Tuesday, May 29, 2007 | With just six weeks to go before the 2005 mayoral election, Steve Francis looked the part of an also-ran.

One opinion poll showed him earning just 3 percent of residents’ support, placing him far behind two of the city’s more recognizable public servants, Councilwoman Donna Frye and former police Chief Jerry Sanders.

Thinking About Seconds

  • The Issue: After spending $2 million on his failed 2005 campaign, health care magnate Steve Francis has kept himself in the public eye by starting a think tank and spending big bucks on ballot measures
  • What It Means: With candidates soon able to begin raising money for a campaign in 2008, Francis appears more likely than anyone else to challenge Mayor Jerry Sanders next year.
  • The Bigger Picture: Francis’ political messages resonated among Republicans and business constituencies in 2005, but those voting groups are still largely supportive of the Sanders.

But Francis, who was largely unknown outside of business and conservative political circles, had armed himself with international political consultants. He flooded local television broadcasts with sleek commercials.

And by the time ballots were cast July 25, Francis had gained 20 percentage points, enough to fall short of the runoff by just 3.5 percentage points

“I ran out of time,” Francis said in an interview. “I was rising and I think my message was getting out, but I just ran out of time.”

Francis spent more than $2 million on the race, fueling his remarkable climb to new political heights.

But it’s possible that he’s spent even more since then to keep himself relevant.

The policy think tank he founded last year has cost him an unspecified “six-figure number.” Radio commercials he purchased to advocate for a ballot initiative to privatize city government services ran him $110,000 more.

Francis has used his deep pockets to continue commentating, at times outspokenly, on local issues. His subject of highest priority is the management of the city of San Diego, a responsibility voters awarded to Sanders and withheld from him two years ago.

Now, with just a week remaining until hopefuls are allowed to begin raising money for the 2008 race, Francis appears to be the most likely contender to take on his fellow Republican Sanders.

The mayor himself has not publicly announced his own intentions for reelection, although he has privately told supporters that he will seek another term. Elsewhere in the local political world, conjecture over a challenge to Sanders usually ends with a shoulder shrug, as the incumbent mayor is regarded as being relatively popular.

But as he showed in 2005, Francis’ big bucks can get him noticed. The prospect of him launching another high-priced mayoral campaign could turn a slam-dunk reelection for Sanders into an expensive endeavor.

“There are some issues I disagree with him on, and there are some I agree with him on,” said Francis, chairman of AMN Healthcare, a billion-dollar nurse staffing outfit he founded with his wife. “If I see something that’s wrong, I don’t want to be part of the fan club. It’s not good for me, it’s not good for the mayor, and it’s not good for the city.”

In an hour-long discussion, Francis said he has enjoyed his stepped-up involvement in local politics since leaving the day-to-day executive duties at AMN in 2005, even if it has meant taking stances that are out of step with the public statements of the city’s business elite. He described a conflicted view he holds of Sanders: “a good man” he admires, but one that too often governs with the public opinion polls and not the city’s best interests in mind.

But it’s too early, he said, to decide whether he wants to run for mayor again.

“You don’t just run to run, you have to have reasons to run,” Francis said.

The length to which Francis has looked for reasons over the past two years has caught the political community’s attention. His posturing has led City Hall watchers to wonder whether he will defer to the incumbent mayor, or if he’s ambitious enough to spend more of his millions to court voters away from the popular Sanders.

“I see no reason that Mayor Sanders has a concern to run against Steve Francis in that the mayor’s popularity is high,” said Andy Berg, president of the National Electrical Contractors Association’s local chapter. “However, it appears Steve Francis has maneuvered himself into the position that, should the mayor stumble, he has the resources to make it happen.”

Splashing Onto the Scene

Formerly a state legislator in Nevada, Francis has been active in conservative politics and local community organizations ever since moving here and making millions.

But to the city at large, Francis was a nearly unknown when he emerged on the 2005 campaign trail. At his debut press conference, Francis hit an early snag when he refused to answer reporters’ questions. He remained noticeably uncomfortable in his candidate skin in the race’s early weeks. His tone was rehearsed and his posture stiff, and he was always within earshot of his campaign aides.

But soon after his hefty spending hit San Diego households, voters recognized him as the anti-tax candidate who invoked private-sector experience through repeated slogans to “downsize and right-size” and “run government like a business.”

Most famously, Francis pressured Sanders into adopting a no-tax pledge. Despite Sanders’ initial reluctance, excluding new taxes now sits as a centerpiece of his financial strategy.

Francis’ political dealings with Sanders didn’t stop on Election Day. The day after his defeat, Francis endorsed the mayor in his November runoff. Just months after his inauguration, Sanders began plugging ballot propositions for the November 2006 election, and Francis lent his name and personal fortune to the cause.

But that support for Sanders has been mixed in with steady criticism of the mayor in the news pages.

Francis was the only board member on the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce to oppose the mayor’s proposal to hike water and sewer fees this winter, claiming it was unfair to ask residents for more money to operate utilities that hadn’t yet been streamlined for efficiencies.

Pressed in interviews, Francis has sharpened his words toward Sanders. He faults the mayor for allowing himself to be “pushed around” by City Attorney Mike Aguirre and ticks off a list of complaints.

“You get the feeling that Sanders has fallen into the trap of being a politician,” Francis said in a conversation earlier this month. “He’s a good man, an honest man, who cares very much for the city, but he needs to allow himself to be Jerry Sanders … he’s allowed himself to be handled by handlers.”

Keeping Up Appearances

In 2006, Francis started the San Diego Institute for Policy Research, a local think tank that has allowed him to continue making his imprint on the discussion over Sanders’ policies and other local politics.

He has opened his wallet wide for the institute, which he described as being based on “fiscal conservativism, free markets and free enterprise.” He recruited staff established in the local government scene and from some of the biggest names in conservative policy research, such as the Manhattan Institute and Pacific Research Institute.

Francis is the think tanks’ sole benefactor, claiming he offered to fund the organization’s start-up costs while it “proves itself.” In the meantime, Francis has the opportunity to sound off on various issues of the day from an impressive-looking letterhead.

His comments accompany every public opinion survey the think tank pays for and issues. The various articles his organization regularly pens often include his byline.

Some of Francis’ articles have bordered on the banal side. Echoing a broad platitude that had rattled around the city for years, he authored a piece this year titled, “City Must Get the 2003 Audit Done.”

Last week he advocated for the observance of Memorial Day. Another pieced talked up the value of the region’s binational commerce.

Others have been more confrontational, but they often offer their most pointed criticism to unnamed city officials and hardly ever challenge Sanders by name, instead referring to “politicians” and “elected leaders.”

Some of within the Republican ranks are less kind toward Francis for the barbs he’s thrown at Sanders. A blogger on redcountysandiego.com, a local conservative website, issued a candid rebuke after Francis wrote in March that the city was missing the “quarterback” needed to keep the Chargers football team in Mission Valley. The article was an indirect shot at Sanders’ decision to lay low in the stadium debate.

“In keeping with your football metaphor, Steve, San Diego has a quarterback and its [sic] not you. …While our guy is moving the ball against serious pressure, and perhaps not scoring as much as you like, you’re on the sidelines conspicuously warming up in front of the home crowd,” the blogger wrote in an open letter to Francis.

But Will He Run?

Should he run, Francis will have to mine votes among the legions of local conservatives and business leaders that are still energized about Sanders. It’s unlikely many of those voters would cross over to Francis, consultants said.

“I don’t expect anyone to run against the mayor. And frankly, anyone thinking about it doesn’t have good political acumen,” said Jennifer Jacobs, a Republican political strategist. In reference to Francis, Jacobs added: “I think he would make a great mayor, but right now we have a great mayor.”

One of Sanders’ business-community backers presumed the mayor is cautious of Francis. He said the mayor quietly told some of his allies in January that he would seek reelection in order to head off the potential flight of supporters to Francis’ camp, should he run.

“That was the message: Don’t sign up with anyone else, don’t get in with anyone else, because I’ll be running,” said one Sanders booster, who wanted to remain anonymous because the mayor asked others to keep his announcement confidential.

Sanders said in an interview that he didn’t want to guess whether Francis would run, and he maintains that he himself is still undecided on his own candidacy.

Francis follows suit, claiming his decision is still in the air. He said he will base his decision on his own evaluation of the mayor’s performance.

“If I think city is moving in the right direction and that the mayor doing a great job and I would just complicate it, then I wouldn’t run,” he said. “But nobody deserves a free pass in politics.”

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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