Welcome to a new, occasional, feature of the Politics Report: the Slack Chat. Here is our lightly edited exchange about an undercurrent in the news the last couple weeks: San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer is often mentioned as a potential rival to Gov. Gavin Newsom. Now he’s jumping on backlash to the governor. How ambitious is he and how much does the pandemic change the calculus? Here was our exchange on Slack.
andykeatts: Hello Scott, welcome to our first Slack-conversation-as-content, a trend taking over lazy political blogs everywhere. We’ve been tracking Mayor Faulconer’s public displays of opposition to Gov. Newsom. There have been a few. But let’s start at the end, with this Tweet from Carla Marinucci at Politico.
What do you make of that framing? Is that the right way to understand the handful of times Faulconer has seemed to revel in challenging Newsom during the pandemic?
scott: Well, I think what she’s saying there is “Look, this is interesting because some people think he’s a rival.” I don’t think she’s saying that “He’s doing this because he’s a rival.”
andykeatts: In either case, we’re framing this policy disagreement in the context of a possible 2022 match-up. Is that fair?
scott: Yes, it’s fair. Faulconer and his closest allies are clearly happy to elevate him as a sort of pragmatic alternative to Newsom, someone who can absorb some of the fire of the backlash to the governor but who is also trying to do right by public health. They’re probably thrilled the crisis has presented the opportunity to make this comparison.
They were already looking at some discord – the electricity problems the Bay Area was experiencing during the fire warnings, for example – as major crises that would make Newsom vulnerable and could fuel a movement for Faulconer.
andykeatts: That seems right to me. And to your point (that his opposition has been as a pragmatic alternative, rather than as a reopen protester) it’s probably useful to go over the other times they’ve squared off, which all fit into that framework.
There was the kerfuffle over beach closures, where a leaked memo suggested Newsom was going to close all beaches statewide, and Faulconer lobbied him not to, because San Diego had just responsibly showed that re-opening the beaches could be fine. That led to a dispute over what Newsom really planned to do, and whether Faulconer’s lobbying really made a difference. Eventually Faulconer’s chief of staff basically called Newsom a liar.
So that’s pretty confrontational, but even then Faulconer wasn’t doing push-ups in front of a Gold’s Gym or saying that real men don’t wear masks, or whatever.
scott: Right. One thing I think is interesting is whether Faulconer will stick with that. The route they’re carving for him seems like making him appealing to liberals. He’s the climate change dealing-with, YIMBY guy who is also, though, deeply respectful of law enforcement and who took a tough stance on homelessness.
But what if the challenge isn’t just making him acceptable to the masses of urban voters … is there a chance he could lose a primary to someone who more openly embraces the Trump fire? Look what happened in the 50th Congressional District. Carl DeMaio had very vaguely pragmatic views on law enforcement’s approach to unauthorized immigrants and Darrell Issa torched him as an amnesty guy who loved murderous thugs. Faulconer is on record voting for a resolution that endorsed a national policy of a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.
andykeatts: In other words, in a jungle primary for governor in 2022, he’d be susceptible to the same fate as Nathan Fletcher in the 2013 mayoral race that led to Faulconer’s eventual election. Positioning yourself as a reasonable, fact-based Republican alternative is probably the best chance you could have in a statewide general in California, but is that what Republican voters would actually side with if a more Trumpy alternative was in the field as well? I’d guess the answer probably has a lot to do with whatever happens to Trump this November.
One more thing on Faulconer taking exception to Newsom’s comments about public safety and federal aid: Earlier this week, Faulconer announced he was plugging the city’s budget in part by using about $189 million of the $250 million-plus the federal government sent in CARES Act relief funding on public safety and first responders. If he’s spending federal money to pay public safety workers and avoiding budget cuts, does that support Newsom’s point that federal aid is needed?
scott: Ha. Yeah, good point. It does.
I think Faulconer was energized by the crisis at the beginning. He closed parks and beaches before the state and county did. His first thought seems to have been: I can’t let the homeless get this disease in droves and die again (like in the hep A crisis) and I can’t let the shelters be major sources of outbreaks. It was a bold move to put 1,000+ of them in the Convention Center. He was a big part of the cadre of political leaders who brought the shutdown to us. Now, he’s trying to tap, ever so deftly, into the backlash to that shutdown, which includes some folks who think the whole thing was an overreach if not a scandalous conspiracy.
andykeatts: It definitely puts him alongside some folks who are on that farther right flank, like Supervisor Jim Desmond, who are pushing much harsher criticisms of the entire response to the pandemic. He seems to have pretty carefully avoided sounding like them, though. Don’t forget Faulconer also saw a big opportunity to use the pandemic as a chance to snatch up cheap, rundown motels to house homeless people long-term, and was happy to take credit when Newsom recycled that idea in his own budget, even though Faulconer’s plan is on hold for now. I think that goes along with your point about the beginning of the crisis, where Faulconer acted quickly and was totally in concert with the state’s actions. Since then, Faulconer’s other big point, and it’s been echoed by lots of other people in San Diego, especially Republicans, is that Newsom can’t have statewide rules guiding a re-opening.
They’ve lobbied for more flexible metrics that empower local governments and reflect that different areas are to some extent dealing with their own pandemic curves. This week the state granted the county’s request to move into a new phase of re-opening, ahead of other parts of the state. The most important question from that is: Was that the right call? Can San Diego show that it was the right call? We’ll have to wait and see on that, I guess. But less importantly, in terms of politics, does Faulconer get to chalk that up as a win, since that’s precisely what he’s been pushing for?
scott: I think he will chalk it up as a win – as though he has been on the forefront of what may be called design solutions: Efforts to create more opportunities for business and recreation while not denying the spirit or underlying assumptions of the public health orders. But I think everything is changing so fast that in a year, other things will have grabbed the state’s attention. Remember impeachment?
What is going to happen to the 1,000+ homeless residents in the Convention Center, for example? If they end up in the street, well, that could be a bigger story than that he helped burger and BBQ joints open more quickly than they did in LA. But if they end up in permanent supportive housing and the city, that also could matter.
andykeatts: OK, let’s put a ribbon on this. What did we learn? If the mayor chooses to run for governor in two years (note: he’d be choosing to run against an incumbent after passing on the office when it was open), will this crisis offer a chance for him to make his case as a superior alternative to another Newsom term?
scott: Yes, but it’ll have to be the perfect sized wave for him. If there’s a big backlash wave, and Trump remains in office, more fiery alternatives could grab it. Conversely, if the virus creates its own, different, worrisome wave, he’d have trouble grabbing that better than Newsom. You?
andykeatts: Ultimately, I think the way Faulconer’s handled the crisis is pretty consistent with how he’s governed generally. I have a hard time viewing it in the context of a potential governor’s race when it all seems pretty familiar to me as someone who’s watched his whole administration, including the time he already passed up running for governor not all that long ago.
Tying Up the CARES Act Debates
Once the federal government sent a half billion dollars to San Diego for pandemic relief, two big political and policy questions emerged.
For the city of San Diego, which got $250 million in relief funding, the question was whether the city could figure out how to spend that money to avoid dramatic cuts to city services as it dealt with a massive revenue shortfall.
For the county of San Diego, which got $334 million from the feds, the question was whether they were feeling generous, and would consider giving some of that money to smaller cities in the county that didn’t get anything directly.
We got answers this week: yes, and yes.
Faulconer released an update of the city’s budget situation this week, for both the current fiscal year and the one that starts in July, and outlined how he proposes spending the city’s CARES Act funding from the feds.
He spent it all – after fellow Republican Councilman Chris Cate said doing so could be difficult, given all the restrictions on eligible spending – and has avoided some cuts to city services, and use of budget reserves, by doing so. Most of the money is going to public safety, first responders and equipment needed for the pandemic response. He’s also using the money to pay for the shelter at the Convention Center, and to replenish a fund to help small businesses hit by the crisis. Cate, ever the sportsman, tweeted that he was wrong.
The county, meanwhile, decided to give $25 million of its funding to individual cities that didn’t get CARES Act money. It’ll spend $275 million on the general pandemic response it’s overseen, including creating a test-and-trace program.
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