The next election for mayor of the city of San Diego is 11 months away and nobody has stood up to challenge Mayor Kevin Faulconer – a fact that seems to be frustrating Democrats who not that long ago thought they had ushered in a new progressive majority in city politics.

A lot can happen in 11 months. But every day that passes makes it more unlikely a major candidate will challenge the incumbent. A fundraising deadline just passed. Candidates for other seats raced to pull in cash to show how advanced their campaigns are.

Faulconer made a big haul. But nobody else is raising money in that race.*

The problem for Democrats is not that they cannot find one candidate to run for mayor. It’s that they can’t find two. They need two – ideally someone in the center or even right-of-center who might steal votes from Faulconer in a primary. (Former Councilman Carl DeMaio hung up the phone when I asked him if he might run.)

Mickey Kasparian, the head of San Diego’s largest labor union and chairman of the council of labor unions, says Democrats have a math problem.

San Diego may have a plurality of Democratic voters in the city but it only seems to matter every four years when everyone votes for president. In primary elections or other years, Democrats don’t show up to vote in the same numbers.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Thus, for Democrats, taking the mayor’s office is ideal in November 2016.

But they would have to make it to November 2016. To get there, they have to get through the primary in June. Primary elections in San Diego, however, can easily decide these matters. If one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary, he or she wins without a runoff.

If only two major candidates – Faulconer and a Democrat – run, Faulconer’s likely to win that outright. But if the Democrats can persuade two major candidates to run, they can try to keep Faulconer from getting to 50 percent, allowing one of them to make it to November.

This is the case for Barbara Bry and Joe LaCava in the biggest City Council race next year. If either Bry or LaCava, both Democrats, were to drop out and force the other to face Republican Ray Ellis alone, Ellis is likely to win.

Kasparian says that’s the reason labor groups are not endorsing either Bry or LaCava right now.

“We don’t want to scare anyone off,” Kasparian said.

He only wishes he had that problem in the mayor’s race.

Kasparian says no prominent Democrat in town wants to run for mayor unless someone else runs with them. City Councilman Todd Gloria has decided not to run. He’s pursuing the Assembly seat currently held by Speaker Toni Atkins. Neither Atkins nor David Alvarez, who lost to Faulconer in 2014, has made moves to run for mayor.

“I have seven or eight people who have an interest in running,” Kasparian said. “The question always is: How are we going to get this race to November?”

In 2012, the city had elected a progressive Democrat as mayor and a strong Democratic City Council majority. Now that term is finishing with a Republican in the mayor’s office and a strong chance for the GOP to take over the City Council.

“It’s frustrating to live in a predominantly Democratic city and have no option but to vote for a Republican who doesn’t believe that hard-working folks deserve to have the minimum wage raised,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who is also not running for mayor.

There are 587,000 voters in the city of San Diego. Just more than 39 percent of them are registered Democrats. There are more decline-to-state voters (29 percent) than Republicans (27 percent).

President Obama’s last two elections did drive major voter turnout but even if that was unique to him, the demographics and turnout expectations indicate November 2016 would be a prime opportunity for Democrats to take Faulconer’s seat.

Perhaps challenging Faulconer seems just too daunting. The self-made healthcare magnate Steve Francis spent more than $5 million in his push against former Mayor Jerry Sanders in 2008. He only got 34 percent of the vote. There was no other major candidate, so Sanders was able to get well more than the 50 percent he needed to win outright.

Democrats have made much more progress organizing themselves and developing local candidates who might contend for mayor. But Faulconer, like Sanders, stays away from controversy and appeases progressives when he can. What’s more, he’s managing the city in much more lush times – the last budget he submitted was adopted unanimously by the majority-Democratic City Council with no major changes.

Faulconer’s team helped orchestrate Gloria’s ouster from the City Council president seat. But while controversial, it did not lead to a major movement against the mayor. Quite the opposite, in fact – it successfully halted Gloria’s momentum and undercut his leadership of the Democratic plurality in city politics.

Gloria decided not to run for mayor.

Faulconer did veto the minimum wage increase Gloria championed but he embraced a bold climate action plan that would have the city reach for a 100 percent clean-energy portfolio and dramatically increase participation in public transit.

He has worked hard to communicate his concern for neighborhoods struggling with poverty and neglect. There have been no major initiatives in that regard but he’s done nothing to provoke outrage.

His campaign team didn’t want to comment on his good fortune to now be apparently strolling to a second term.

Francine Busby, chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party, did not return a call for comment. Former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, a two-time mayoral candidate, told me there was “no way” he would run for mayor.

Former Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, who has become something of an outcast in the progressive coalition, said running for mayor is not on her radar either.

“Democrats aren’t afraid they might lose another mayor’s race. After Filner, they’re afraid they might win,” she said.

*Note: The link is to a report about what a political action committee raised to support Faulconer. The June deadline for individual fundraising reporting passed but they have a couple weeks before they’re required to make those reports public. We don’t yet know what Faulconer, as an individual candidate, raised to support his re-election.

    This article relates to: Must Reads, Politics, Scott Lewis on Politics

    Written by Scott Lewis

    Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently breaks news and goes back and forth with local political figures. Contact Scott at or 619.325.0527, and follow him on Twitter at @vosdscott.

    Will Wurth
    Will Wurth subscriber

    When Faulconer loses both the Chargers & ComicCon, Marti Emerald is a shoo-in. However, if we want our 'berg to be TRULY America's finest city- then we will convince Todd Gloria to run. That man is above reproach & would truly get City Hall back in order!

    lorisaldana subscriber

    In contrast to local Democrats, after decades of being in control of San Diego City Hall and County government, Republicans can rearrange the players in these offices like falling out of bed. They thrive at building up a stable of talent in the private sector. (See: CIvic San Diego, Chamber etc.) at the local and national levels, and then moving them en masse from one wing of business, to City Hall or the West Wing.

    In Sacramento, the Speaker also has that handled (see: Speaker's Office of Member Services, SOMS). Up north, SOMS takes new members under their wings, educates them in the ways of the legislature, helps them to be effective in their current jobs, and then move into their next higher office.

    In San Diego there is no Democratic equivalency to the structure that is built up around members of the legislature. That's why local Democrats so often prefer to head north: there, they will be enveloped into SOMS, and have several years to build up their own team and expertise before taking on City Hall- or Washington DC- or both.

    So, in a nutshell: that's why Democrats won't run a candidate for Mayor until 2020- they put all their eggs in the Filner basket in 2012, and are struggling to regroup.

    It's also why I said they are afraid to win. Without this infrastructure of staff etc., it will not only be difficult for them to find all but a "Republican lite" style Dem who they will support, but even more difficult for them to govern effectively without Republican staffers and acquiescence (if not outright support).

    For an example of this "Dem staff deficit," see Dave Roberts (Who inherited many of his Republican predecessors staff).

    Echo5Juliet subscribermember

    From the outside it looks like local "Dems" are a fractured party. Social justice, environmental and labor don't always see eye to eye, yet it's hard to get elected to a position downtown without labor's wallet. It seems left voters have less opportunity to vote for someone that motivates them and instead get to vote for "anyone but R". 

    While they are the statistical minority, the right isn't really that fractured. It is easier fro them to organize and come together behind a candidate.

    Just my $.02

    ZachW subscriber

    I see your point, but while the right isn't fractured, they seem to be a do nothing party. They know they can't be off the chart right wing nut jobs (well, some with gerrymandered districts like Issa can) so they try to tip-toe around everything. Look at Faulconer. He's a nice guy, very moderate, but has he really been a good leader? He seems to maintain power by maintaining the status quo; hedge on anything controversial, don't make any one side too angry. I think that was ok after the Filner scandal because we just wanted a breather, but now I think SD is ready to move forward again and be competitive on the national and international stage and I'm not sure how sustainable faulconer's "don't rock the boat" do nothing tactic is. We need someone with vision, someone willing to take on the tough issues and not apologize for it. We need Donna Fye!

    Francine Busby
    Francine Busby

    I was unavailable over the holiday weekend and didn't respond in time for this article.

    Scott, you name some of the numerous well-qualified Democrats who would make outstanding candidates for mayor. You also point out the major structural problem with municipal elections in San Diego, where in the past two presidential election years, primary turnout was less than half of what it was in the general.
    We enable our city’s leaders to be chosen outright with a bare majority of the vote in the elections in which turnout is consistently low and unrepresentative. The result benefits both incumbents and Republicans, but it’s a sorry state of affairs for democracy.

    This is a significant public policy with long-term consequences that San Diegans might want to revisit. In 2012 in the county’s second-largest city, 63% of Chula Vista voters approved a “mandatory runoff” system requiring city elections to proceed to a November runoff even if one candidate receives a majority of the vote in June.

    There’s still time for one or more Democratic contenders to enter the mayor’s race. And if the law were different in San Diego, we would already have multiple experienced candidates from our party lining up to run – with a very strong chance of success.

    ZachW subscriber

    Is this (the majority primary rule) a state or local law? Do other cities like LA and SF do this differently?

    Glenn Younger
    Glenn Younger subscribermember

    @Francine Busby If the either major party can not get their voters to turn out for the primaries, they deserve what they get.  I don't buy that Dems can not be counted on to turn out for primaries.  I recall when both major parties turned out in force to defeat Nathan Fletcher in the Primary;  so that they would not have to run against him in the General.  It worked, and we go the infamous Filner v. DeMaio race.  I believe Democrats and Republicans both know the rules and how they work.   

    Changing the Primary rules to gather votes from the generally  uninterested and uninformed casual voters,  who will only vote in November, seems like a really bad idea.  Making it easy for the casual voter to weigh in shoudl not be the top priority.  

    Sunny Day
    Sunny Day

    Something is very wrong when no progressive thinks they have a chance in a City that has a plurality of Democratic voters, in a presidential year. I don't buy the argument that the party can't muster two candidates -  it is a complete embarrassment that they can't muster even one.  It speaks volumes about the lack of confidence that progressives have party leaderships ability to support a candidacy, it speaks volumes about the lack of candidate development within the party. 

    Is there not a single Democrat out there that wants to run to promote their ideas and their vision, win or loose?  Faulconer has been against the minimum wage increase, against the Barrio Logan Community plan, allocated less funds to South San Diego City, allocated less money for parks for South San Diego City... His agenda has been against the working class of our city, and we can't think of a single person who thinks they can do better? 

    Sunny Day
    Sunny Day

    I highly disagree with the characterization of Lori Saldana "an outcast in the progressive coalition". Lori chose to leave the party - walking away from something doesn't make someone an outcast, it's a conscientious choice. I believe that the vast majority of progressives that would be thrilled to support Lori for mayor, and, despite her withdrawal from party politics, I believe that she would be welcomed back if she chose to return. 

    ZachW subscriber

    So there is a possibility that the county will return to being a homogenous Republican controlled dictatorship with the Dave Roberts Scandal and the city could return to solid Republican control with a Republican mayor and Republican controlled city council? All despite Democrat majorities in the city and county? Obviously there is a huge disconnect here. The trend nationally is for larger cities to become more progressive, but SD seems to be regressing. The SD Democratic Party and progressive voters need to get their heads out of their backsides and start paying attention to local politics. We have already seen in just a couple weeks what the Republicans stand for: apologizing for racists who want to wave the confederate flag, taking away people's access to healthcare, climate change denying, denying equality for gay people, using race baiting to argue immigration issues - SD, despite being a major California city, is becoming a small corner of rural East Texas right on the West Coast.

    lorisaldana subscriber

    As I told you when you tried to contact me last week, a few days after the celebration of life for my father:: you are asking the wrong questions. A good investigation would not simply question why no one is running. It would look at the structure of the party that is failing to find someone willing to run at all.

    Democrats inability to coalesce around strong candidates to challenge the incumbent is more about their internal weaknesses than about Faulconer's strengths.

    And, disagreements with party progressives is not why I am no longer registered as a Democrat. I was not cast out- I left to care for ailing family members after my primary election and chose not to return.

    The problem no one wants to talk about publicly is progressive Democratic activists in San Diego are overwhelmed by business friendly moderates who push forward candidates they believe are electable, but do not inspire the base.

    This results in the low voter turnout you mentioned. Many Democratic voters are simply not inspired by the brand of Democrat the local party is producing.

    Yesterday a meeting for one presidential candidate attracted nearly 100 people. It was organized by a Democrat. The candidate is Bernie Sanders, who is not a registered Democrat.

    If and when you start reading those internal tea leaves about Democrats in San Diego you will have an answer to these and many other questions. Then you may understand how it is Republicans are registered in the minority, yet consistently elected into the most powerful positions in the city and county, often without opposition.

    Lori Kern
    Lori Kern subscriber

    @lorisaldana I couldn't agree with you more. Being involved now for quite some time, I can see that the party is already supporting Barbara Bry over Joe LaCava, simply because she's a business woman. No matter that Joe has more experience in city business and knows what's going on. 

    Not to mention that our leadership has made many bad choices. Back in 2012, the party did the same thing by supporting Scott Peters over Lori Saldana. The endorsement process is different for congressional candidates, and no one was endorsed, but the support was there for Scott.

    And now Scott Peters seems to have forgotten who put him in office. He represents a more affluent area, including the Jacobs family, so he voted for Fast Track. And he will vote for TPP. He forgets it was labor and the democratic party who put him in his seat--union members and progressive democrats gave up their weekends and evenings walking precincts and making calls for him.

    I, and I know plenty of others who would welcome Lori Saldana back. She has a 100% voting record on democratic and labor issues. Check out her Assembly record.