Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008 | Republican businessman Steve Francis formally slid back into mayoral politics Tuesday, carrying with him a retooled message that went beyond the dollar-and-cents business executive of the 2005 campaign to cast him as a populist who would appeal to members of all parties.

The brand-new Francis, who in 2005 issued Jerry Sanders his toughest competition from the right, appeared to be clutching for voters on both the left and right of the incumbent Sanders this time. He softened his stance on taxes after clobbering Sanders last time for failing to take a stern “no tax” stand, supported a pay increase for firefighters, focused on the environment, hit on plenty of quality-of-life issues and even quoted John F. Kennedy in the epigraph of his 50-page campaign outline.

Francis’ previous campaign relied on buzzwords that emphasized the message that he would run City Hall like a business. But his new buzzwords sounded more like Barack Obama in calling for nonpartisan unity and change, or City Councilwoman Donna Frye in pushing himself as the candidate of the “New San Diego.”

“I am running for mayor because I believe San Diego and San Diegans need bold, visionary leadership to take the city back, achieve fiscal recovery and build a world-class city,” Francis said.

Still, he criticized the mayor’s support for gay marriage — saying Sanders inappropriately let his personal relationships with his daughter and staff members cloud a policy judgment. And Francis’ policy paper focuses heavily on the privatization measure abhorred by labor unions.

Sanders and Francis are both Republicans. To date, no prominent Democrats have jumped in the race and Sanders has already secured the early endorsement of the local Republican Party.

So, without a third candidate in the race, trying to attack Sanders from the left would appear to make political sense. There are 546,615 registered voters in the city of San Diego — 212,559 Democrats to 178,227 Republicans.

It remains to be seen if those voters remember the strict anti-tax conservative from the 2005 campaign. Francis will employ his personal riches to help get his new message across; he spent $2 million of his own cash over the eight-week 2005 primary campaign and on Tuesday swore off receiving campaign contributions from “special interests.”

“It’s a classic example of a poll-driven politician,” said Chris Crotty, a Democratic political consultant not involved in the mayoral race. “It seems to me he hit on all the issues that are going to resonate with voters who are going to be turning out in a June election.

“When you have an election in June, a traditional primary election, the turnout is low and you have voters from the extreme ends of each party showing up. So he gave a nod to the left wing and he gave a nod to the right wing.”

Francis, the founder of AMN Healthcare and a former Nevada state legislator, laid out several themes likely to occupy the race before the June primary. He criticized Sanders for following through on only a handful of his specific campaign promises related to the city’s finances and said the mayor’s efforts to streamline and privatize the City Hall bureaucracy have been too slow.

“The mayor recently said during his State of the City address, ‘Look how far we’ve come.’ I say we haven’t come far enough and it’s taken way, way too long,” he said.

At the same time, Francis offered sparse specifics of how he would institute the streamlining and privatization measures more quickly than the mayor.

In an interview, Sanders said he disagreed that his progress had been slow, saying that the reforms have required many meetings with labor unions. “This is something you don’t want to get wrong so that it stalls the process all together,” he said.

He said he’s made $50 million worth of cuts into the city budget, but that they’ve been thoughtful, precise cuts. “We’ve made targeted cuts rather than cutting anything that moves,” he said.

Sanders continued: “I firmly feel voters will vote for me because they feel better about how the city is doing and the progress we’re making every day.”

Francis’ 50-page “Vision for San Diego” was chock full of references to programs he would put into place that had worked in other cities. Ideas from Atlanta, Baltimore, Jacksonville, San Francisco, Seattle, Phoenix, Indianapolis and more fill the report, which spans topics such as the environment, education, parks, urban renaissance and more.

The businessman also attempted to make ethics and lobbyist influence a pillar of his campaign. In addition to refusing to accept donations from “special interests,” Francis said lobbyists would no longer be allowed to serve on boards and commissions and that he would prohibit political consultants from turning around and lobbying politicians they helped elect.

All three proposals sought to capitalize on criticism of the current mayor, who took hits on his campaign contributions from developers and the placement of several lobbyists on his Charter Reform Committee. Additionally, Sanders’ political consultant, Tom Shepard, also owns a lobbying firm.

Specifically, Francis referenced the Sunroad saga, Sanders’ first political scandal in office, a number of times.

Shepard owns a lobbying firm, Public Policy Strategies, and at least one employee from there worked on Sanders’ previous campaign. But Shepard stressed that the lobbying arm is a separate entity from his political consulting group and that he pledged at the end of the campaign not to lobby Sanders personally. Both men said they’d been careful to avoid any problems.

Shepard said voters will have to decide whether they believe Francis now that he’s altered his political personality. But, ultimately, he said voters will make a decision based on whether they feel the mayor has made progress in getting City Hall back on track.

“Overall, if voters feel good about the mayor’s progress, they will reelect him. If they don’t, they’ll select someone else — in this case right now it would be Steve,” Shepard said.

Glen Sparrow, San Diego State University professor emeritus, said Francis is much better off in a two-person race than a three-person race — “Sanders should be out paying the filing fees of that person on the left.”

Francis appears to be trying to squeeze that third candidate out by reaching to the left, Sparrow said.

“I think he’s trying to tell the left that they don’t have to worry, he’s open-minded,” he said.

Charles Gallagher, Francis’ campaign manager, said the motivation was simple — the candidate wants to be “a mayor for everyone.”

In 2005 special election, Francis went from a virtually unknown in eight weeks to come within 3.4 percentage points of Sanders with the help of his personal fortune. After failing to advance to the primary, he endorsed Sanders.

When asked Tuesday whether he wished he would’ve endorsed Frye, Francis said he did. “I think she would’ve been a better mayor,” he said.

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

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