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San Diego's Mayor, Forging a Vital Brand for the GOP?

San Diego's Mayor, Forging a Vital Brand for the GOP?

By Adam O'Neal - June 25, 2014

SAN DIEGO -- As Air Force One touched down at the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego early last month, the usual throng of local media and political-types waited on the tarmac.

Kevin Faulconer -- who had been recently sworn in as San Diego’s 36th mayor -- stood among them. Soon, he would greet the man who had endorsed his opponent during the final stages of what had been a heated election.

The visit created a choice for Faulconer, whose success has been cited as an example of how the GOP can still win a major race in deep-blue California (or, perhaps, anywhere with a significant voter registration disadvantage).

Faulconer could offer President Obama a cool reception and generate national attention, as Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer did in 2012. Or the new mayor, whose city backed Obama over Mitt Romney by a double-digit margin the same year, could warmly welcome the president to San Diego.

He opted for the latter.

“I said, ‘Welcome to San Diego!’” recalled Faulconer during an interview in downtown San Diego earlier this month. He shook hands with the president and had a “brief, light conversation” that lasted about a minute.

“He was aware of some of the financial issues here in San Diego and was asking about them,” continued Faulconer. “I think he knew that I played a major role in a lot of the turnaround.”

Obama moved on to greet members of the military and their families. His arrival remained a non-event, as airport greetings typically are -- a genial tenor in keeping with the new mayor’s demeanor.

Faulconer, the highest-ranked Republican officeholder in California, proved earlier this year what his party can achieve in the state. And with his city’s finances significantly more stable, he can now take time to preach his brand of inclusive Republicanism to the party faithful.

But the question remains: Will other party members -- particularly those in the California’s relatively conservative GOP -- embrace Faulconer’s consensus-building strategy? 

Opportunity in Scandal

Politics have long been central to Faulconer’s life.

The 47-year-old grew up about 200 miles north of San Diego in another beach town, Oxnard. Both of his parents were Democrats, and he remembers often talking about public affairs at the dinner table.

“Both of my parents always emphasized to me growing up: Make your own decisions in terms of politics,” he said. “They also pressed on me the importance of getting involved in the community.”

Faulconer -- whose adolescence roughly coincided with Ronald Reagan’s presidency -- became a Republican because he saw the GOP as “the party that really stood for economic opportunity.”

His father, who worked in the city manager’s office, would often take Faulconer to city council meetings as a child, something he still recalls fondly as the start of his interest in elective office.

Faulconer worked part time for the Ventura County supervisor’s staff as a teenager. He went on to become involved with student government in high school and college, running for various positions, with mixed results.

After graduating from San Diego State University in 1990 with a degree in political science --and, more importantly, years of political experience -- Faulconer went to Europe and ran with the bulls in Spain.

He survived that experience and turned to a much tamer undertaking: public relations.  After spending a few years in San Francisco, he returned to San Diego in 1996, marrying three years later. (He now has two young children).

In 2002, at age 35, Faulconer ran for a seat on the San Diego City Council. It was a close, negative race, and his Democratic opponent, Michael Zucchet, ultimately prevailed. But Faulconer -- who had lost emotionally wrenching races in high school and at San Diego State -- didn't walk away from politics after the defeat. He just waited.

In a lucky break for him, Zucchet resigned in 2005 to deal with accusations of corruption. (He was cleared of wrongdoing years later.) Faulconer jumped into the special election race, displayed a prowess for fundraising, and became a city councilman by 2006. He won re-election the same year and again in 2010.

A pension crisis hit San Diego prior to the recession, earlier than occurred in many major cities, and Faulconer’s time on the council was overwhelmingly devoted to dealing with the financial mess.

“We spent a lot of time trying to turn this city around financially from some very dark ages,” he recalled. “I worked with [former Mayor Jerry Sanders] on pension reform, competition for city services.”

In 2013, as the city was regaining its financial footing -- though not entirely -- another scandal broke: More than a dozen women accused newly elected Mayor Bob Filner, a Democrat, of sexual harassment.

Filner, whose escapades drew international attention, resigned in August 2013 and pleaded guilty that October to felony false imprisonment and two misdemeanor battery charges.

Days after Filner’s resignation, Faulconer announced he would pursue the vacant office -- the second time in 10 years he ran in a special election to replace a Democrat who had resigned over alleged misconduct.

Although Filner had tainted the Democratic brand, Faulconer faced long odds.

When former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio -- like Faulconer, a moderate Republican -- lost to Filner by five points (pre-scandal) in 2012, many observers predicted that the election marked the end of the GOP’s dominance in San Diego mayoral contests. (Five out of the seven of San Diego’s mayors before Faulconer were Republicans, though the city has become increasingly Democratic in recent years.)

And Faulconer’s opponent, David Alvarez, appeared significantly more formidable than the aging Filner had been, at least on paper. The young Hispanic councilman maintained a double-digit voter registration advantage, sizable financial backing from public unions, and a presidential endorsement.

Yet, Faulconer beat Alvarez by nine percentage points in the February election. (Alvarez did not respond to RCP’s request for comment.)

Jason Roe -- a Republican political consultant who worked for DeMaio’s and Faulconer’s mayoral campaigns -- attributed the victory to Faulconer’s amiable personality, better use of voter data, and favorable conditions for Republicans in a special election.

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Adam O'Neal is a political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at aoneal@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearAdam.

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