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After almost 1,000 days, tens of millions of dollars and one resignation, San Diego’s new mayor looks a lot like the mayors who have come before him.
Kevin Faulconer, a 47-year-old moderate Republican city councilman, won Tuesday night’s special election by a much bigger majority than expected. A jubilant crowd at Faulconer’s downtown election night headquarters only got more jubilant as the night wore on and his early lead held strong.
“Thank you San Diego, thank you San Diego, thank you San Diego,” Faulconer said to his throng of supporters. “I can’t wait to be your next mayor.”
Faulconer’s ascendance ends a nearly three-year process to find a permanent replacement for another moderate Republican mayor, Jerry Sanders. Democrat Bob Filner won in November 2012, but flamed out in less than 10 months after committing a felony related to his treatment of women.
Filner, a combative and unabashedly liberal ex-congressman, was supposed to represent the city’s demographic shift toward greater progressivism and ethnic diversity and away from the downtown-centered, moderate Republican leadership that’s been the hallmark of San Diego city government for decades. But with Faulconer’s victory, Filner’s tenure stands, for now, as a brief detour.
Faulconer looks and acts the part. A San Diego State University grad and former PR man, Faulconer is the city’s longest tenured councilman, representing beach communities and Point Loma. His past support for pension reforms, competitive bidding for city services and the tourism industry puts him in lockstep with Sanders and the center-right coalition that backed him.
That coalition picked Faulconer as its candidate at a series of meetings, culminating in one in late August at the La Jolla home of a prominent developer. The decision cleared the Republican field for Faulconer.
On the campaign trail, Faulconer talked about meat-and-potatoes subjects: public safety, infrastructure, job creation. But his style reflected a change in rhetoric sparked by Filner’s successful narrative that the city’s diverse neighborhoods had been neglected over the years thanks to downtown boosterism.
Faulconer spoke in Spanish when he announced he was running for mayor. He emphasized ties to black pastors and Asian-Pacific Islander and Hispanic advocacy groups. His most prominent surrogate was Father Joe Carroll, who’s best known for his work on behalf of the city’s homeless population. A diverse group of supporters stood behind Faulconer during his victory speech, where Faulconer talked again and again about nonpartisanship and policies that benefitted every neighborhood.
Still, many of the solutions Faulconer offers amount to center-right boilerplate, such as streamlining city permitting and other regulatory processes and saving money through competitive bidding services.
“He’s talked about neighborhoods,” said Erik Bruvold, who heads the National University System Institute for Policy Research, a local right-leaning think tank. “But I don’t think we’ve gotten anything specific that’s much different than the status quo.”
Bruvold said he expected Faulconer to continue policies from the Sanders era and before. That means strong backing for the hotel industry and big business in land-use decisions, and few large-scale shakeups in the city’s fiscal structure.
A glimpse of Faulconer’s vision for the city can be seen through his stances on big upcoming issues. Faulconer supports ballot measures to overturn a development blueprint for Barrio Logan and an increase to the city’s affordable housing fee. He’s against measures to boost the city’s minimum wage and hike taxes to pay for an infrastructure megabond.
Alvarez has opposite positions on all those things. He picked a platform designed to excite the city’s Democratic base. He emphasized holding landlords accountable for problem properties, environmental activism and providing more city contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses.
He saw enormous spending from labor unions, which raised more than $4 million on his behalf – an amount roughly equivalent to all the money raised for Faulconer and more than 80 percent of Alvarez’s total.
Alvarez’ platform didn’t leave much room for him to court the city’s large block of middle-of-the-road voters. In hindsight, that looks like a huge miscalculation. Turnout appeared to be only slightly higher than the 36 percent who cast votes in last November’s primary. Lower turnout favors Republicans, and it did again Tuesday.