There was an interesting moment in last Friday’s mayoral debate on NBC 7 San Diego that I helped moderate.
Lori Saldaña, a former assemblywoman who left the Democratic Party and decided to give the mayor a run, looked Mayor Kevin Faulconer in the eye and told him he’d failed the city on public safety. She let him have it.
I watched, just kind of glad that the mayor was forced to make a case for his re-election. For many months there, it did not look like there would be a race at all. Saldaña, not seeing anyone running, decided to try and then Ed Harris, the longtime leader of the city’s lifeguards union, also threw his hat in.
I was glad because nobody should just stroll into a second term in the most important leadership position in the city without an examination. I liked watching democracy play out. He had to stand there and deal with Saldaña.
She said she knew of a woman, well-qualified for a dispatcher job with the city, who simply would never work for him. The dispatching crisis and slow response times  has emerged as Faulconer’s most troublesome problem.
He responded with this: “Perhaps you should talk to the dispatchers themselves and the association that represents them. They didn’t endorse you. They endorsed me because, unlike yourself, I have a real plan,” he said.
He was talking about City Hall’s largest employee union, the Municipal Employees Association. I, like thousands of others, received their mailers touting the mayor and his ability to bring the city together.
It was odd. Across town, Ray Ellis, a Republican ally of Faulconer running for the District 1 City Council seat, was hammering his opponent Barbara Bry because she had support from that same union. And yet here was the mayor, not apologizing at all that he’d earned it.
“I’m proud of it,” he said.
That’s pretty much all you need to know about the 2016 mayoral race. The 911 thing. The dispatchers. And the union’s support. Not that the support of the union was decisive. What was interesting was that neither Saldaña nor Harris had gotten it.
Everything has to be in place to unseat an incumbent mayor in San Diego. It was not.
If the mayor’s rivals couldn’t even get the city’s largest labor union to oppose him – a Republican who touted his reform to their pensions above all other accomplishments – it was never going to happen.
Faulconer now has four and a half more years to cruise without worry of political challenge. He is perhaps the most prominent Republican leader in the state of California, rivaled only by U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield.
But most importantly for the city, his approach to politics – the Faulconer Doctrine – has now had its most definitive validation yet.
I would sum up the Faulconer Doctrine like this: Accept political realities that you cannot change, then engage them. For instance, the city was going to pass a climate action plan. Don’t just hold your nose and let it go through; own it and embrace it. I actually think this is Faulconer’s genius: identifying exactly when he can’t beat them and so will join them.
“Even if you disagree with somebody, if you treat people with dignity and respect, you can usually achieve good results,” Faulconer said.
The Faulconer Doctrine does have some sacred cows, though: Stay away from tax increases at all costs. Even when he supported one – a measure to increase the hotel room tax for an expansion of the Convention Center – he could barely bring himself to say it. He called it, in his State of the City speech in January, “a legally defensible plan” to finance the project.
And then he dropped his own plan when the Chargers decided to stay in town a little while longer. He steadfastly opposed increasing taxes to pay for a giant investment in city infrastructure. He refused to attend meetings of the San Diego Association of Governments as they hashed out a plan to increase taxes for transit, open space and highways. He attended only to vote against what they came up with.
The final piece of the Faulconer Doctrine is to enjoy budget surpluses and do whatever you can to neutralize the complaint from underserved neighborhoods that you are letting them down. Speak Spanish. Work in southeastern San Diego and be available. Part of recognizing political realities is to accept that you, a white, Point Loma Republican, cannot let any complaint from those south of the 8 grow mighty. You are on borrowed time.
Competing for the mayor’s office is only going to get harder for Republicans unless a shift occurs.
“He practically ran as a Democrat,” said Francine Busby, the chairwoman of the San Diego County Democratic Party.
She cited the Climate Action Plan and Faulconer’s opposition to the presumed Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
But the Faulconer Doctrine is flawed. It leaves leadership vacuums, like the one we see growing in East Village. The Chargers and JMI Realty and even activist attorney Cory Briggs are doing more to envision the future of this crucial urban neighborhood than Faulconer is. He’s the leader of the city. But he won’t say what he wants for East Village or for Mission Valley. He’s waiting for the political reality to become clear, so he can activate the doctrine and own the winning side.
Faulconer has a mandate and the chance to shape the city forever. But he may not take it, unless someone else makes it impossible for him not to.