Photo by Sam Hodgson
Kevin Faulconer prepares for the Voice of San Diego mayoral debate at The Birch North Park Theatre.
The allegations intensified over four months. One-time allies became accusers. A recall campaign collected all the signatures it needed. And Matt Heslin, the vice president of finance for San Diego State University’s student government in 1988, resigned under the pressure. He admitted he had lied on official documents about where he got the wood for his campaign signs.
“I owe the whole issue to myself,” Heslin told student reporters.
The spoils of Heslin’s demise were left to a tall, affable, 21-year-old fraternity brother named Kevin Faulconer. He had lost a previous bid for SDSU’s student government, but this special election gave him another chance. Faulconer won, almost doubling the votes of his nearest opponent.
This story of a long-ago student government flap would seem unremarkable if it didn’t start a pattern that has carried through Faulconer’s political career: Faulconer loses or bows out of a campaign. Someone in office blows up. Faulconer becomes a leading candidate in the special election that follows.
It happened at SDSU. It happened when Faulconer won a special election for his City Council seat following the Strippergate scandal, after he’d lost a race for the same seat three years earlier. Now it’s happening again. The 46-year-old Republican openly pondered but decided against running in the 2012 mayoral election. The winner, Bob Filner, committed a felony in office. And here’s Faulconer poised to take advantage.
This happens to Faulconer because he’s safe, agreeable and competent, the kind of guy voters would want after the person they elected turned out to be a mess. It also happens because Faulconer’s largely been a follower in politics, the kind of guy who relies on others’ bold stand instead of taking one himself.
This political dynamic – that Faulconer becomes the second choice when the first one screws up or becomes too polarizing – has positioned Faulconer to be a frontrunner in San Diego’s mayoral election do-over. The question is whether it’s positioned him to lead on big issues without having anyone else around to make a decision first.
Faulconer’s star at SDSU rose after his special election victory. Less than five months later, he declared for student body president.
His main opponent was a junior named Sophia Nelson, who had beaten Faulconer the first time he ran for student government.
At the time, political power in campus politics split between white fraternities and racial and ethnic organizations. The white fraternity groups lined up behind Faulconer, who belonged to Kappa Sigma. The racial and ethnic organizations lined up behind Nelson, who is black.
Faulconer won convincingly. Afterward, Nelson recalls him taking her out and praising her for opening doors for black women on campus. She maintains warm feelings for him.
Nelson, now an author and political commentator, wasn’t surprised to hear Faulconer’s stature has grown through a series of unexpected opportunities. Faulconer, she said, would never do anything to embarrass the people who elected him. And he put himself in position to take advantage of circumstances that rewarded those who don’t take risks.
“I don’t see him as the kind of guy who would go against the giants,” Nelson said.
Faulconer built his career in San Diego by putting himself on the side of the city’s giants. After college, Faulconer became a PR man. He made connections in town through big-name clients like SeaWorld, Sharp HealthCare and his alma mater. He later received appointments to city parks and recreation advisory boards. Where Faulconer’s mayoral opponents David Alvarez and Nathan Fletcher talk about their history of fighting before elected office – Alvarez for underserved communities and Fletcher in Iraq – Faulconer’s pre-political background emphasizes getting along with others.
In 2001, Faulconer decided to run for an open City Council seat representing downtown and beach and bay communities.
Political observers saw the race as a potential tipping point in business vs. labor control of San Diego. Faulconer’s opponent, Michael Zucchet, was a Democrat and worked for the city’s fire union.
During the campaign, Faulconer called Zucchet a tool of the unions; Zucchet called Faulconer a tool of the developers. Both interest groups pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race.
On Election Day in November 2002, Zucchet trounced Faulconer by 11 percentage points. Faulconer remembers the misery of the morning after, when he went around picking up yard signs from supporters’ lawns. He returned to his PR job.
Three years later, Faulconer got another opportunity. A federal criminal probe into pay-to-play campaign donations by strip club operators, hence Strippergate, ensnared Zucchet and two other Council members. Zucchet was convicted on corruption charges and resigned.
Faulconer decided to run again. The easy thing would have been to blast Zucchet. But Faulconer didn’t criticize him, even when the microphones and television cameras begged him. He just didn’t believe the allegations.
“That’s not the Mike Zucchet I know,” Faulconer said.
He turned out to be right. Zucchet eventually was exonerated, and he now heads the city’s white-collar union.
That Faulconer didn’t pile on when he was at his lowest, Zucchet said, reveals Faulconer’s character. Zucchet’s not sure, had the roles been reversed, if he would have behaved the same way.
“That kind of support, particularly from an unexpected place, is something you never forget,” Zucchet said.
In early 2006, Faulconer eked out a 724-vote win over now-Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat, for the Council seat. His win came with the endorsement of the city’s fire union, Zucchet’s old employer.
In 2011, Faulconer paid a national polling firm almost $21,000 to see if he had what it took to be mayor of San Diego.
The results weren’t encouraging. Few people in the city knew who he was.
“There was a path,” Faulconer said, “but it was very difficult in a crowded field.”
Faulconer decided to sit out the mayoral election to replace Jerry Sanders.
A poll showing that Faulconer didn’t stand out in a crowd made sense. He rarely says anything thought-provoking on city policy, instead sticking with his vanilla talking points. During his Council tenure, others’ strong stances on big issues have eclipsed Faulconer’s.
Sanders switched his positions on same-sex marriage and sewage recycling before Faulconer did. Former City Councilman Carl DeMaio bullied both Sanders and Faulconer into accepting a more draconian ballot measure on pensions. DeMaio also became the face of the opposition to an unsuccessful sales tax hike even though Faulconer was against it, too. Faulconer justified his vote for a major deal to cut retiree health care benefits by emphasizing City Attorney Jan Goldsmith’s support.
Sanders and his former chief of staff, Kris Michell, used to mock Faulconer for trying to be the mayor’s sidekick all the time, said Gonzalez, who dealt with Sanders when she led the region’s largest labor group. At one point, Gonzalez said, Sanders and Michell talked about changing the code to the locks on the mayor’s office door so Faulconer couldn’t pop in so much. (Michell and Sanders both said they didn’t recall this conversation with Gonzalez.)
Faulconer’s campaigns tell the same story. Zucchet, who’s backing Fletcher in this campaign, joked that he thought he was running against former Mayor Dick Murphy, not Faulconer, in their 2002 race. Murphy had endorsed Faulconer, and the mayor’s face was all over Faulconer’s mail advertisements, Zucchet said. In this campaign, Sanders has endorsed Faulconer. Sanders stands front and center in Faulconer’s first TV ad; Faulconer only briefly appears near the end.
The image of Faulconer tethering himself to others fits his risk-free political persona. After all, there’s strength in numbers.
Faulconer did become more assertive when Filner, a political opponent, had his short time in office. He also shepherded successful ballot measures on banning alcohol at the beach and boosting funding for Mission Bay Park early in his Council tenure. But more often than not, Faulconer has shown a reluctance to take the lead, something he’d have to do as mayor.
Faulconer often points to his partnership with former Democratic City Councilwoman Donna Frye on the Mission Bay ballot measure as an example of his bipartisanship. But Frye said Faulconer’s as partisan as they come. She believes he will support whatever the development, construction and hotel interests that have backed him his whole career tell him they want.
“When this concerns me a lot is where people don’t move on their own until they’re essentially given a hall pass,” Frye said. “If he’s mayor, you’d wonder who’s handing out the hall pass. Who’s the hall monitor?”
Three years ago, Faulconer awoke to news that troubled him. Faulconer had worked for years on increasing the flow of tax dollars to downtown redevelopment, and the city was in the middle of a lengthy public process to see if it would happen. Then Fletcher, a first-term assemblyman at the time who didn’t represent downtown, got it done with one secret, middle-of-the-night deal in Sacramento. Sanders had asked Fletcher for it.
Faulconer had been left out of the loop, and his spokesman started hammering the decision. Faulconer thought he could win the downtown redevelopment debate on its merits.
“But, well, here I am,” he said at the time.
His colleagues offered him a chance at a minor protest. Faulconer could sign a letter telling the governor to veto Fletcher’s bill. Instead, Faulconer cast the deciding vote against sending the letter.
Faulconer said he couldn’t oppose the result even though he didn’t like how it happened. The deal was popular with Faulconer’s downtown crowd. Soon after, Faulconer showed up at a press conference on the decision by Sanders’ and Fletcher’s sides.
Faulconer’s supporters and opponents agree on one thing: He’s a nice guy. They differ on what that might mean if he were elected mayor.
“When he first announced, people were like, ‘He’s a nice guy, but ehh.’ He didn’t have that oompf,” said retired Navy rear admiral Ronne Froman, a Faulconer backer. “Maybe that’s not what we need. We don’t need that oompf. We need someone who understands the city well.”
“Kevin is a nice guy. Jerry (Sanders) was a nice guy. Dick Murphy was a nice guy,” said Frye, who has endorsed Alvarez. “There’s a whole lot of real nice guys out there and a whole lot of really nice women out there. But it doesn’t mean that a real nice guy is going to do the right thing and take a stand and step out when the city and its people need things that might be hard to do or unpopular.”
Push Faulconer enough on his letting others take the lead, and he will point to what he did during Filner’s brief tenure.
Faulconer served as a kind of Republican minority leader on the City Council. Filner groused that the major five-year deal with city labor unions had to go through Faulconer. Faulconer was at the table for the negotiations that ultimately led to Filner’s resignation even though he had no real reason to be there. It was clear that the Council’s three other Republicans followed Faulconer.
“When Jerry was mayor, he and I saw eye-to-eye on most things, on the reform efforts that we were doing,” Faulconer said. “When Filner was elected, we didn’t. So I stood up and took the lead on those things.”
Filner’s departure brought a new round of decisions. The script played out in Faulconer’s favor, the way it always seems to in these situations.
The day after Filner officially resigned, about 30 of the city’s Republican power brokers met at the La Jolla estate of developer Tom Sudberry. The group was going to choose the Republican candidate for mayor, and three potential ones were there: Faulconer, DeMaio and County Supervisor Ron Roberts.
Faulconer and Roberts put their fate in the group’s hands, saying they wouldn’t run if the power brokers asked them not to. DeMaio said he’d make his own decision. Pollsters passed around data at the meeting, which showed DeMaio was polarizing, the kind of candidate who was risky when the guy in office just blew up. It also showed that Faulconer was an unknown, but he could change minds.
At the end of the meeting, the group went with the safe choice: Faulconer. A few days later, DeMaio stepped aside, too. Everyone else had decided that Faulconer should stand alone.
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