SAN DIEGO -- When Bob Filner resigned as mayor last summer amid a sexual harassment scandal, Democrats openly fretted over losing the first liberal in decades elected to run this city, long a Republican bastion on the southern edge of the state.
Now as voters prepare to elect a new mayor Tuesday, the city is engaged in a fierce ideological battle: Will it elect David Alvarez, a Democrat and first-term city councilman who is championing a minimum-wage increase, or Kevin Faulconer, a Republican councilman who argues that the city must keep pensions down and attract new businesses?
The mayor’s race in San Diego, the nation’s eighth-largest city, is in many ways a fight for its political soul. For years, residents here have picked moderate Republicans who have the backing of city developers, transforming downtown into a model of urban redevelopment with bustling, pedestrian-friendly streets that have become prime tourist attractions. But many Democrats argue that the powerful, business-focused elite have neglected and ignored working-class neighborhoods outside the city’s center, creating a sprawling urban area divided sharply by class.
With Faulconer receiving support from most of the city’s business leaders and Alvarez taking in millions from labor unions, the election’s outcome will signal how eager voters are to continue the break from the past that they once expected Filner to provide. And with unaffiliated voters the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, it is also a test of whether yet another big-city Democrat can be elected by riding a wave of populism, much as Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York did last fall.
“People really are tired of only the wealthy benefiting from city works,” Alvarez said in an interview at a coffee shop in Little Italy, a neighborhood near downtown that has seen an influx of new condos, doggy day-care centers and fashionable art galleries in recent years. “It should be part of the city’s job to create more opportunities for people.”
The campaign reflects a significant demographic shift in a city where Latinos make up roughly one-third of the population, up from one-fifth in 1990. If he wins, Alvarez, the son of Mexican immigrants, will be the city’s first Latino mayor in modern history. And at 33, he would be among the youngest ever to run City Hall.
The demographic changes are not lost on Faulconer, who has spent considerable time courting immigrant voters, including Asians (who account for nearly 16 percent of the city population, compared with 10 percent in 1990) and Latinos. When he announced his candidacy, Faulconer gave part of his speech in Spanish, but campaigning in two languages is no longer novel here: Filner, who had been a longtime congressman as well as a Freedom Rider, swept into office in 2012 with Latino support, and chants of “Si, se puede” – essentially “Yes, we can” – were often heard at his campaign rallies.
For the most part, Faulconer, 47, has played down his lifelong Republican identity, instead focusing on his work on the environment and local parks. Whether or not voters here are liberal, he said, they certainly have a libertarian streak.
“This has always been a place where we let people live as they choose,” Faulconer said in an interview. “People want to know that the city has enough to make it succeed in the long run. That’s all they really care about.
“They don’t want other people dictating to them what they have to do. They just want assurance that their quality of life will be good.”
In the early 2000s, San Diego earned the nickname Enron-by-the-Sea when it was plagued by financial scandals.
Mayor Jerry Sanders, a Republican who took over in 2005 after his Republican predecessor was forced out of office, pushed for several initiatives to save money, including outsourcing some services by allowing contractors to compete for jobs like trash collection. Sanders successfully championed a ballot measure that eliminated pensions for new city workers, replacing them with a 401(k)-style system. Faulconer enthusiastically backed both measures, while Alvarez has indicated that he may look for ways to roll them back.
For years, Sanders governed the city with mixed support from the Democratic-controlled City Council. These days, he said in an interview, many business leaders are frustrated by the way labor-backed officials dominate city politics.
“We’re like a lot of other big cities now,” Sanders said. “If we say something is going to hurt the business community, there’s a lot of ‘Look, we’ve got the votes; we don’t care what you think,’ and that makes it pretty impossible.”
In many ways, the mayor’s race is a kind of last stand for California’s Republican Party, which has been decimated in recent elections: No Republicans hold statewide office, and the Democrats retain overwhelming control over the state Legislature.
“If we lose this, I think it’s really problematic for the Republican Party,” Sanders said. “The rest of the state has already been lost.”
For labor leaders, a possible Democratic win could hardly be more welcome. Labor unions from across the state and in Washington have helped spend more than $4 million to back Alvarez. Recent polls show Faulconer, who has raised $3.5 million, slightly ahead of Alvarez, who has gained ground throughout the campaign. But both sides say it is almost impossible to predict turnout in the special election. Political operatives say the people most likely to vote favor Faulconer, but they also predict that unions will push for a larger turnout in places where Alvarez could have the advantage.
“San Diego has always been seen as this little city known to be conservative, and all of a sudden we have excitement and the idea that we can really lead the state,” said Mickey Kasparian, the president of the local labor union council, which gave crucial early backing to Alvarez in the fall. “If David Alvarez wins, San Diego is going to shift into a progressive direction for many years and become permanently blue.”
In recent weeks, Alvarez has embraced a plan to increase the city’s minimum wage to as much as $14.50 an hour – which would make it among the highest in the country – an idea first proposed by Todd Gloria, the interim mayor, who is also a Democrat. The proposal has allowed Alvarez to emphasize his biography as the child of a janitor and a fast-food worker in San Diego, which has been a crucial part of his campaign.
“When I was growing up here, two parents making minimum wage could really provide for their family,” he said. “It was the basics, but they could provide. Now there’s no way to make that work.”