Despite a close race, Republican Kevin Faulconer’s victory in a special election for mayor of San Diego this month was not a big surprise. San Diego is far more Democratic than it was 20 years ago—the party holds a voter-registration edge over Republicans of 39.8 percent to 26.4 percent. But the city isn’t like Los Angeles or San Francisco, where Democrats and their public-sector union allies maintain an unbreakable grip on government. San Diego has struggled with fiscal challenges and political scandals in recent years, but many residents still pride themselves on living in one of America’s best-run cities. Faulconer’s triumph marks a return to the congenial, socially moderate, pro-business politics that have defined San Diego for decades. More important, it offers some hope for any California candidate battling a well-funded union campaign.
The 2012 election of Democratic former congressman Bob Filner, an abrasive progressive who snatched the mayoralty with the slimmest of electoral margins during a Democratic landslide year, was the real anomaly in San Diego. His resignation after mismanagement and sexual-harassment allegations became a national scandal opened the door for Faulconer, who scored a solid eight-point win over labor-backed Democratic city councilman David Alvarez. “Faulconer’s definitive victory over Democratic Councilman David Alvarez . . . ends—at least for now—the city’s brief experiment with hyper-partisan leadership,” wrote Craig Gustafson in an election post-mortem for U-T San Diego.
Faulconer reached out to centrist and independent voters, while Alvarez appealed mostly to his Democratic base. “A year ago, Filner, the first Democrat to become mayor in 20 years, virtually ground city operations to a halt by insisting he control and approve every aspect of a municipal operation with a $2.8 billion budget and more than 10,000 employees,” Gustafson wrote. By contrast, Faulconer suggests more of a CEO approach—promising to hire top talent and let his deputies do their jobs. He’s a protégé of Republican former mayor Jerry Sanders, now president of the area chamber of commerce and known for managing San Diego’s finances effectively during a pension crisis. As a councilman, Faulconer’s leadership helped protect the city from even worse financial distress. He opposed a 2010 sales-tax increase as well as significant new development fees, and he spoke out against a proposed minimum-wage hike and other anti-business policies.
Faulconer can be expected to oppose many union ideas, though he did win the backing of the city’s police union and supports a pay hike and retention plan for police officers. He favors bidding out trash collection to the private sector, improving the city’s response to public-records requests, and boosting infrastructure spending, especially in poorer neighborhoods. In short, Faulconer’s platform is nothing radical. Yet Carl DeMaio, a union-fighting pension reformer who lost to Filner in 2012 and is now running for Congress, says that Faulconer’s moderate social views and bipartisan demeanor shouldn’t obscure his commitment to conservative governmental reform. Indeed, many Republican activists were genuinely excited about Faulconer, even as he distanced himself from the national GOP.
Faulconer takes office as the city’s groundbreaking 2012 pension-reform initiative, which he coauthored, continues to be implemented, though a state agency is mulling a legal challenge against it. The state Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) argues that the voter-approved initiative—which caps pensionable pay, rather than rolling back pension benefits per se—is an unfair labor practice. Should it survive the PERB challenge as expected, the reform’s success will depend on city leaders’ willingness to follow its wage-capping provisions. Californians who worry about the outsize influence of public-employee unions in the Golden State should be glad that a reform-minded mayor will soon sit in San Diego’s City Hall.