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When I got a list of people who participated in a big confab in La Jolla that served as a de facto nomination of Kevin Faulconer for mayor by local Republicans, I did not recognize one of the names.
It was Kelly Burt. He’s chairman and CEO of Price Self Storage. He’s also chairman of New Majority in San Diego.
I only had a vague understanding of what New Majority was. So I decided to pay a visit to Burt and the group’s paid executive director, Jon Cross.
New Majority is not small. Here’s a list of its contributors in 2013. So far this year, the group has collected $483,500, mostly from donations under $10,000, a bunch of which came from San Diego. While Cross and Burt were excited about Faulconer’s run for mayor, they were noncommittal about how much they would try to help the candidate financially.
I wanted to know what went into that decision to support Faulconer. Last year, the group supported Nathan Fletcher in the primary. How did they feel about him now? The Republicans are not succeeding in California. What’s their take on why?
Here was our conversation, edited for clarity.
You attended that gathering at Tom Sudberry’s house where you all decided on Kevin Faulconer as a preferred alternative for mayor. And I asked myself: What is the New Majority? I know what the Lincoln Club is. I know what the Republican Party is. I know what the Taxpayers Association is. I know what the Chamber is. Where do you guys fit?
Burt: We’re the largest action committee, Republican, in the state. Is that still true?
Burt: Our focus is about fiscal responsibility. We don’t address the social issues. So we have a significant membership in San Diego, Los Angeles and Orange County. And a lot of members who own businesses who are affected by taxes and regulations and are concerned about the stranglehold that government can put on a thriving enterprise in California. There are companies leaving every day more than are coming in.
So our focus is fiscal responsibility. What kind of policies, through propositions or candidates, affect businesses? We represent some of the largest employers in San Diego. Our objective is to support a thriving economy where we can hire employees and grow businesses.
So if you’re sitting in Tom Sudberry’s house and you’re trying to figure out who you think should be mayor, what’s at the top of your mind?
Burt: Just what I said. Who’s going to help provide jobs for Californians?
All three of those candidates there (Ron Roberts, Carl DeMaio and Kevin Faulconer) ostensibly have the same, more or less, positions on major policy issues. So what were you thinking, as far as why you needed to support Kevin Faulconer?
Burt: I don’t know that they do. Our research wouldn’t show that. Our research would show that some have more pro-business job agendas than others, and we think Kevin was the strongest candidate.
What’s your involvement going to be in the mayor’s race?
Cross: We have a state and federal political affairs committees. So we can give money to federal candidates. And then the state can give to state candidates. So we went through the process to endorse Kevin. But we can’t give PAC dollars to candidates. So we’re very limited on direct contributions to local candidates.
Right. But you could do an [independent expenditure].
Cross: Yeah, that’s true. We could do it with other organizations.
Will you be doing any of that?
Cross: We’re looking at ways to give money through different avenues. We haven’t made a decision yet. But we’re working on the process now to help support Kevin.
You’re saying this is more of a state and national focus, and this is just the San Diego branch?
Cross: That’s correct. We don’t get involved in every local race. We pick and choose races we feel it’s important to get involved in for some reasons.
… We want to try to build a farm team, a bench of good candidates. Something that we have lacked over the last couple election cycles.
So Carl DeMaio reiterated after that decision he made to stay in the congressional race that he felt that there was something terribly wrong with the Republican brand. Do you agree with that?
Burt: That’s Carl’s opinion. You know, there’s a reason for our organization to exist. We limit the issues that we fund and feel strongly about. And we don’t make an effort to dissect the candidates on social issues or their social positions. It’s strictly about fiscal responsibility.
The Republican Party doesn’t have that option. I can’t speak for the Lincoln Club. I don’t know if they have that option. But I know that we limit our discussions. And that has a lot of appeal to a lot of people — particularly, those that are members of our organization.
Cross: We really try to work with our leadership at the local and state level to try to instill that message: that focusing on fiscal issues would probably be much better for the party. We don’t necessarily always agree or follow the same things that the party does. Immigration is one of them. We support immigration reform. We supported immigration reform back in 2011. We put out a mission statement in support of immigration reform.
We supported the U.S. Senate plan with a pathway to citizenship. Internally, within the Republican Party, there’s a lot of mixed opinions about that. So we’re not afraid to not just go along to get along.
So you could endorse someone who’s not a Republican?
Burt: Absolutely. With open primaries, there’s a good chance we could support a fiscally responsible Democrat.
Last time around you guys endorsed Fletcher, is that right?
And obviously he’s changed some. What about what he did made it so that wasn’t even a question this time?
Cross: The biggest concern from our members was, maybe not so much the switching of party, but he switched his positions. I don’t think you could call him a fiscal conservative anymore. On pension reform and other issues, he’s flip-flopped on them.
Like what? What got you the most?
Burt: There are better candidates. There are better candidates. Nathan hasn’t had any city experience. Kevin Faulconer has. We saw yesterday where a guilty verdict was pleaded by our former mayor. Kevin Faulconer negotiated that deal. He made sure that if there were criminal charges, the city wouldn’t be liable.
He understand the importance of protecting taxpayers.
Even if Nathan was a Republican today, I don’t know that he has the credentials that would measure up against Kevin Faulconer’s.
We thought Kevin was the right candidate for mayor. Carl was the right candidate for Congress. And Ron was the right candidate for supervisor.
We saw this blow-up between the Lincoln Club and Qualcomm recently, and I thought that Tony Krvaric had a really provocative tweet right after that where he said that Republicans are for small businesses and Democrats are for big business. It was a really hostile moment I thought between the Lincoln Club and the Republican Party and a large employer in town. So I was curious. Did you guys reflect on that?
Burt: Tony doesn’t speak for us. The Lincoln Club doesn’t speak for us. When we speak we take care to do our research, to gather our facts. I’m not saying they don’t. I’m just saying we’re pretty guarded. We’re for business. Period. We’re for jobs. Period. We’re for a thriving economy. I make no distinction between big business and small business.
Business is business.
Taxes hurt everyone. Regulations hurt everyone. Every time Gov. [Rick] Perry comes to California, he leaves with a suitcase full of businesses.
So let’s say you have a magic wand. You can get rid of or change three or four different things. What do you do?
Burt: That’s a broad question. I don’t know that I can answer that. You’re talking about in the state? The city?
Let’s do the state, since that’s what you’re most focused on.
Burt: Our tax rates are too high. Our regulations …
Personal income tax?
Burt: Both on the personal level and corporate level. Try to get a license in this state. Try to open a business in this state. Try to get a building permit in this state. Then go do that in another state.
Cross: The legislative focus is not in tact with what we want. If we had a magic wand we’d get them to try to write bills that tried to fix some of these situations.
You’re talking about a different culture of discussion. Not a single policy.
Cross: Yeah, exactly.
Their mission is just out of whack with what businesses would like.
There’s a supermajority in Sacramento of Democrats. Democrats hold all the statewide offices of any importance. So what’s your approach? What’s your thinking about how that’s going to change?
Burt: If we continue to divide based on social issues, we’re not going to have any success.
So get away from social issues?
Burt: I have strong opinions on social issues. That’s not part of what drives this organization. We’re just trying to gather people together to really hone in on candidates and recruiting on a message of a business-friendly, fiscally responsible government.
Cross: This is a long-term process. Probably not even within one two, three election cycles will Republicans be in a position to win statewide elected office in California. But if we focus on building a bench, a farm team recruiting people that have owned small businesses, we can find people who can fall on their sword.
You can see what I’m trying to get at. I’m really interested in Demaio’s laid out some specific things he thinks Republicans need to change. I’m trying to understand that. What is the future of the Republican Party, of that right-of-center coalition in California? And I can’t tell if you’re saying you think it’s being held back by social issues or if you’re just saying we’re not dealing with them.
Burt: We’re leading. This is an organization of leaders. We see a path to success. The Hispanic vote is going to be more important and it will soon be a majority. They should be Republicans. Fiscally responsible Republicans. They have many small businesses. We have many board members and members of our organization that are in tune with the impact the Hispanic community is going to have on California.
So pretend I’m running for office. I ask you for support, what do you ask me?
Burt: Back to our core message. Tell me about what experience you have being sensitive to fiscal issues San Diegans face every day. For example, the three candidates for mayor. If you took a poll, Kevin’s probably not your choice three weeks ago. We’re not picking the guy who can win no matter his background.
There are some organizations in this city. If you have a checkered past, they’re going to overlook it. ‘You’re ahead in the polls. You’re loyal to us and you’ll kiss our feet.’ If we’re principled about what our mission is and then we can communicate that to a potential candidate who also sees that vision, hold him accountable when he is in office.
Those are the ways we hope to make changes.