By Mark Gabrish Conlan • for East County Magazine, www.eastcountymagazine.org
February 19, 2014 (San Diego's East County) - There’s an old saying, variously attributed to the Greek fabulist Aesop and the Roman poet Horace, that “the mountain labored and brought forth a mouse.” Last February 11, after a six-month campaign, the special election for Mayor of San Diego labored and brought forth Kevin Faulconer. Actually, it wasn’t the proverbial mountain; it was the Republican Party and the “independent” Lincoln Club of San Diego County, who essentially took the raw material of Kevin Faulconer and used him as a chassis on which to build a bionically perfect mayoral candidate for the San Diego electorate c. 2014: modishly liberal on the “social issues” and business-friendly, pro-developer and anti-labor without being as obstreperously obnoxious about it as the last Republican Mayoral candidate, Carl DeMaio.
Not many people seem to remember — and it wasn’t brought up during the campaign, even by his opponents — that Faulconer got on the San Diego City Council in the first place much the same way he got to be Mayor. Faulconer ran for the District 2 seat in 2002 with heavy backing from the San Diego County Republican Party, who saw him as their great white hope for one of the Council’s “swing” seats. He lost that election to Democrat Michael Zucchet, but this being San Diego that didn’t matter. Zucchet and two other Democratic Councilmembers, Ralph Inzunza and Charles Lewis, were embroiled in a political scandal involving an alleged attempt by one strip-club owner in San Diego to reopen the tough regulations the Council had imposed on such establishments at the behest of the San Diego Police Department.
Zucchet, Inzunza and Lewis were prosecuted by a Republican U.S. attorney for San Diego and indicted for conspiracy, wire fraud and extortion. Lewis died before the case could come to trial. Zucchet and Inzunza were convicted in 2005. Later, in November 2006, Zucchet’s convictions were overturned by a federal judge on the ground that, even if true, the allegations against him did not legally constitute a crime. But that didn’t matter, because the San Diego County Republican Party had what they wanted — Michael Zucchet’s head on a silver platter, or at least his body off the City Council, and a low-turnout special election in which they could give Faulconer a do-over and get him on the Council in Zucchet’s place.
So when I stood in the parking lot of attorney Cory Briggs’ office on July 11, 2013 and heard Briggs, Marco Gonzalez and former City Councilmember Donna Frye declare their holy war against San Diego Mayor Bob Filner over his creepy advances to women, my immediate thought was, in Yogi Berra’s famous phrase, “It’s dèja vu all over again.” Indeed, though I wasn’t allowed to, the question I tried to ask at this press conference was, “Why are you so-called ‘progressives’ working so hard to make Kevin Faulconer the next Mayor of San Diego?” It’s true that the situations were not that similar. Zucchet was a victim of trumped-up charges and fought for, and ultimately won, the exoneration he deserved. Filner conceded he’d behaved inappropriately, stepped down as mayor and ultimately agreed to a plea deal that included agreeing never to run for anything again — not that he was likely to, given that he’s 71 years old and had been driven from office in humiliating disgrace.
But it still amazes me that the battle to get Filner out of the mayor’s office was led, not by Republicans, but by Democrats. Had the party identifications been reversed — had Filner been the first Republican mayor of San Diego in 20 years, instead of the first Democrat — the local GOP would have stood loyally behind him the way state and national Republicans stood behind Clarence Thomas, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Louisiana Senator David “Diaper Man” Vitter and helped them get and keep office despite similar allegations against them. The Republican Party had already been grooming Faulconer to run for mayor in 2016, when Filner’s term would have been up, and no doubt San Diego’s leading Republicans licked their lips and said, “Thank you, Jesus,” as the local Democrats, like the “Judean People’s Front Suicide Squad” in the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian (who were supposed to rescue Brian from the cross and instead all killed themselves), industriously destroyed the career of the first member of their own party to sit in the San Diego Mayor’s office in 20 years.
So, thanks to the bizarre self-destruction of Bob Filner’s mayoralty — both his own pathetic behavior towards women and his own party’s determination to take him down and disregard for the political consequences of doing so — the local Republicans were one step closer to achieving their master plan for putting Kevin Faulconer in the mayor’s office. They not only got to run him for mayor three years early, they got him into the sort of election Republicans like — and the sort that got Faulconer onto the City Council as well: a special election. With nothing else on the ballot, voter turnout was going to be low, and that generally favors Republicans. That in itself is an indictment of the progressive community in general and the Democratic Party in particular: they’re simply not as dedicated, not as determined to vote in every election even when the presidency is not at stake and there isn’t a galvanic figure like Barack Obama at the top of the ticket to turn out young people and people of color.
The next step for the local Republicans was to make sure no other major Republican ran against Faulconer. Carl DeMaio, who’d lost to Filner in the 2012 mayoral election and then declared he was going to run against recently elected Democrat Scott Peters for Congress, was widely reported to be considering a switch to the mayor’s race now that it was up for grabs. So on August 31, just one day after Filner’s resignation, 36 Republican politicians and power brokers came together at a secret meeting in La Jolla to give DeMaio and another potential Republican mayoral candidate, county supervisor Ron Roberts, their marching orders. I suspected such a meeting would happen but I was surprised when word of exactly when and where it took place, and what transpired, got published on the Los Angeles Times Web page (though, alas, not in the paper’s print edition) in an article written by the Times’ San Diego bureau chief, Tony Perry.
“From the three dozen people at the August meeting came an informal consensus that the best candidate was Councilman Kevin Faulconer, 46,” Perry wrote (http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-san-diego-mayor-20130924,0,1310610.story
). “Ex-Councilman Carl DeMaio, 39, a loser to Filner in 2012, should stick with a race for Congress, the thinking went, and Supervisor Ron Roberts, 71, should run for re-election. … With his more agreeable personality and reputation as a moderate, Faulconer was seen by many at the meeting as standing a better chance of attracting centrists than DeMaio, known as brash and uncompromising on issues such as pension reform and outsourcing of city jobs.” DeMaio got the message loud and clear: stay in the Congressional race against Peters and he would have all the money and help he wanted from the local party. Pursue the Mayor’s race against Faulconer, his party’s anointed one, and he’d be cut off at the knees.
There was one other problem the Republicans had in getting Faulconer into the mayor’s office: the November 19 mayoral primary. With Faulconer the only major Republican on the ballot, all the polls indicated he would finish first — as indeed he did — and he had a hair’s-breadth chance of squeezing out a bare majority and winning the election outright in round one. Instead Faulconer got 45 percent of the vote and most of the remainder split between Democratic candidate David Alvarez and Republican turned independent turned Democrat Nathan Fletcher. Alvarez had only got on the ballot because the Democrats’ most electable potential candidate, City Council President Todd Gloria, decided to sit the race out. Gloria’s public reason for not running for Mayor was that he was too busy being Mayor — under the San Diego city charter, Filner’s resignation had made him interim mayor until the election was over — though I suspect his real reason was he doesn’t want to remain stuck in city office. Instead I think he’s saving himself to run for Congress when his former employer and political mentor, Susan Davis, retires.
Fletcher’s candidacy was the sort of thing that excites the political punditry — they get to use two of their favorite, albeit totally meaningless terms, “non-partisan” and “post-partisan” — and just turns off the electorate. Fletcher had run for Mayor in 2012, starting his campaign as a Republican and re-registering without a party affiliation after the County Republicans endorsed DeMaio over him. He placed third in the primary to DeMaio and Filner (in that order) and then decided to re-invent himself as a Democrat. In a series of hard-hitting mailers that hit a new low in political cynicism, the Lincoln Club of San Diego County — a group of Right-wing Republicans officially unaffiliated with the GOP itself — told registered Democrats that Fletcher was really a Right-wing Republican wolf in progressive Democratic sheep’s clothing. The spectacle of a group of Republicans blasting a former member of their party for supporting the causes they believe in was pretty sickening even by the low standards of what passes for political discourse today. So was Fletcher’s response, which was to send mailers to the same Democratic voters accusing the Lincoln Club of wanting to sink Fletcher because they thought Alvarez would be a weaker opponent against Faulconer.
As things turned out, Fletcher ended up in the same position in the 2013 Mayoral primary — third — that he had a year and a half earlier. What the punditry regarded as a noble declaration of independence from party orthodoxy, voters regarded as untrustworthiness. They compared Fletcher’s previous positions on issues (helpfully provided them by the Lincoln Club’s cynical mailers) with his current ones and wondered, “What the hell does he believe?” Fletcher reminded me of the old Certs commercials: “Certs — it’s a candy mint! Certs — it’s a breath mint! It’s two, two, two mints in one!” “Fletcher — he’s a Republican! Fletcher — he’s an independent! Fletcher — he’s a Democrat! He’s three, three, three candidates in one!” So Alvarez clawed his way into the second spot in the February 11 runoff — which I expected him to lose, but not by so wide a margin (nearly 10 percentage points) as he did.
Faulconer gained his sweeping victory partly due to yet another negative campaign from the Lincoln Club, which turned Alvarez’ heavy support from organized labor into a negative with a series of bizarre TV commercials saying that Alvarez’s election would return San Diego to the control of “union bosses” who nearly bankrupted the city. If anyone came close to bankrupting the city, it was the business establishment that was supporting Faulconer, who in the 1990’s essentially either tricked or bribed the city workers’ union leaders into allowing their pension funds to be raided to balance the overall budget, and the local labor movement as a whole into supporting expensive, budget-busting giveaways to the private sector like the Convention Center expansion and Petco Park. They were also helped by some miscalculations by Alvarez’s supporters; all too many of Alvarez’s TV commercials began with the name “Kevin Faulconer” and, if you weren’t listening closely, could mislead you into thinking they were Faulconer ads.
But the biggest factor, as expressed by the panelists on the KPBS Roundtable program February 14, was voter turnout — or the lack thereof. Though turnout was actually higher on February 11 than it had been for the November 19 primary, as KPBS Metro reporter Sandhya Dirks said, “the voters south of I-8, particularly Democrats and Latinos — the [people] that elected Filner, and that Alvarez needed — didn’t show up.” Another panelist, 10 News investigative reporter Mitch Blacher, said that if Republicans statewide and nationwide have a lesson to learn from Faulconer’s win, it’s to keep voter turnout low and look for candidates they can plausibly present as “centrists.” Nationally, the Republicans are pretty much ignoring the second point but pushing the first with a vengeance; hence their support for laws requiring voters to show photo ID’s, restricting early voting opportunities and in general making it harder for people — especially young people, poor people and people of color — to vote.
Certainly the Republicans did their best to re-invent Faulconer as a moderate. “Whatever you do, don’t call him a Republican,” joked KPBS Roundtable host Mark Sauer, adding that Faulconer was presented as another Jerry Sanders: business-friendly but socially liberal and at least moderately pro-environment. That image is quite different from his actual record on the City Council, where he’s opposed virtually every program to help the less affluent in San Diego. He’s against raising the minimum wage, against raising sales taxes to avoid cutbacks in city services, against the Barrio Logan community plan (on the preposterous ground that creating a nine-block buffer zone between residents and shipyards will somehow drive the entire shipbuilding industry out of San Diego) and pretty much against any effort by government to challenge the priorities of business. He’s strongly supporting yet another expansion of the Convention Center, and his attitude towards developers is pretty much let them do what they want.
Faulconer’s conservative-in-moderate-clothing act is one that’s been working for Republicans in San Diego for over four decades — ever since Pete Wilson, who created the mold into which the local GOP pressed both Sanders and Faulconer, got elected Mayor in 1971 and served 11 years. Though he didn’t have the advantage of the “strong-Mayor” city charter the business establishment pushed through in time for Sanders’ mayoralty, Wilson essentially ran the city as a virtual dictator and, unusually for a San Diego politician, won statewide office: the U.S. Senate in 1982 (against past and present Governor Jerry Brown) and the governorship in 1990. Then he swung hard-Right in his public politics, getting behind the immigrant-bashing Proposition 187, riding its popularity to win re-election in 1994 — a short-term victory that turned into a long-term defeat for his fellow Republicans, since it alienated Latinos en masse and created a new voting bloc that has largely marginalized the once-dominant Republican Party in California statewide politics. But whatever its viability in the rest of the state, the recent race for mayor of San Diego proves that Pete Wilson’s template for success still works in his home town.
The views in this column reflect the views of its author and do not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine.