Kevin Faulconer may not be your typical Republican, but he might be just the guy to help the GOP retake the governor’s mansion in California for the first time in a decade.
The San Diego mayor, who is on his way out of office after two terms, is pro-abortion rights, a vocal supporter of the gay community, and has a plan to combat climate change. He also helped spearhead efforts getting San Diego County to be the only county in the state to see a reduction in homelessness last year.
San Diego was once a reliably conservative city that over the past three decades morphed into deep-blue territory, but Faulconer, 53, still managed to win elections where San Diego County Democrats outnumber Republicans by over 240,000.
Due to term limits, the mayor is set to leave office next month, but he already has his eyes on a bigger prize.
Faulconer told the Washington Examiner in a phone interview on Tuesday that he is “strongly considering” a run for governor in 2022, arguing that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration is falling short of the needs of the state and that Democrats who have controlled the state for decades have left California overtaxed and unaffordable.
“The Democratic establishment have failed our state,” Faulconer said. “I think it’s time for competition. It’s time for competition of ideas.”
Although Newsom hasn’t announced a run for a second term — and some have even speculated the national spotlight he’s gotten this year over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic may pique his interest for a future White House run — his consistently positive approval ratings would put him in a strong position to seek four more years in Sacramento.
Faulconer took office in 2014, campaigning on a message that could appeal to the many communities that shape San Diego, which borders Tijuana, Mexico. Roughly 30% of the city is Hispanic, more than a quarter of its residents are foreign-born, it’s home to the largest military community, and its location on the border makes it an attractive spot for international trade.
Faulconer’s first campaign ad in 2014 was in Spanish, talking about the importance of Latino-run small businesses. He opened a campaign office in the city’s historically black neighborhood and has touted expanding economic opportunities and building infrastructure to benefit everyone — all while keeping taxes at bay.
That vision, he told the Washington Examiner, is the path forward for Republicans in California and one he wants to see expanded into state leadership, which he believes has overwhelmed taxpayers and poorly handled the coronavirus, which has infected more than a million Californians.
Speaking of the coronavirus, the mayor took particular issue with the most recent Newsom controversy in which he was caught dining with a lobbyist and several others at an upscale restaurant in spite of his own state orders that discourage those kinds of large gatherings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. His tweet accusing the governor of hypocrisy got 9,000 “likes” and more than 3,000 retweets. Faulconer’s critique was even praised in a Los Angeles Times column.
Newsom, 53, apologized for the incident but did so on the same day he announced a reversal of his reopening plans, putting 94% of Californians under the state’s strictest “purple tier” of public health guidelines. Under the purple tier, most businesses must suspend or strictly limit their indoor operations.
Faulconer said the state’s indecisiveness on whether to keep businesses open or closed is having real consequences, and as a local leader, he’s observed a lack of effectiveness in putting a one-size-fits-all solution, as he calls it, on a state as large and diverse as California.
“People are hurting, and to recognize the impact that these policies are having on small businesses, it’s not just an afterthought,” Faulconer said. “This is literally economic life and death. When the goal posts keep changing, when we’re so many months into this, and literally in San Diego, there have been some businesses that have had to open and shut five different times. That’s just crazy.”
In most California counties, businesses, churches, restaurants, and bars have gone through two shutdowns and reopenings since March and are now expected to close again ahead of winter. Some small-business owners are now laying off workers for the third time this year.
The state saw a wave of protests over the weekend in Huntington Beach. People gathered to protest Newsom’s latest move to issue a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. to try and halt the spread of the virus.
Faulconer sympathizes with protesters, saying the state needs to work with local health officials and base their decisions on scientific experts, many of whom told the San Francisco Chronicle they were skeptical a curfew would actually curb spikes in coronavirus cases.
“There’s no science behind a curfew,” the mayor said. “It was a hollow executive order that accomplishes nothing. That’s the type of thing that I think frustrates many Californians.”
Taking on California’s Democratic political machine
Before the French Laundry restaurant mishap, Newsom managed to maintain strong approval ratings that had grown since he first took office in 2018. An October poll conducted by the Public Policy institute of California found 58% of adults approved of the governor’s performance. By party affiliation, 83% of Democrats approved of Newsom, compared to 50% of independents and 18% of Republicans. On his handling of the pandemic, 61% approved of how he has tried to corral the virus.
Like Faulconer, Newsom began his political career in local government, best known for being the young mayor of San Francisco who made national headlines after issuing same-sex marriage licenses to couples a month into his first term in 2004, despite state and federal law that prohibited gay marriage at the time. He took over as governor from Jerry Brown, who served his second stint as California’s chief executive following the reign of Terminator actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the last Republican to hold the office.
On social issues, both have championed efforts to strengthen government relations with the immigrant community, even as the Trump administration took a hard-line approach to cracking down on illegal immigration. During their terms as mayors, Faulconer and Newsom made efforts to diversify their own local governments, and both were credited for appointing the first women to run the police departments for their respective cities. They’re also both the same age and white men at a time when both major parties have made a point of pride to have diversity in their candidates.
So, what sets them apart? Faulconer said his fiscal philosophy and track record of being able to build economic opportunities and infrastructure in his city without needing to raise taxes exponentially.
A November poll from the University of California, Berkeley found that over 80% of Californians think taxes at the state and local level are too high, and voters on a 5-to-1 margin said high taxes were driving people out of the state. The poll came shortly after voters rejected Proposition 15, a $140 million campaign to hike property taxes on businesses across the state.
“The reality is when you look at it, it’s like every year, it’s getting harder to earn a living to try and get ahead in California,” Faulconer said. “That dream of a middle-class life moves farther out of reach. When two or three folks can’t afford a medium-priced home, we have the highest poverty rate in the nation, and yet people want to keep raising our taxes. That’s not going to work. That’s not sustainable.”
Despite his confidence, Faulconer would have an uphill battle in facing not only Newsom but a Democratic Party that has long controlled the state Legislature as well as every statewide office.
“He’s certainly a moderate within the spectrum of conservative to liberal, and he has won in a big city, but how well would he do against Newsom unless there’s some disaster that befalls the state? It’s hard to see a Democratic statewide candidate losing in the short term,” said Jack Citrin, a political science professor at UC Berkeley. “I think it’s impressive that he has been able to do as well as he has.”