SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer has for years been a candidate-in-waiting, viewed by many California Republicans as someone moderate enough to win back the governor's office in the heavily Democratic state.
That theory is being put to the test in the recall election against Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, but the mild-mannered, self-described vanilla candidate is quickly running out of time to make his mark.
With mail-in ballots for the Sept. 14 election already going out to voters, recent polls show him trailing conservative radio talk show host Larry Elder, a newer entrant in the race who quickly outraised his GOP rivals. Faulconer also faces challenges attracting independents and moderate Democrats because of his support in 2020 for then-President Donald Trump, who lost to Joe Biden by a record margin in California.
“I think I’m uniquely suited to effectively, steadily guide our state back on the right path,” Faulconer said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “There’s a whole lot of things that aren’t going well, that you need strong and stable leadership.”
The 54-year-old Faulconer announced his run for governor in February, betting that a policy-driven campaign would break through with voters in a time of strife. The recall is happening amid another coronavirus surge, raging wildfires and an unabated homelessness crisis.
He's pointed to his record governing San Diego, a Democratic city that is among the nation's largest, as evidence he's got the executive know-how to lead a state of nearly 40 million. He's rolled out policies to majorly cut income taxes and build more homeless shelters.
Faulconer was elected mayor in 2014 — after Democrat Bob Filner resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal — and was reelected in 2016. He took a more open stance on immigration than the national GOP, backed efforts to reduce the city's greenhouse gas emissions and favors abortion rights, all stances that contributed to his moderate label.
Republicans haven’t won a statewide election since 2006, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was reelected 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 finish his term as mayor. Newsom won in a landslide over John Cox, a conservative businessman who is running again.
The recall was driven by Republicans who gathered more than 1.7 million signatures to place the question on the ballot. They are seeking to tap into displeasure over Newsom's handling of the pandemic, homelessness and crime.
Voters will have two choices: First, should Newsom be removed, yes or no? Second, who should replace him? Voters have 46 choices on the second question, including Faulconer. If a majority approve Newsom’s recall, the candidate who gets the most votes becomes governor.
“The recall is about who can best crystallize voter anger with the direction of the state, and Kevin Faulconer’s not your guy for that,” said Thad Kousser, chair of the political science department at the University of California, San Diego. “This is about the red meat and I just don’t think he can pivot to running a campaign that’s focused on today’s Republican base.”
Democrats are urging their voters to reject 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 support the recall. If Newsom is recalled, it’s possible a winner could get 25% or less.
In an Aug. 4 debate with three other Republican hopefuls, which Elder skipped, Faulconer was the only candidate to say he'd been vaccinated against the coronavirus and urged others to do so. But he also said he doesn't support masks in public schools and took a hard line against the teaching of “critical race theory," the latest target in the GOP culture wars.
He didn't mention that, as mayor, he supported an Office of Race and Equity aimed at tackling systemic racism in the city.
Looking back on his mayoral tenure, Faulconer says his top accomplishments were reducing homelessness, fixing roads and increasing the police budget as the “defund the police" movement took hold. His critics say he left office with few tangible accomplishments and some notable failures, including botched city real estate deals worth nearly a quarter-billion dollars and the departure of the city's NFL San Diego Chargers for Los Angeles.
Faulconer counts his efforts to reduce homelessness as a signature achievement, one that could be upsized to clean up encampments around the state. San Diego was “the only big city in California where homelessness went down, not up,” said Faulconer, who was in office through December 2020.
But his record on the issue has come under scrutiny and criticism.
His doubters include Republican rival Doug Ose, a former congressman, and San Diego homeless advocate Michael McConnell, who say the reduced numbers cited by Faulconer are the result of changes in the way an annual homeless count is conducted that overlooked people living in vehicles, and aggressive policing that temporarily chased off transients.
McConnell says Faulconer’s statements about falling homeless cases amount to “a nice little fairy tale.”
Faulconer says he reduced homelessness by “double digits.” But the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless’ annual count shows the city’s homeless population went down by about 4% in 2020.
Nine months after Faulconer left office, one thing is obvious: Homelessness remains an agonizing problem in the seaside city of nearly 1.5 million.
On a recent afternoon, about a dozen people, many with shopping carts overflowing with their belongings, huddled near a pharmacy in a neighborhood near San Diego State University, about a 15-minute drive from downtown. Scores of people use San Diego’s Balboa Park as a campground.
The San Diego Union-Tribune recently reported that more than 1,000 homeless people are living on downtown streets, despite hundreds being moved into shelters. There are fears unsanitary conditions could lead to a hepatitis A outbreak similar to 2017, when 20 people died and hundreds were hospitalized.
It was the 2017 outbreak — one of the worst of hepatitis A in the United States in 20 years — that spurred Faulconer to action. The city opened large tent shelters to get people off the streets, diverting $6.5 million that had been budgeted for permanent homes to operate them.
Later, Faulconer was praised for moving homeless people into the city’s convention center during the pandemic and accelerating the process to get them into permanent housing.
San Diego City Councilman Chris Cate, a Republican who backs Faulconer, pointed to Faulconer's efforts to revamp the city's housing policies to allow for more affordable units as evidence he can work across party lines. Faulconer's “Complete Communities" plan passed the Democratic-led City Council in his final months in office. It aims to boost affordable housing near public transit and make disadvantaged neighborhoods more bikeable and walkable.
“He took that on and was really unapologetic about wanting to address it," Cate said of Faulconer's approach to the city's housing challenges.
Gil Cabrera, former chairman of the San Diego Convention Center’s board of directors, worked alongside Faulconer on efforts to expand the center, which remain stalled. He said Faulconer “did a lot of press conferences” but “the follow through was always kind of lacking.” Cabrera is a Democrat who does not support the recall.
If the recall doesn't succeed, Faulconer has said he plans to run in 2022, when Newsom is up for reelection. How he fares in the recall will boost or dim his chances of becoming the party standard-bearer next year.
In the race's closing weeks, Faulconer believes voters will find what they're looking for in his candidacy.
“You have to be able to win Republicans and independents and Democrats to win," he said. “I'm confident that this is a real chance, as voters get to know me, get to know my record, that folks break in our direction."
Blood reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press reporter Julie Watson contributed from San Diego.