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Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer Jumps Into the Governor's Race

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Then-San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer heads to the stage to speak during an election eve party at the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego on June 5, 2018. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

Kevin Faulconer, a fiscally conservative but socially moderate Republican who served as San Diego's mayor for six years, announced Monday night that he's running for governor of California — whether or not a pending recall effort against Gov. Gavin Newsom qualifies for the ballot.

Faulconer, who formed an exploratory campaign last month, made it official on a slickly produced 2 1/2-minute video released tonight. He will either challenge Newsom in 2022, when the governor's term expires, or sooner if the recall qualifies.

The video begins with Faulconer asking, "What happened to the promise of California?"

It goes on to site a litany of problems the state is facing, including Newsom's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine distribution, massive incompetence at the state agency that handles unemployment checks, income inequality and homelessness.

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"California has become the land of broken promises," Faulconer says, concluding that "I know we can clean up California and that's why I'm running for governor."

The 54-year-old Republican is promising a "California comeback," saying he will make Newsom's much-criticized handling of the COVID-19 pandemic the centerpiece of his initial pitch to voters. Faulconer has criticized Newsom's management of the pandemic as erratic.

"Look, we've had some businesses in California that have been open and shut five different times," Faulconer said on Fox News last month. "The fact that we had outdoor dining shut these past several months, again, when there was no science behind the transmission of the virus in outdoor dining settings, I think speaks volumes."

"That's why so many Californians up and down the state are frustrated and at their wits end," he added.

Faulconer enters the governor's race after declining to run in 2018, despite the urging of top party leaders who thought his relatively moderate philosophy on issues like immigration, LGBT and abortion rights ,and climate change would appeal to independent voters and more conservative Democrats.

In the end, Newsom crushed Republican John Cox in that election 62% to 38%.

Faulconer has been involved in the latest campaign to recall Newsom, which has until March 17 to turn in about 1.5 million valid signatures.

Although largely avoiding partisan politics as mayor of San Diego, Faulconer intensified his criticism of Newsom after the governor's widely covered — and lambasted — dinner in November at the posh French Laundry restaurant in Napa, where he joined lobbyists and others for a birthday party with guests who did not wear masks. The ill-timed visit came as Newsom was urging Californians to stay at home.

"He can dine on a $350 meal at one [of] California's fanciest restaurants during the worst recession in generations. But you definitely can't," Faulconer posted on Twitter in November. "Can you believe this? I can't."

Faulconer served two terms on the San Diego City Council before being elected mayor in a 2014 special election, following the resignation of Mayor Bob Filner amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

Faulconer won a full four-year term in 2016, making San Diego the largest U.S. city to have a Republican mayor.

As mayor, he worked with the majority-Democratic City Council to implement his agenda. He signed a series of city budgets that financed libraries, fire stations, parks and road paving. However, when he left office last year, Faulconer handed incoming Mayor Todd Gloria, a Democrat, an $86 million deficit to manage, largely as a result of plummeting revenues during the pandemic.

Faulconer's efforts to reduce homelessness in San Diego also had mixed results. He spent more than $40 million on the effort through his "Operation Shelter to Home" initiative, which was criticized for falling short on providing permanent housing.

His administration defended spending $10 million of state and federal money to temporarily house the homeless at the San Diego Convention Center, saying it helped a vulnerable population in a time of crisis.

When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, Faulconer said he'd never vote for him, citing his "divisive rhetoric" as "unacceptable."

And as mayor, Faulconer often distanced himself from Trump's policies, especially on immigration, the border wall and some of the president's more incendiary rhetoric.

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But Faulconer voted for Trump in 2020, explaining to KPBS in San Diego recently that "my support for his reelection was absolutely based on — I believe that was the best for our economic recovery."

Trump's deep lack of popularity in California — he lost the state to Joe Biden by 5 million votes in November — could become a problem for Faulconer in his quest to become governor. Democrats are sure to make good use of an Oval Office photo of the mayor with Trump after a meeting on trade issues.

But Newsom has political vulnerabilities largely stemming from the pandemic: anger over on-again, off-again business closures; frustration from parents regarding the slow reopening of schools; and a record on vaccine delivery that is among the slowest of the 50 states.

But even if Newsom's recall qualifies for the ballot, it might not be considered by voters until well after most Californians have gotten vaccinated and their memories of the worst of the pandemic have faded.

Faulconer's challenge will be developing a message that resonates across political lines, giving him a chance to become the first Republican to win a statewide election since 2006.

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