Politics & Policy

Is San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer a Model for the Struggling California GOP?

San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer speaks at the San Diego County Republican Party’s Lincoln Reagan Dinner in 2015. (Gage Skidmore)
Faulconer has succeeded by delivering competent governance without the divisive bombast. Whether others can do the same may be key to the state party’s future.

From Ted Cruz’s sneering at “New York values” to the gratuitous scorn President Trump heaped on the city of Baltimore, Republicans seem to have tacitly accepted that they will never again be able to compete in urban centers. But at least one major city still has a viable, even thriving, Republican administration: San Diego, the eighth-largest urban area in America, whose mayor, Kevin Faulconer, has enjoyed two popular and successful terms in city hall despite a constituency that is actually less red than deep-blue California as a whole.

In an interview, Faulconer attributes his ability to win elections in a city where only 22 percent of voters are registered Republicans to a political brand that is “not about partisanship, but leadership.” This may sound like a boilerplate talking point, but it contains a lesson that Republicans seeking a toehold in blue states could learn from: Mayors are simply not subject to the same partisan pressures as legislators and other elected officials. If they eschew divisive, bomb-throwing bombast in favor of a focus on competent, productive governance, voters will reward them.

Faulconer’s rise and tenure is a case study in this dynamic. He was elected in the wake of the resignation of scandal-ridden Democratic mayor Bob Filner, with San Diego’s finances in deplorable shape. He promised to fix the city budget and did, establishing a low-key, technocratic image that helped him easily win his bid for a full term. It helped that he made an effort to reach out to voters who wouldn’t typically vote for a Republican. His campaign headquarters was located in a historically black city neighborhood, and he stressed throughout our interview how important that physical presence was in connecting with local residents. The result was that people knew him not “as a Republican,” he said, but as a competent mayor.

If Faulconer’s success were just a matter of personal temperament and a concerted effort to transcend party labels, other California Republicans might be forgiven for assuming he doesn’t have much to teach the struggling state party. But as he closes out his second term, Faulconer has zeroed in on an issue that the state’s overwhelmingly Democratic leadership has failed to address: the homelessness crisis. Though the issue is not his only his policy focus, he trumpets it as one that Republicans should zero in on.

At the recent California Republican party convention in Palm Springs, Faulconer devoted the bulk of his keynote address to discussing the explosion in the state’s homeless population. It is, he said, “not merely an issue in California, but the issue,” one that offers California Republicans a golden chance to present themselves as a viable alternative to their Democratic rivals. In our interview, he highlighted San Diego’s recent efforts to grapple with the crisis. Most crucially, he has committed the city to offering every homeless person services and housing. San Diego can now offer any persons living on the street housing, and compel them to enter it if they refuse. It’s a real accomplishment, though he is quick to caution that “housing first” cannot become “housing only.” If the goal is to keep people off the streets long-term, he argues, it is just as important for shelter services to connect homeless people with treatment and counseling as it is to give them a place to stay.

The results of Faulconer’s fight against homelessness in San Diego have been mixed. Expansion of shelters, greater use of law enforcement against tent encampments, and increased spending on services have led to a 6 percent decrease in the homeless population, which he concedes is far from a massive improvement. But San Diego is the only major West Coast city to have seen any kind of decrease in homelessness, and it is one of the few with a clear plan to address the crisis.

It remains to be seen what kind of impact Faulconer’s singular success — there are a smattering of other Republican mayors statewide, but the next-largest California city with a Republican administration is Fresno, just over a third the size of San Diego — will have on the state party. In our interview, he reiterated a long-standing refusal to announce plans for higher office, and the upcoming mayoral race in San Diego won’t feature a Republican candidate. But he is adamant that the state party could learn from his experience in office.

In his convention keynote, he spoke about the need for a California Republican party clearly differentiated from the national party. This is sound advice. A state with as many acute problems as one-party Democratic rule has created in California might look like easy pickings for an opposition party. But state voters are significantly out of step with the national GOP on everything from support for the president to environmental issues to immigration, and the state GOP has failed to establish a brand of its own to account for that divergence.

Faulconer is an example of what such a brand could look like. He has backed stronger environmental legislation, strongly opposed President Trump’s wall, and is pro-choice. There is nothing particularly radical about his tenure, no grand new vision for a conservative renewal in California or cities nationwide. What he has done is identify a crisis that defines the state — homelessness — and pledged to tackle it. Whether other California Republicans can do the same — delivering on local issues while staying as insulated as possible from divisive national politics — could be key to determining their party’s future.

Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected to clarify San Diego’s homelessness policy, which does not offer free beds to the homeless population.

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