Kevin Faulconer attends an event while running for mayor in 2013. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

Former Mayor Kevin Faulconer has struck a familiar note in his attacks against Gov. Gavin Newsom over the continued closure of many California schools.

Despite his criticisms, Faulconer’s stated plans aligned in many ways with Newsom’s, as Politico noted.

How Faulconer would be different, he has argued, would be through his prowess as a leader.

“I think it’s about sitting down at the table and demanding results,” Faulconer said last week. “Keeping our schools closed is not what I would accept.”

Faced with a negotiating impasse, Faulconer has time and again said leadership is the key to getting schools open, and that he can succeed where Newsom has failed. When a conservative rival criticized him, the response was again that Faulconer is the leader California needs. When reporters have pressed for specifics, he’s simply reiterated that there hasn’t been leadership and that he would provide it.

“The fact that in virtually every state, every state across this country, schools are reopening. But California isn’t — that’s a lack of leadership,” he told KQED.

It’s a strategy Faulconer has used on the campaign trail before.

Like with the schools debate, Faulconer weighed in on a dispute that involved two firmly entrenched sides arguing over deeply personal issues that affect families’ health and well-being. And like with the schools debate, Faulconer would only say that he’d offer bold leadership to solve the problem while sidestepping any meaningful discussion of the details. Faulconer was ultimately elected in that race – but the issue remains unsolved, eight years later.

In August 2013, former Mayor Bob Filner resigned in disgrace, igniting a race to replace him. The city was poised to adopt development regulations in Barrio Logan, intended to shield residents of the working-class Latino community from air pollution created in the shipyards nearby, which has contributed to some of the highest asthma rates in California.

The shipbuilding industry was threatening a referendum. The fight in the final days boiled down to a few decisions in a small section of the community. Namely, community representatives and environmental justice advocates wanted to adopt zoning in an area just North of Harbor Drive that could act as a buffer between the shipyard along the water, and the more residential area to the north and east. The last questions were whether any new homes would be allowed in the buffer, and whether certain industrial businesses could operate there.

Then-Councilman David Alvarez, Faulconer’s opponent in the mayoral race who grew up in and represented Barrio Logan, said he was willing to acquiesce to the shipbuilding industry’s demand that no homes be allowed in the buffer. But the other demand, he said, was completely contradictory and defeated the entire purpose of the discussion.

But where Alvarez was willing to say where he stood in a negotiation between two intractable positions, Faulconer would not.

At a press conference standing with the shipbuilding industry, Faulconer wouldn’t say whether he would be willing to meet Alvarez in the middle, and restrict certain industrial businesses from the buffer area.

Instead, he said he was confident that the debate could be resolved by leadership.

“Nothing focuses the mind like a deadline,” he said.

That deadline passed without resolution.

The City Council passed the plan Alvarez supported, with Faulconer voting against it. A few months later, Faulconer became the mayor, and city voters tossed out the Barrio Logan plan, leaving the city to a status quo that allowed industry to operate next to homes.

Now, though, Barrio Logan is as close as it’s been to a solution since the referendum, and it wasn’t Faulconer’s leadership that brought it there.

In late 2017, following nearly four years of inaction, Faulconer tried to re-start the Barrio Logan conversation. But the central debate had still not been settled, so it fizzled after one tense community meeting.

Faulconer then stepped away from the dispute, as he had during his first four years in office. And that’s when the people most engaged in the issue started to make some progress.

As the race to replace Faulconer heated up last year, community leaders, environmental activists and the shipbuilding industry took it upon themselves to resolve the intractable debate.

After renewed negotiations, they broke through the impasse early last year, without the city’s involvement, and agreed to the contours of a final solution. City planners have since picked up the deal they negotiated, and are now hoping to bring the new community plan to the City Council for final approval as early as the end of 2021.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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