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Inside Look at Tense La Jolla Confab Where Republicans Chose Faulconer

Former Mayor Jerry Sanders and U-T San Diego Publisher Doug Manchester butted heads at a gathering that anointed Kevin Faulconer as the conservative choice for mayor.

It was Saturday, Aug. 31. No Republican had announced his or her intention to run to replace Mayor Bob Filner, whose term in office ended quietly the night before.

A group of about 30 of the city’s most influential conservatives and right-of-center business representatives assembled at developer Tom Sudberry’s La Jolla estate.

Doug Manchester, publisher of U-T San Diego, came. Jerry Sanders, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce and the former mayor was there. As was Sanders’ former chief of staff, Kris Michell, who is now CEO of the Downtown Partnership.

Bill Geppert, the head of the emergent Business Leadership Alliance, attended, as did Tony Krvaric, chairman of the San Diego County Republican Party and Kelly Burt, the businessman and chairman of the New Majority San Diego, a fiscal conservative action group. Bill Lynch, the chairman of the Lincoln Club, was also there.

And so were the three potential Republican candidates for mayor: former Councilman Carl DeMaio, County Supervisor Ron Roberts and Councilman Kevin Faulconer.

It was the third meeting of the group. Even before it was clear that Filner was resigning, organizers had wanted to unite around a strategy. At first, they decided not to support a recall. Filner was the Democrats’ problem, they decided.

Then, as it became more clear that Filner was unlikely to recover, they decided they wanted to unite behind a right-of-center candidate in the mayor’s race. They asked all three candidates if they would each respect the decision of the group and bow out if it asked them to.

Faulconer and Roberts said they would not run if the group didn’t get behind them. DeMaio refused to commit to that.

I’ve confirmed these details with four participants, though all requested anonymity because the meetings were supposed to be confidential.

At the final meeting, on a couch in the front of the room with others behind him, Manchester, the developer-turned-newspaperman, made the case for DeMaio.

“We need a guy like him,” Manchester said, according to sources. “We haven’t had a damn good thing done in this city in the last 10 years.”

Behind him, in the group, Sanders stood up, angry.

“Wait a second. That’s bullshit. That’s fucking bullshit,” he said before describing a few of the city’s recent achievements.

“You’ll get your chance to speak,” Manchester replied. He pointed out a new football stadium hadn’t yet been built.

Later, Manchester apologized. Repeatedly.

DeMaio got up to speak and asked the group to acknowledge the job Sanders had done as mayor. That provoked a round of applause.

At the meeting, a group of pollsters, including John Nienstedt, passed along the data they had collected. DeMaio had the best name recognition. No surprise. Faulconer had a long way to go but could change many minds.

The group decided to support Faulconer and everyone pledged to try to get their organizations to support him. Most everyone left the meeting thinking DeMaio might still run.

DeMaio announced he would announce his decision the day after Labor Day, Sept. 3.

On Sept. 2, Manchester’s U-T San Diego — which ran three front-page editorials endorsing DeMaio for mayor last year — posted an editorial arguing DeMaio should not run again. U-T editors have acknowledged Manchester and CEO John Lynch control these editorials.

“There is no room for political opportunism,” the piece read. “His in-your-face doggedness and sometimes abrasive manner is just what is needed to fix a broken Congress. But those traits are not what is needed to heal our broken city.”

The New Majority did its part. On Sept. 6, it endorsed Faulconer for mayor.

The Republican Party also followed suit. On Monday, Sept. 9, it endorsed Faulconer. So did the Downtown Partnership’s political action committee, even though the chairman of its organization, Keith Jones from Ace Parking, is an outspoken supporter of Faulconer’s top rival, Nathan Fletcher.

But there was a hiccup at the Chamber of Commerce. Sanders, the Chamber’s CEO, pushed through a finding that it was in the Chamber’s interest to endorse early in this primary election.

Here was the notice Sanders sent out to his board members.

In accordance with the Chamber’s established Policy, the Chamber shall not endorse a candidate for election to any political office unless the board, after following the procedure laid out in the Policy, makes a finding that the outcome of the election will have a material and substantial positive or adverse impact on one or more critical issues that are recognized as vital interests of the San Diego Region, and determines to endorse a candidate.

Chamber Board Chair Mike Niggli and President and CEO Jerry Sanders initiated the process by making such a finding.

The board agreed. An endorsement vote was scheduled for early Monday morning.

But late Sunday, the meeting was suddenly canceled and moved to Thursday.

A Chamber representative on Twitter claimed that Fletcher could not make the early Monday meeting and so it was moved to Thursday so the board could hear him out.

When I asked whether Fletcher even had a chance, with Faulconer’s momentum from conservative leaders, the Chamber’s Chanelle Hawkin tweeted: “Nathan needs to make the case on who is the best candidate for jobs, business and economic growth.”

On Tuesday, after the big Saturday gathering, DeMaio announced that he had decided to stick with his congressional run. Though polls had showed him as a strong mayoral candidate, he faced a dead heat with Fletcher. Democrats would be motivated to stop him.

A loss would have been devastating, and it would have left his movement crippled.

Now he can hope to serve as Faulconer’s conscience with a title of congressman to back it up.

And he offered a lesson for Republican leaders:

“First, we must become more inclusive – and reach out to all communities to listen to their struggles and represent their hopes and dreams. Republicans can no longer be the party of old white men – they must win the trust and support of Latinos, African Americans, Asians, women, youth, working families and gays,” he said.

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