ideas will hurt business and economic growth.

For his swearing-in ceremony, he chose the nonprofit Jacobs Center in the southeast San Diego neighborhood south of I-8.

“There’s symbolism involved, but there’s also a determination” to push for economic development and upgrades in services like street repair and police protection in areas around the center, Faulconer said.

“We’re going to hit the ground running,” said Faulconer, whose election made San Diego the nation’s largest Republican-led city. “If I do my job, the rest takes care of itself.”

John Kern, a Republican consultant unaligned with Faulconer, said that “the notion that Faulconer is a lame duck is lame. There are just too many variables.”

Still, Kern said Faulconer’s task will be to broaden his appeal to neighborhoods and groups that favored Alvarez but “not so much as to scare the hard GOPers.”

As co-chairs of his transition team, Faulconer chose Steve Cushman, a former car dealer and longtime business community leader; and former Councilman Tony Young, now chief executive of the local Red Cross and one of the few African Americans ever to serve on the council.

Coming out of City Hall last week, Young said he was working on several issues at the top of Faulconer’s agenda.

Faulconer was a featured speaker at an event Thursday in the City Hall lobby celebrating Black History Month.

Though he did not appear to know all the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” he did tell the group that he respects “the strength and richness of the African American community and how important it is to our great city.”

Philip Liburd, 53, a retired member of the military and now a volunteer at racially diverse Lincoln High and a board member of the local NAACP, said he was encouraged during the campaign — to a point.

“He wasn’t my candidate,” Liburd said, “but now he’s my mayor.”

Liburd and Faulconer greeted each other warmly and embraced.

“He said during the campaign that he was going to make a seat at the table for everyone,” Liburd said. “We’re going to hold him to that promise.”

After the West African dancing and speeches were finished, Faulconer spoke with Makeda Cheatom, 73, director of the WorldBeat Center in Balboa Park, and others.

“I’m always looking first for Democrats,” Cheatom said. “But I think I’ve seen, for the first time, a Republican in this town speaking from his heart about helping all people.”

After the ceremony and the bonhomie, Faulconer hurried to an appointment at City Hall: at the city clerk’s office, helping a fiscally conservative candidate file to run for City Council.

Chris Cate, a former Faulconer staffer and now vice president of the county taxpayers association, told reporters he’s ready to help the new mayor on issues they both favor: pension reform, outsourcing of city jobs and keeping government lean.