KATHLEEN RONAYNE AND MICHAEL R. BLOOD, Associated Press
Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer has been a waiting candidate for years, seen by many California Republicans as moderate enough to retake the post of governor of the Democratic state.
This theory will be put to the test when the Democratic governor Gavin Newsom is recalled, but the meek, self-described vanilla candidate is running out of time to distinguish himself.
With ballots running out for the September 14 election, recent polls show he is lagging behind conservative radio talk show host Larry Elder, a newer entrant who quickly outperformed his GOP rivals. Faulconer also faces challenges in attracting independent and moderate Democrats as he backed then-President Donald Trump in 2020, who lost to Joe Biden by a record break in California.
“I think I am uniquely suited to effectively and steadily getting our state back on track,” Faulconer said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “There are a lot of things that don’t go well, you need strong and stable leadership.”
The 54-year-old Faulconer announced his candidacy for governor in February, betting that a policy-driven campaign would hit voters at a time of controversy. The recall comes amid another spike in COVID, raging forest fires and an undiminished homelessness crisis.
He cited his record with the government of San Diego, a Democratic city that is among the largest in the country, as evidence that he has the executive branch expertise to run a state of nearly 40 million people. He put in place policies to cut income taxes significantly and build more homeless shelters.
Faulconer was elected mayor in 2014 – after Democrat Bob Filner resigned in a sexual harassment scandal – and was re-elected in 2016, all attitudes that contributed to his moderate label.
Republicans have not won national elections since 2006, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was re-elected governor. Faulconer’s victories in San Diego had some in the GOP pushing him to run for governor in 2018, but he said he wanted to end his term as mayor. Newsom won in a landslide against John Cox, a conservative businessman who is running again.
The recall was driven by Republicans who collected more than 1.7 million signatures to get the issue on the ballot. They are trying to stir up resentment over Newsom’s handling of the pandemic, homelessness and crime.
Voters have two options: first, should Newsom be removed, yes or no? Second, who should replace him? On the second question, voters have 46 options, including Faulconer. If a majority approves the removal, the candidate with the most votes becomes governor.
“The recall is about who can best crystallize voter anger at the direction of the state, and Kevin Faulconer is not your man for that,” said Thad Kousser, chairman of the political science department at the University of California at San Diego . “This is about the red meat and I just don’t think he can stand up for a campaign that focuses on today’s Republican base.”
The Democrats are calling on their voters to decline the recall and not choose a replacement option. That means candidates like Faulconer are fighting for support among the state’s 5 million Republicans, plus independents and Democrats who back the recall. If Newsom is recalled, it is possible that a winner could receive 25% or less.
In an August 4 debate with three other Republican hopefuls that Elder skipped, Faulconer was the only candidate to say he had been vaccinated against the coronavirus and urged others to do so. But he also said he did not support masks in public schools and took a tough line against teaching “critical racial theory,” the GOP’s newest goal.
He did not mention that, as mayor, he supported a Race and Equality Bureau dedicated to combating systemic racism in the city.
Looking back on his tenure as mayor, Faulconer says his greatest accomplishments were reducing homelessness, repairing streets and increasing police budgets when the Defund the Police movement took off. His critics say he left office with few tangible accomplishments and some notable failures, including botched city real estate deals worth nearly a quarter of a billion dollars and the departure of the city’s NFL San Diego Chargers to Los Angeles.
Faulconer counts his efforts to reduce homelessness as an outstanding achievement that could be scaled up to clean up camps across the state. San Diego is “the only major city in California where homelessness has fallen and not increased,” said Faulconer, who was in office until December 2020.
But his record on this issue has been scrutinized and criticized.
His doubters include Republican rival Doug Ose, a former Congressman, and San Diego homeless advocate Michael McConnell, who say the reduced numbers led by Faulconer are the result of changes in the way an annual homeless census is conducted overlooked people in vehicles and aggressive policing that temporarily chased away transients.
McConnell says Faulconer’s statements about falling homeless people are “a nice little fairy tale.”
Faulconer says he has reduced homelessness by “double digits”. However, the annual number of homeless people in the San Diego area shows that the city’s homeless population decreased by about 4% in 2020.
Nine months after Faulconer stepped down, one thing is clear: homelessness remains a nagging problem in the coastal city of almost 1.5 million people.
One recent afternoon, about a dozen people, many with shopping carts full of belongings, huddled near a pharmacy in a neighborhood near San Diego State University, about a 15-minute drive from downtown. Many people use Balboa Park in San Diego as a campsite.
The San Diego Union-Tribune recently reported that more than 1,000 homeless people are living on the streets of downtown, despite hundreds being taken to shelters. There are fears that unsanitary conditions could lead to an outbreak of hepatitis A similar to 2017, when 20 people died and hundreds were hospitalized.
It was the 2017 outbreak – one of the worst hepatitis A in the United States in 20 years – that spurred Faulconer to action. The city opened large tented shelters to get people off the streets and diverted $ 6.5 million budgeted for permanent homes to operate.
Faulconer was later commended for bringing homeless people to the city’s convention center during the pandemic and speeding up the process to get them into permanent shelter.
San Diego city councilor Chris Cate, a Republican who supports Faulconer, pointed to Faulconer’s efforts to overhaul the city’s housing policy to allow for more affordable units as evidence that he can work across party lines.
Faulconer’s “Complete Communities” plan was passed by the Democrat-led city council in its final months in office. The aim is to promote affordable living space close to local public transport and to make disadvantaged parts of the city more driver-friendly and pedestrian-friendly.
“He took it on and really didn’t apologize for wanting to deal with it,” said Cate of Faulconer’s approach to the city’s housing challenges.
Gil Cabrera, former chairman of the board of directors of the San Diego Convention Center, worked with Faulconer on efforts to expand the center that have continued to stall. He said Faulconer “did a lot of press conferences” but “somehow there was always no follow-up”. Cabrera is a Democrat who doesn’t support the recall.
If the removal fails, Faulconer has announced that it will run for office in 2022, when Newsom is up for re-election. How he fares on the recall will increase or decrease his chances of becoming party standard bearers next year.
In the final weeks of the race, Faulconer believes voters will find what they are looking for in his candidacy.
“You have to win Republicans, Independents and Democrats to win,” he said. “I am confident that if the voters get to know me, get to know my record, this is a real chance that people will break in our direction.”
Reporter Julie Watson contributed from San Diego.
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