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The next election for mayor of the city of San Diego is 11 months away and nobody has stood up to challenge Mayor Kevin Faulconer – a fact that seems to be frustrating Democrats who not that long ago thought they had ushered in a new progressive majority in city politics.
A lot can happen in 11 months. But every day that passes makes it more unlikely a major candidate will challenge the incumbent. A fundraising deadline just passed. Candidates for other seats raced to pull in cash to show how advanced their campaigns are.
Faulconer made a big haul. But nobody else is raising money in that race.*
The problem for Democrats is not that they cannot find one candidate to run for mayor. It’s that they can’t find two. They need two – ideally someone in the center or even right-of-center who might steal votes from Faulconer in a primary. (Former Councilman Carl DeMaio hung up the phone when I asked him if he might run.)
Mickey Kasparian, the head of San Diego’s largest labor union and chairman of the council of labor unions, says Democrats have a math problem.
San Diego may have a plurality of Democratic voters in the city but it only seems to matter every four years when everyone votes for president. In primary elections or other years, Democrats don’t show up to vote in the same numbers.
Thus, for Democrats, taking the mayor’s office is ideal in November 2016.
But they would have to make it to November 2016. To get there, they have to get through the primary in June. Primary elections in San Diego, however, can easily decide these matters. If one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary, he or she wins without a runoff.
If only two major candidates – Faulconer and a Democrat – run, Faulconer’s likely to win that outright. But if the Democrats can persuade two major candidates to run, they can try to keep Faulconer from getting to 50 percent, allowing one of them to make it to November.
This is the case for Barbara Bry and Joe LaCava in the biggest City Council race next year. If either Bry or LaCava, both Democrats, were to drop out and force the other to face Republican Ray Ellis alone, Ellis is likely to win.
Kasparian says that’s the reason labor groups are not endorsing either Bry or LaCava right now.
“We don’t want to scare anyone off,” Kasparian said.
He only wishes he had that problem in the mayor’s race.
Kasparian says no prominent Democrat in town wants to run for mayor unless someone else runs with them. City Councilman Todd Gloria has decided not to run. He’s pursuing the Assembly seat currently held by Speaker Toni Atkins. Neither Atkins nor David Alvarez, who lost to Faulconer in 2014, has made moves to run for mayor.
“I have seven or eight people who have an interest in running,” Kasparian said. “The question always is: How are we going to get this race to November?”
In 2012, the city had elected a progressive Democrat as mayor and a strong Democratic City Council majority. Now that term is finishing with a Republican in the mayor’s office and a strong chance for the GOP to take over the City Council.
“It’s frustrating to live in a predominantly Democratic city and have no option but to vote for a Republican who doesn’t believe that hard-working folks deserve to have the minimum wage raised,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who is also not running for mayor.
There are 587,000 voters in the city of San Diego. Just more than 39 percent of them are registered Democrats. There are more decline-to-state voters (29 percent) than Republicans (27 percent).
President Obama’s last two elections did drive major voter turnout but even if that was unique to him, the demographics and turnout expectations indicate November 2016 would be a prime opportunity for Democrats to take Faulconer’s seat.
Perhaps challenging Faulconer seems just too daunting. The self-made healthcare magnate Steve Francis spent more than $5 million in his push against former Mayor Jerry Sanders in 2008. He only got 34 percent of the vote. There was no other major candidate, so Sanders was able to get well more than the 50 percent he needed to win outright.
Democrats have made much more progress organizing themselves and developing local candidates who might contend for mayor. But Faulconer, like Sanders, stays away from controversy and appeases progressives when he can. What’s more, he’s managing the city in much more lush times – the last budget he submitted was adopted unanimously by the majority-Democratic City Council with no major changes.
Faulconer’s team helped orchestrate Gloria’s ouster from the City Council president seat. But while controversial, it did not lead to a major movement against the mayor. Quite the opposite, in fact – it successfully halted Gloria’s momentum and undercut his leadership of the Democratic plurality in city politics.
Gloria decided not to run for mayor.
Faulconer did veto the minimum wage increase Gloria championed but he embraced a bold climate action plan that would have the city reach for a 100 percent clean-energy portfolio and dramatically increase participation in public transit.
He has worked hard to communicate his concern for neighborhoods struggling with poverty and neglect. There have been no major initiatives in that regard but he’s done nothing to provoke outrage.
His campaign team didn’t want to comment on his good fortune to now be apparently strolling to a second term.
Francine Busby, chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party, did not return a call for comment. Former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, a two-time mayoral candidate, told me there was “no way” he would run for mayor.
Former Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, who has become something of an outcast in the progressive coalition, said running for mayor is not on her radar either.
“Democrats aren’t afraid they might lose another mayor’s race. After Filner, they’re afraid they might win,” she said.
*Note: The link is to a report about what a political action committee raised to support Faulconer. The June deadline for individual fundraising reporting passed but they have a couple weeks before they’re required to make those reports public. We don’t yet know what Faulconer, as an individual candidate, raised to support his re-election.