Despite winning the mayor's race by a strong 10 percent margin, Kevin Faulconer does not seem likely to use that mandate for a dramatically new agenda at San Diego's City Hall when he officially takes office March 3.
Instead, his top three goals elaborate on items that the City Council is already working on: pumping more money into sidewalk and street repairs, with a target of 500 miles of improved roadways in the next five years; hiring 130 more police officers; and reinstating longer hours at local libraries, which were sharply cut back during the recession.
"Our message to every single San Diego neighborhood is that we will invest where we need to help," Faulconer told his cheering supporters at his victory speech Tuesday night. "We will get our city back on track on the services that San Diegans expect, and that they deserve."
On those issues — especially the idea of investing more money in the neighborhoods rather than concentrating it in large projects downtown — Faulconer does not sound different from his opponent David Alvarez, who used downtown-vs.-neighborhood spending as a key theme of his campaign.
There are both personal and practical reasons not to expect city policy to change its current direction during Faulconer's term.
For one, he says that on the vast majority of issues he sees eye-to-eye with Interim Mayor Todd Gloria, who will shift back into the full-time job of presiding over the City Council once Faulconer takes office.
Despite coming from different political parties, Faulconer and Gloria have worked closely together in the past several years, including holding joint press conferences last year to criticize and call for the resignation of then-Mayor Bob Filner.
"This is going to be a very long honeymoon," said Steve Erie, director of UC San Diego's Urban Studies Program. "Faulconer has worked very well with Todd Gloria. Plus, his emphasis on spending on infrastructure and public services is music to the ears of Democrats."
There are some noteworthy areas where Faulconer has disagreed with the Democratic majority on the City Council. He opposes increasing the local minimum wage, using taxes to support bonds for funding infrastructure projects, and the council's party-line 5-4 votes to rezone Barrio Logan and increase the amount of money commercial developers pay for affordable housing. He supports two initiatives on the June ballot that would overturn those measures.
But Faulconer's opposition to such measures could be blunted by a growing power shift at the City Council, which will have the task of naming a temporary replacement in District 2 once he becomes mayor. That would give the Democrats a 6-3 majority, with the power to overturn any mayoral veto.
Erie said Faulconer isn’t likely to get into a major tangle with the council anytime soon. "He's been in the council awhile, so he knows the players and knows how to make appeals to them," Erie said. "I don't think he'll make many early missteps."
In the meantime, Alvarez will return back to his City Council District 8 seat after losing a race despite having a small army of union-supplied ground troops to get out the vote, as well as a clear edge in fundraising: $2.9 million – including $2.4 million from labor unions — versus Faulconer's $2.2 million.
Vince Vasquez, political analyst at the National University System Institute for Policy Research, said part of Alvarez's problem was that he spent his money too late in the race.
Although both candidates missed a campaign opportunity by taking a break through the December holidays, Faulconer got an early jump by sending out a mailer that arrived in voters' homes just as they were getting their absentee ballots in early January. Instead of confining himself to Republicans, he mailed it to Democrats and Independents as well.
In contrast, Alvarez spent the bulk of his money on TV ads that aired in the final two weeks of the election after many of the voters had already made up their minds and mailed in absentee ballots.
"By that time, Kevin's campaign had already portrayed David the way it wanted to, rather than David portraying himself," Vasquez said. "What's a TV ad worth if voters already think they know who you are and whether they're going to support you?"
Alvarez could have done better if he had gone after voters north of Interstate 8, even though they tend to be more conservative than the poorer neighborhoods to the south, where Alvarez's base is located, Erie said.
"There are a lot of Democrats and decline-to-states in the north, who might have been drawn to a campaign focusing on powerful developers being involved in inappropriate projects," Erie said. "Instead, [Alvarez] concentrated on a high-risk strategy of getting out the vote in neighborhoods that traditionally don't have a high propensity of voting."
Despite Alvarez's voter-turnout campaign, total turnout was just 37 percent, virtually unchanged from the November primary. Vasquez and Erie criticized Alvarez for being too partisan — for instance, emphasizing his endorsements by Democratic politicians — while Faulconer tried to expand his base by also pointing out Democratic endorsements and enlisting Cesar Chavez's granddaughter and African-American ministers to campaign for him.
"On the other hand, the stars were always aligned against Alvarez," Erie said. "You have an inexperienced Democratic challenger facing a moderate coastal Republican with a good track record on the environment trying to replace a disgraced Democratic mayor in a special election, where the low turnout tends to favor Republicans."
Erie suggested that the outcome would have been different in a presidential election year, when turnout would have been much higher. And that, he said, will present a challenge for future Republican candidates.
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Sept. 23, 2014 -- George Chamberlin speaks with San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer about the importance of the military on San Diego's economy at a presentation of the San Diego Military Advisory Council’s sixth annual Military Economic Impact Study.