Thursday, May 29, 2008 | Three years ago, Steve Francis ran for mayor as a no-new-taxes businessman with the endorsement of the local Republican Party and the financial support of the region’s housing developers.

He was the race’s leading staunch conservative.

Today, with less than a week left before voters again cast their ballots for mayor, Francis has spent $4 million to spread a different message, one that casts him as a left-leaning candidate, right down to his Sierra Club stamp of approval and his attacks on developer influence.

As voters cast their ballots next Tuesday, Francis faces two challenges. Like any candidate running against an incumbent, he must persuade them that he will do a better job. But he must also convince them that his political stances, the very things he has spent millions of dollars communicating to voters, are authentic — not poll-driven posturing.

Since running in 2005, Francis has softened his anti-new-tax stance and unequivocal assertion that illegal immigrants detained by city police should be deported. He has sought endorsements of labor unions and environmental groups, interests that he opposed while a Nevada legislator in the 1980s. He has criticized Mayor Jerry Sanders for taking donations from employees of the Corky McMillin Cos., a local development company whose workers gave $40,000 to Francis’ 2005 campaign.

He’s been successful in convincing interest groups of his sincerity, though they still hold reservations. But in order to win, he’ll have to convince enough voters that he’s genuine, even as some of his shifts are happening during his campaign. Since February, he’s gone from supportive of San Diego Gas & Electric’s proposed 150-mile-long Sunrise Powerlink to “casting doubt” in April to the neutral position he now holds.

As a candidate, Francis has undergone “a complete reinvention,” political consultant John Kern said.

“Nobody’s ever seen a change like this before,” Kern said. “It’s stunning in its cynicism of people and the voter, because there has been no philosophical underpinning for the changes — other than they polled well and he adopted them. I don’t know of any road-to-Damascus epiphany that would have occurred, other than his polling data said: ‘This will help me get elected.’”

The changes have given Sanders fuel for accusations that Francis is a flip-flopper and hypocrite. Convincing voters that he is authentic is the Francis campaign’s largest hurdle, said Christopher Crotty, a Democratic political consultant. But Crotty and Kern both said busy voters would not necessarily recall Francis’ earlier policy stands.

While Crotty described Francis as a poster child for poll-driven politics, he said that in a race where Democratic and decline-to-state voters feel they don’t have a candidate, Francis is positioned to capture voters who are disillusioned with Sanders.

“It’s really good timing for him,” Crotty said, “because the message is barely believable, but it’s at a time when people are saying across the country and in San Diego: ‘We need to change the way things are done.’”

Francis said he has a broader focus in 2008 because of what he has learned through his involvement in the citywide policymaking arena during the last three years. He has volunteered on boards with the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. He started a conservative think tank, the San Diego Institute for Policy Research.

“I started to deal with these municipal issues and see what was really wrong with San Diego,” Francis said. “That’s the difference. It’s not that I’ve changed colors. I have a broader perspective that I didn’t have before.”

Those lessons have come, he said, from witnessing the effects of developer influence on City Hall, pointing to Sanders’ handling of the Sunroad Enterprises building in Kearny Mesa and what Francis describes as a “pay-to-play system” in city government.

Francis acknowledged that he has softened some stances — “maybe I’ve mellowed a bit” — and credits the longer campaign with giving him the opportunity to elucidate his thoughts on other issues beyond the financial meltdown he focused on in 2005.

City Councilwoman Donna Frye, who ran against Sanders and Francis that year, acknowledges that candidates faced a tight timetable and limited opportunities to talk about other issues during the last mayoral primary, a hastily scheduled contest to see who would replace Mayor Dick Murphy after his resignation. She has not endorsed a candidate in the current race.

“I don’t see Steve Francis as somebody that is going to destroy the environment, as someone who is going to be as conservative as he came across when he first ran for mayor,” Frye said. “I certainly see a Steve Francis who appears to be willing to learn and do things differently. The question people ask is whether it’s an election year conversion. I’ve seen a lot, and a lot have stayed converted because they want to stay in office.”

Glen Sparrow, professor emeritus at San Diego State University, said he never faults politicians for changing their minds. But Francis’ shift has appeared hollow, Sparrow said, because of the speed with which it has happened.

“That’s the problem. You don’t know what you’re getting here,” Sparrow said. “I would feel, as a voter, uncomfortable because I didn’t know what I was buying.”

Groups that have endorsed Francis have had internal discussions about his authenticity. Richard Miller, chairman of the Sierra Club’s local chapter, said the group’s members debated it but were ultimately convinced that Francis is sincere.

“I personally think he was going against some of his leanings initially to get the nomination (in 2005),” Miller said. “This time around he realized that’s not who I am. We’re willing to take that chance and make the statement that he will be doing the right thing.”

The political consultants downplayed the influence that Francis’ shift would have on busy voters who would not remember what positions he took three years ago. The unknown factor, they said, is what impact Francis’ unprecedented campaign spending and television commercials have had on voters since February.

“[Money] can’t buy you voters’ love,” Crotty said, “but it can rent it long enough to make it close next Tuesday.”

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

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