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A Fresh Start for Mayoral Governance in San Diego

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Caroline Stevens

On August 23, 2013 San Diego’s 35th Mayor, Bob Filner, resigned after 2 months of heated controversy and numerous allegations of sexual harassment. Six months and $4.7 million dollars later (the estimated cost of the special election), San Diegan’s will finally have a chance to elect their new mayor and to deliver a much-needed face lift to their mayoral image.

San Diego is currently dealing with several fundamental governance challenges including: frequent incidents of police misconduct, slumping employment rates, a shaky five-year suspension on pensionable pay, and what are now ranked as the fourth worst roads in America. Yet these issues pale in comparison to the ghosts of mismanagements past. San Diego is still recovering from a $2 billion dollar budget deficit that resulted from a grossly underfunded pension plan and five nationally publicized indictments, which led to the city’s reputation in recent years as “The Enron By the Sea” just a few years ago.

While it sounds like a bleak story, the runoff mayoral race back in was crowded with four serious contenders for the position of Mayor, and has now been boiled down to 2 final candidates, Kevin Faulconer, 2 term city councilman, and David Alvarez, a city council freshman.

These two figures could not represent more divergent stories. Faulconer has been hailed as the new vision of economic and business development, while Alvarez, is known as the Latino protector of community benefits agreements and neighborhoods interests. However, Alvarez has accepted almost $4.5 million dollars in heavily union/labor subsidized campaign contributions, while Faulconer has accepted $3.5 million primarily from larger businesses interests. (Click here for a more complete breakdown of the current mayoral race campaign financing.)

While Faulconer has shown a steady lead for the past two months, the race has drawn to a dead heat with a four-point margin of error, leaving the race unpredictable at this point in time. With such contrasting images and so many fundamental challenges at hand, it is curious as to how these two potential leaders really differ in their visions and leadership objectives for how they could change San Diego.

Kevin Faulconer’s Point of View

In December, I had a chance to speak personally with several of Kevin Faulconer’s campaign managers about his vision for San Diego if he were to become the next possible Mayor. Just a little background on Faulconer, he is a San Diego governance powerhouse. He has been the District 2 City Council Representative for downtown and the coastal communities since 2006, not to mention, the Chair of the San Diego Audit Committee, the Vice Chair of the Economic Development Committee, and the spearhead of Proposition C for reinvestment in community parks, which passed with 67% of the vote in 2008.

Prior to being a politician he worked in public relations and as a lobbyist for Sharp Hospitals, San Diego State University and The San Diego Convention Center to expand facilities and promote economic growth. From all of these experiences and different roles, I was curious to know how someone with such a wide range of experience would prioritize all of his roles in San Diego. Through chatting with some of Faulconer’s top employees and attending some of the January debates across San Diego I was able to glean the following answers…

What are the highest priorities for “Faulconer Campaign” in San Diego today?

There are 3 main priorities for this campaign of equal importance the first being our streets and public infrastructure “fixing roads, potholes, sidewalks, sewers lines and reinvesting in parks and libraries. As we come out of the recession we have the capability to do these types of things.” The next is public safety and rebuilding the San Diego police department with a strategic five year plan to increase safety and prevent further increases in crime. The last is something Kevin has always felt passionately about which is decreasing government waste and cutting back on positions and costs that aren’t necessary or helpful to progress of the city (Faulconer Precinct Organizer, December 26, 2013).

I know there has been some confusion as to which party Kevin Faulconer identifies with… is he a Republican, is he partisan at all, and what kind of ideals guide his leadership and governance style?

Despite being raised a Democrat, Faulconer definitely identifies strongly with Republican values and tends to champion economic development and job growth as the crux of his campaign message. Conversely he is pro-gun control, he has voted to support gay marriage, he and has stated many times that his support from the Republican Party won’t influence him as mayor.

Faulconer: “I’m proud of my independence and one of my biggest selling points in this election is my ability to work with people on both sides of the aisle… It’s not about partisanship; it’s about standing up and working with people to move issues forward… Among my fellow city council members I’m known as the guy who brings people together to create common sense solutions. Nothing flashy, I just feel passionately about having a record that the city and I can be proud of.” (Interview November 4th, 2013, & Mayoral Debate January 31, 2014).

David Alvarez and His Vision

After speaking with Faulconer’s campaign, it was only natural to be curious about Alvarez’s direction as a leader. He can be loosely defined, as an upstart and a more specifically as a young, bright innovator on the Southern California Democratic Party scene. Born to immigrant parents, Alvarez grew up in the central San Diego Barrio Logan community, which is famous for environmental degradation, high pollution rates and a vibrant, culturally rich Latino community.

Its clear that Alvarez is a product of his environment and in addition to being elected to city council in 2010 at the young age of 30, he is also The Chair of the Natural Resources & Culture Committee, the Vice Chair of the Land Use & Housing Committee, and a member of the Budget & Finance and Rules & Economic Development Committees.
Additionally, he serves on the San Diego Regional County Airport Authority, San Diego Metropolitan Transit System Board, SANDAG Borders Committee, Otay Valley Regional Park Policy Committee, Bayshore Bikeway Working Group, and the San Diego Consortium Policy Board.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Alvarez’s outlook is his constant push for government that acts a servant to community, a bridge between people and as a steward for public health and safety. With his national endorsement from Barack Obama this weekend its clear that his efforts are gaining national attention. While I had some trouble getting official comment from the Alvarez campaign I was able to attend one of his campaign events, and speak with several close advisers.

What has been the main issue or problem with mayoral leadership in the past in San Diego?

Alvarez: “I think what’s missing has been authentic courageous leadership. There are times when you need to say no, no to big business or special developments that don’t benefit or reinvest in the neighborhoods. We needs to stop focusing tax payer money on big business downtown, that’s why our neighborhoods and streets are falling apart. As someone who comes from those neighborhoods, that’s going to be my first priority, to serve those people first.” (Mayoral Debate, January 31, 2014).

Alvarez has consistently shown his commitment to community planning agreements and he has fought aggressively for his own neighborhood, Barrio Logan, to have a more substantial zoning separation from the neighboring shipyard. Residents have been complaining for years that chemical runoff; fumes, lead paint and other toxic hazardous materials are responsible for a multitude of health conditions that plague the neighborhood.

Alvarez: “It is a fair and balanced plan,” Alvarez said. “It eliminates over the long term the conflicts that are very, very unacceptable and should be unacceptable to all of us in the community, of industrial uses next to homes, apartments, parks and schools.” (San Diego Union Tribune, On The Issues, 2014)

What is one new trend in governance and leadership that San Diego should establish?

David Alvarez believes that open government and visibility throughout the process is essential. He wants to place all working budget documents online and allow for community viewing and participation in the process of forming the city’s financial path. In doing so he has proposed a reform that would require all large government contracts and agreements to go online for the constituent viewing process.

Alvarez: “We can’t just talk about open government- we’ve got to show San Diegans our commitment to open government is not just empty slogans, but a serious approach to leading our city forward.”

According to polls, 8% of San Diegan’s are still undecided between the two candidates and almost 50% of voters are expected to cast votes in this special election, which is higher than normal for a special election. While both candidates are projecting an idyllic view of “their future,” it will make for an interesting story to come on whether or not they can begin to fix some of the more pressing issues San Diego is facing today.


Links to articles I used to inform this story. . . .

“Follow the Money: Updated Daily.” by Joe Yerardi,  inewsource, February 7, 2014
“Many Polls, Many Different Stories On Outcome Of San Diego Mayor’s Race.” by Sandhya Dirks KPBS, January 29, 2013
“Dan Walters: San Diego mayor’s race could be a harbinger of year.” by Dan Walters, The Sacramento Bee, February 7, 2014
“Republican Leads San Diego Mayor’s Race,” by Ian Lovett. The New York Times, November 20, 2013
“Alvarez, Faulconer on the issues.” UT San Diego, January 25, 2014

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