California Republicans don’t have a deep statewide bench. But they may have a rising star in San Diego — Mayor Kevin Faulconer.
“He would be a very compelling candidate for statewide office if he ever chose to run,” said state GOP Chairman Jim Brulte, who led Republicans in both houses of the Legislature. Faulconer, who came to power in the wake of the scandal-plagued administration of Democrat Bob Filner, has ruled out running for governor in 2018.
California hasn’t seen a Republican hold statewide office since the terms of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado ended in 2011.
But he is among the most visible opponents of Proposition 57, a parole reform initiative crafted by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.
The initiative, which is drawing statewide attention, would allow non-violent offenders to receive parole consideration after they complete the full sentence for their primary offense. Faulconer’s opposition is popular with state prosecutors and other law enforcement interests, although some of his own constituents feel his stance on the issue is disingenuous, particularly in light of his possible political ambitions.
But Faulconer said his position is clear cut.
“As mayor of San Diego, my job is to ensure safe neighborhoods and public safety,” Faulconer told Capitol Weekly in a phone interview. “Proposition 57 will unfortunately allow people with a violent criminal history to be released early … it’s important we get the message out about what this measure will actually do.”
Earlier, at a San Diego press conference, Faulconer appeared with victim-rights advocate Marc Klaas, the father of Polly Klaas, whose 1993 abduction and murder in Petaluma sparked intense national news coverage. Three county prosecutors also attended the event.
As mayor of San Diego, California’s second-largest city, Faulconer would appear to be well-positioned to advance to statewide office — at least as well-positioned as any Republican can be in a deeply blue state.
“As it is, no one north of Legoland knows who he is.” — Jack Pitney
California hasn’t seen a Republican hold statewide office since the terms of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado ended in 2011. Pete Wilson, one of the state’s most storied Republican politicians, served as a U.S. Senator and two terms as governor following an 11-year stint as San Diego mayor.
Like Faulconer, Wilson succeed to the mayor’s office in the wake of a local scandal, so it’s possible Faulconer could follow a similar trajectory.
Many of the state’s most iconic Republican leaders came from southern California: Ronald Reagan, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, to name a few.
According to Claremont McKenna political science professor Jack Pitney, Faulconer’s involvement in a state initiative could very well be a move to gain the kind of name recognition these politicians had.
“As it is, no one north of Legoland knows who he is,” Pitney said, referring to a Carlsbad theme park in northern San Diego County.
Faulconer’s position on Proposition 57 is at odds with some local activists.
“If it’s really about our community, I would think that he would meet with us,” said Bishop Cornelius Bowser, a San Diego activist who supports Proposition 57.
Since his re-election, Faulconer has led a widely-publicized campaign to lead the city’s diverse neighborhoods as ‘One San Diego.’ But Bowser contends the mayor has largely neglected some of the cities lower income communities of color and his failure to speak with community leaders about the proposition is just an example of that.
“He said we are ‘One San Diego,’” Bowser added. “But there are certain segments of the community that have been left out of that ‘One San Diego.’ He doesn’t seem like he’s really targeting things and trying to do things in our community.”
Coming off a decisive June re-election victory, Faulconer doesn’t face a November runoff and the Republican mayor is widely seen as a strong contender to take part in rebuilding the state GOP.
“I don’t need someone [from the mayor’s office], I need the mayor to talk to us and tell us why he’s opposing this.” — Dwayne Harvey.
But Faulconer rejected suggestions that he had his eyes on the governorship after he won re-election in June. He told Capitol Weekly that his interest in the issue was about public safety, not his political career.
“My job as mayor is to advocate for policies and stand up against violent criminals,” Faulconer said. “Part of my job is advocating all the time, in Sacramento and San Diego.”
Even if Faulconer wants to become a statewide leader, there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to follow the Wilson model of using his well-received mayoral stint to jump to the governorship. The state GOP might simply be too weak, and the Democrats stronger than they were when Wilson was elected in 1990.
“Perhaps Faulconer is hoping that at some point in the coming years the party’s fortunes will bottom out, and he’ll be able to become a part of the comeback” Pitney said.
Pitney said that in statewide partisan elections, the Republican designation tends to serve as a ‘scarlet letter,’ that hurts candidates’ electoral prospects in a way that does not affect local elections.
Meanwhile, a local coalition in support of the measure argues that Faulconer’s opposition of Proposition 57 shows a lack of responsiveness to his constituents’ needs.
A 2015 poll showed that 61 percent of the city approved of Faulconer’s performance as mayor.
When it was announced that the mayor would hold a press conference with opponents of the initiative, Dwayne Harvey, another San Diego criminal justice reform advocate, attended the event and tried to question the mayor as to whether he had met with community leaders.
Harvey said the mayor essentially dodged him, eventually offering to send a representative to a community meeting, which Harvey declined.
“I don’t need someone [from the mayor’s office], I need the mayor to talk to us and tell us why he’s opposing this,” Harvey said. “He could care less what San Diego feels about [Proposition 57] or at least what my community feels about it.”
For advocates like Harvey and Bowser, this issue is divided strongly along class and racial lines. According to Bowser, 70 percent of inmates are black or Latino. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) 2013 data, that estimate is accurate: in 2013, 70.7 percent of inmates were black or Hispanic.
“People criminalize our community and they use it to further their aspirations and ambitions,” Harvey added, describing the community as ‘pawns’ in Faulconer’s political games
Despite the tension, polls show that Faulconer is popular throughout most parts of the city. A 2015 poll showed that 61 percent of the city approved of Faulconer’s performance as mayor. Especially in a city with a high Latino population—about 28 percent according to the 2010 census–this bodes well for Faulconer’s prospects campaigning statewide.
“His crushing re-election victory showed his ability to get votes from every ethnic and demographic group in the city of San Diego,” Brulte said.
Despite Faulconer’s popularity, his rise will most likely be subject to the fortunes of the Republican party, Pitney said.
“At this moment, the party’s prospects are not bright. Trump is causing a lot of damage,” Pitney added, mentioning that Reagan’s dominance in the state was preceded by a lull for Republicans in 1964. “Party fortunes rise and fall. 2018 might not be a good year but if [Faulconer’s] playing a very long game, then establishing himself early might be a smart move.”