A Republican city councilman surged to a big lead Tuesday in a contest for mayor of San Diego to replace Bob Filner, who resigned amid a torrent of sexual harassment allegations.
If Kevin Faulconer holds his lead, San Diego would be the nation's largest city with a Republican mayor. He would be the only Republican to lead a major city in California, where Democrats hold all statewide offices.
With nearly 170,000 ballots counted, Faulconer led Democratic Councilman David Alvarez by 56.6 percent to 43.4 percent. Faulconer was expected to do well in mail-ballots but his early lead was larger than expected in what many predicted would be a tight contest.
If Alvarez overcomes the huge gap, he would be the first Latino mayor in the city's 164-year history and keep Democrats in an office that Filner won in 2012 after a 20-year absence for the party. He campaigned by saying the city has been run by an elite few.
Faulconer, 47, portrayed Alvarez as a tool of labor unions. Alvarez, 33, attacked Faulconer as a shill for corporate interests.
Despite sharp ideological differences, few issues separated the candidates. Both promised more attention to neighborhood priorities like street repairs, library hours and emergency response times, putting less emphasis on ambitious civic projects like building a new City Hall and bringing a new stadium for the NFL's Chargers.
Filner, 71, embraced the same “neighborhoods-first” mantra but Faulconer and Alvarez scarcely mention the disgraced former mayor, who pleaded guilty in October to one felony count of false imprisonment and two misdemeanor counts of battery. The former 10-term congressman began a three-month sentence of home confinement on Jan. 1.
Faulconer, who was backed by Filner's two-term Republican predecessor, Jerry Sanders, played down his party affiliation. He highlighted his opposition to a 2010 ballot measure to raise the sales tax, which lost resoundingly, and his support for a 2012 measure to cut pensions for city workers, which passed overwhelmingly. Alvarez backed the losing sides.
Faulconer's strong early showing comes as the nation's eighth-largest city turns more Democratic. President Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by 25 percentage points among city voters, and Democrats enjoy a 13-point advantage over Republicans among registered city voters.
The San Diego County registrar of voters predicted turnout between 45 percent and 50 percent, higher than the 36 percent turnout in a first round voting in November. The first batch of results amounted to about half of the expected turnout.
Faulconer easily topped a field of 11 candidates in the first round by dominating in newer, wealthier neighborhoods north of Interstate 8. Alvarez secured a spot in Tuesday's runoff by cleaning up south of the freeway in more densely populated, predominantly Latino areas.
Faulconer, a former public relations executive, was elected to the Council in 2006 after another mayor, Dick Murphy, resigned amid a crisis over city finances. He often recalled how the city weathered the turmoil, drawing a contrast with the less experienced Alvarez, who was elected to the Council in 2010.
Alvarez, a former legislative aide who grew up speaking Spanish at home, extols his family's immigrant roots to an electorate that the registrar estimates is 18 percent Latino. He embraced a populist campaign theme of stripping power from hoteliers and developers who he says have long controlled the city.