San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer Paves Potential GOP Road to Relevance

Mayor Kevin Faulconer marches in San Diego's 2014 LGBT Pride Parade. San Diego is the largest city in the U.S. with a Republican mayor. (Tristan Loper/Wikimedia Commons)

Mayor Kevin Faulconer stands just to the side of a freshly paved street in Southeast San Diego, explaining the road repair progress to an assembled group of news cameras. The mayor yells while emphasizing the importance of prioritizing infrastructure improvements in this historically low-income neighborhood, both competing with the clamor of bulldozers crawling down the street behind him and revealing his genuine excitement in the work being done.

Faulconer's focus on the city's basic infrastructure needs is a window into how the Republican mayor was elected -- and is favored for re-election this year -- in a city where only a quarter of registered voters belong to the GOP. Faulconer has been able to build consensus and largely avoid protracted policy battles with the majority Democratic City Council by focusing on issues like capital improvement, for which his latest budget proposes $372.7 million. That's double the amount spent when Faulconer took office in 2014.

"That's not a partisan issue," Faulconer says. "It's about getting our city back on track, it's about getting people the neighborhood services they deserve. There's enough partisanship on the national level, that's for sure."

The idea of running a city as a nonpartisan manager or caretaker is not new, and Republican mayors such as Michael Bloomberg have won election in far bluer cities than San Diego. But Faulconer thinks his consensus-building path could be a road map for Republicans running for higher office in California, where GOP registration (27 percent) mirrors the numbers in San Diego.

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"I think that's a brand that works," Faulconer says. "I think that is a recipe that we can replicate in other cities and other places across the country. It's a recipe that works because we work together."

Shifting the Political Center of the City 

Faulconer's choice to highlight infrastructure improvements in Southeast San Diego isn't accidental.

"I took my oath of office just a couple of blocks from where we are standing here, in Southeast San Diego two years ago," says Faulconer, who also speaks Spanish. "I've made a conscious focus on making sure that we are delivering neighborhood services to communities that traditionally have not been served their fair share."

Mayor Kevin Faulconer touts increased funding for street repair in his FY 2017 budget in Southeast San Diego.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer touts increased funding for street repair in his FY 2017 budget in Southeast San Diego. (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

After Democratic Mayor Bob Filner's 2013 resignation amid allegations of sexual harassment, Faulconer has sought to regain civic trust by making his presence felt in minority neighborhoods.

"A lot of people assume that San Diego Republicans only care about downtown, and specifically developers," says Sara Libby, managing editor of the Voice of San Diego, a nonprofit news organization.

"He worked really hard to advance this idea that all neighborhoods in San Diego matter; low-income, minority neighborhoods, they deserve investment too," she said. "I think he's been able to succeed in San Diego because of that."

No Position on Chargers Stadium Proposal

The debate over a proposed downtown San Diego Chargers football stadium and convention center is proving a distraction from the careful consensus Faulconer has built on issues from homelessness to renewable energy.

"That's really sucked the oxygen out of all the other discourse in town," Libby says of the stadium debate.

It's difficult to forge a middle ground on the stadium issue. In November, voters will likely get to choose whether to raise the city's hotel tax to allow for a bond issue of $1.15 billion (the largest in city history) for a new stadium and convention center. If the measure fails, the Chargers have the option to move to Los Angeles in 2017. Faulconer has yet to take a side on the stadium issue, citing the need for more information about specifics in the plan.

"Growing our convention center and our economy is incredibly important to us here in San Diego, and keeping not only great groups like ComicCon but all the other conventions that we have," Faulconer says. "I've said from the very beginning, for me to support something, it has to make sense to me from a fiscal fairness standpoint and to make sure that we have all of the information."

The mayor's popularity has allowed him to keep lines of conversation open between the team and the city as the process moves forward. The team and the city are meeting weekly as the effort to qualify the stadium measure for the ballot kicks into high gear. But it remains to be seen whether Faulconer can solve the issue as a leader instead of a manager: taking a stand either for or against the stadium, and accepting the accompanying political risk.

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