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Chris Reed
Mixed Messages in San Diego
The city’s voters may elect another mayor who will ignore their wishes.
December 20, 2013

For advocates of economic growth and government reform in San Diego, February’s mayoral election is becoming a real cause for worry. It seems increasingly possible that the city will follow New York’s lead and elect a populist class warrior. Polls show liberal Democratic San Diego city councilman David Alvarez in a dead heat with Republican councilman Kevin Faulconer—despite Alvarez’s active opposition to reforms that a strong majority of San Diegans endorse. Faulconer finished with a solid 43 percent to Alvarez’s 26 percent in the November 19 special election to replace disgraced mayor and convicted sex criminal Bob Filner. Former assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat—and a media favorite—ended up in third place with 24 percent of the vote. The instant conventional wisdom held that the genial Faulconer, 46, a former San Diego State University student body president, public-relations executive, and a councilman since 2006, would be the clear favorite heading into the February 11 runoff. Alvarez, 33, worked in various low-profile government jobs after graduating from San Diego State and has only been a well-known city figure since his successful 2010 run for council.

Conventional wisdom also maintained that Faulconer would pick up votes in the next round from Fletcher’s moderate independents. Alvarez, after all, has run a strident “us versus them” campaign, claiming that downtown business interests enjoy an outsize influence on city government and alleging mistreatment of minority communities by city hall. Adding to his aura of inevitability, Faulconer has the strong support of popular former mayor Jerry Sanders, who led San Diego’s comeback from pension debacles that prompted the New York Times in 2004 to label the city “Enron by the Sea.” But the early conventional wisdom appears to have been wrong. Polling now shows Faulconer in a tie with Alvarez. Suddenly, a repeat of the 2012 mayoral election—in which Filner edged firebrand reformer Carl DeMaio, a gay libertarian councilman—seems distinctly possible.

San Diego’s voters are known for sending mixed messages about their priorities. Democrats have a strong edge in voter registration, but the city has a long history of electing pro-business Republicans as mayor. In 2006, they voted in a landslide for a measure under which groups of municipal workers must compete with private companies for the right to provide city services, a process known as “managed competition.” In June 2012, they overwhelmingly backed measures to cap the “pensionable pay” of nearly all city employees and forbidding the city from requiring that contractors use union compensation and work practices—“project labor agreements”—on city projects.

Despite voters’ demonstrated appetite for reform, Filner opposed these measures and worked to undermine them during his short time in office. Alvarez—should he win—is likely to do the same. His Democratic colleagues on the city council stalled managed competition for years. But after the program began to be implemented in 2011 and five city services were put out for provider bids, it quickly led to savings of millions of dollars. Filner blocked further bids when he took office in December 2012. His actions stymied a pending managed-competition process for the provision of trash collection, which could save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in coming decades.

Would a Mayor Alvarez, like his predecessor, engage in the equivalent of election nullification? In interviews, Alvarez has said he would honor voters’ “intent” when they backed managed comp in 2006. But by that he means hunting for new government efficiencies, not putting city services out to bid. Alvarez is similarly unenthusiastic about the ban on city contract provisions that favor unions. He has suggested that the ban is trumped by a state law requiring cities to pay “prevailing wages.” As for San Diego’s landmark pension reform measure, the next mayor will face a number of decisions as the law goes into effect—decisions that could seriously limit the scope and effect of reform. Voters will also expect the next mayor to fight the efforts of a union-controlled state agency, the Public Employment Relations Board, to invalidate the pension reform measure. Few expect Alvarez to follow through on voters’ wishes.

For all their talk of progressive “social justice,” the primary allegiance of most elected Democrats in California is to the unions, not to the public. It may seem comical that San Diegans are on the verge of electing yet another mayor who will block reforms that voters previously approved. But if you live in the Golden State, it’s not funny at all.

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