During last year’s campaign, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer labeled fellow Republican Donald Trump’s rhetoric as divisive and unacceptable and criticized his border wall, suggesting it’s an economic strength for his city to be located so close to Mexico.
Faulconer and business allies have since warned about the fallout of a border tariff and Trump’s insistence on tearing up the North American Free Trade Agreement.
And the mayor panned the president’s original order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority counties, saying he’s confident “we can strengthen America’s security without shutting America’s doors.”
As Republicans convene this weekend in Sacramento with an eye to next year’s race for governor, Faulconer is seen by many as the only leader from within their withering ranks with enough crossover appeal to present a serious challenge to Democrats in sapphire-blue California.
They believe his emphasis on inclusion and avowed aversion to partisanship, moderate stances on social issues and focus on what he calls a “results and reform” agenda could help him connect with unaligned voters in a state that cast the majority of its votes for Hillary Clinton.
But for all his party’s pining, Faulconer – the 50-year-old father of two school-aged children – insists he’s content running City Hall, fulfilling a pledge he made to constituents while cruising to re-election last year.
“I love what I am doing as mayor,” Faulconer said in a recent interview in Sacramento. Pressed about whether he might change his mind amid pressure to run, Faulconer said “that’s where I am,” repeating the line twice for effect.
Some in Faulconer’s inner circle, however, believe it’s too early to write him off as a 2018 gubernatorial candidate. He is attending the state Republican Party Convention in Sacramento that begins Friday, and plans to drop in on a meeting of statewide county chairmen.
The leader of the state’s second-largest city was also in town recently for a panel discussion to extol what he describes as the “San Diego success story,” a narrative heavy on bread-and-butter municipal issues like prudent budgeting and repaving rutted roads.
“I think there’s always a lot of conversation about what somebody wants you to do next,” he said. “To me it’s a reflection of the job we’ve done in San Diego: our focus on fiscal reform, neighborhood services and working well with colleagues on the (majority Democratic) City Council.
“I love what I am doing, and I am looking forward to a full four years.”
Republican strategist Marty Wilson, a San Diego native who worked for ex-Gov. Pete Wilson, also a former mayor of that city, said the office is a “natural platform” for a GOP challenger because it gives them a geographic base in a large media market.
Faulconer demonstrated he can raise money locally, Marty Wilson said, and he doesn’t have a “scary disposition” to chase away independents and some Democrats.
He cast a wide net as he campaigned for his office more than three years ago, honing a message focused on reinvesting in neighborhoods, protecting the environment and bringing fiscal accountability to City Hall.
To underscore his approach, he took the oath of office in the historically underserved southeastern part of town. When he ran for re-election last fall, the mayor released his first television ad in Spanish. With Trump planning his border wall and expanding deportation efforts, Faulconer is working to assure “our neighbors” to the south that San Diego is committed to its cultural and economic ties with Mexico.
He recently proposed hiking the tax on hotel rooms to underwrite a convention center expansion, pay for expanded road repairs and rein in festering homelessness. Faulconer also pledged to help build more affordable housing. “I am trying to break taboos on that,” he said.
Among his broader list of achievements is doubling infrastructure funding since taking office, opening two new fire stations and increasing library hours. He has guided a climate action plan supported by business and environmental groups.
While running the Democratic city, he has carved out traditionally Republican positions like opposing city minimum-wage increases and Gov. Jerry Brown’s high-speed rail system, which he dismissed as a “fantasy.”
“He has a record that is pretty middle-of-the-road, which is what California voters gravitate to,” Wilson said.
Public polls show Faulconer in strong position to advance beyond the primary. But the Democratic Party’s nearly 20-percentage point advantage in voter registration and the state’s increasingly leftward slant complicate his chances in a November runoff.
Democrats in the race include frontrunner Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, along with Treasurer John Chiang, former state schools chief Delaine Eastin and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Interest groups are already preparing for several outcomes, including a Faulconer-free field.
Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, said while his organization has “great respect” for Faulconer’s record, “we also understand from a business community standpoint the tremendous challenges of the Republican Party.”
“If he runs, can he win?” Lapsley asked.
“It has been an enormous challenge (for a Republican) to get elected statewide,” he said, citing the uncertain influence of Trump on down-ballot Republicans. “We are not necessarily sure next year is going to be any different.”
Thus, Lapsley said the business roundtable is dissecting every candidate to determine who is best to improve jobs and the economy.
“Who will stand up to labor?” he asked. “Who will make changes to (environmental regulations) that everyone knows need to be done?”
Jim Brulte, the state GOP chairman standing for re-election this weekend, would not discuss prospective challengers by name, but said he’s confident the party will field “one or two strong candidates” for governor and “at least one” for the U.S. Senate.
John Cox, a San Diego County businessman and investor, and former NFL lineman Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier, both Republicans, are looking at the governor’s race, but neither would start with Faulconer’s advantages.
Observers said Faulconer needs to be convinced he can compete, likely through a combination of polling data and encouragement from major donors.
“Is that achievable in California?” asked Wilson, the Republican consultant. “The answer is I don’t know. But you’ve got to try if you’re ambitious.”
Faulconer has advanced in politics, even when dealt a weaker hand. Oftentimes, he’s waited for his opponents to fold.
He lost his first campaign for the City Council in 2002, but the incumbent who beat him resigned in 2005, allowing Faulconer to claim the seat in an early 2006 special election runoff over Lorena Gonzalez, now a Democratic assemblywoman.
Faulconer, then a two-term councilman with the support of city fathers and business leaders, pounced again when Democrat Bob Filner, enmeshed in a sexual harassment scandal, resigned as mayor in the fall of 2013 after less than a year in office.
Faulconer’s record and leadership style hold pluses and pitfalls if he runs statewide.
City Councilman David Alvarez, the Democrat who lost to Faulconer in the special mayoral race to succeed Filner, said the city has not made much progress on a host of areas the mayor takes credit for, including road and infrastructure improvements.
“The bar was pretty low to begin with,” Alvarez said, adding Faulconer has been slow to respond to housing and homelessness.
“It’s indecisiveness and an unwillingness to take on big issues,” Alvarez added.
Faulconer stressed he’s concentrating on the work of the city. He didn’t attend the president’s inauguration, but said he’s planning a trip to Washington next month to meet with Trump’s representatives from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Homeland Security.
He believes whoever emerges from his side to run for governor can look to San Diego as a model for urban GOP success.
“You have to be inclusive. You have to show opportunity. And you have to back that up with results in neighborhoods and communities so people understand that,” he said. “I think when we do that as Republicans, the future is incredibly bright. Not just here in California, but across the country.”
California Republican Party Convention
Location: Hyatt Regency Sacramento, 1209 L St.
7:30 p.m. Friday: Dinner banquet featuring radio host Hugh Hewitt
Noon Saturday: Lunch banquet featuring Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista
7:30 p.m. Saturday: Dinner banquet featuring Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia
9 a.m. Sunday: General session featuring re-election of GOP Chairman Jim Brulte
Note: events closed to the public