California Republicans, who have surrendered the governor’s office, a majority of the legislature and every other statewide post, are looking to begin a comeback in San Diego, where the mayor’s office has been thrown open by a sex scandal.
Democratic Mayor Bob Filner’s resignation from office amid charges of sexual harassment may give Republicans a beachhead in the state’s second most-populous city, where it can build a return to influence in the world’s ninth-largest economy.
The race will help gauge whether Republicans can attract the support of independent voters and the growing Hispanic population ahead of the 2016 presidential race. San Diego is more than one-quarter Latino, and 28 percent of voters aren’t members of any party, according to the city clerk.
“San Diego is a test market for Republicans if they want to be viable in a fast-changing America,” said Carl Luna, who teaches politics at San Diego Mesa College. “This election for mayor is significant. If they lose this race, it could be a long time before Republicans ever hold the mayor’s office again.”
With 1.3 million people and an estimated 302,000 jobs tied to the military, San Diego has stood apart from California’s other large cities politically. San Francisco issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004. Los Angeles severed business ties to Arizona in 2010 over immigration policies. San Diego stripped its workers of guaranteed pensions and cracked down on medical-marijuana clinics.
While Democrats have a 3-to-2 edge in voter registration, San Diego elected Republican mayors in six straight elections over two decades ending with Filner’s victory last year.
Filner, a 10-term Democratic congressman, swept into office with support from unions and Latinos, who accounted for 29 percent of San Diego’s population in 2010, up from 25 percent in 2000, U.S. Census Bureau figures show.
Nine months into his term, Filner resigned following public accusations by at least 18 women who said he made unwanted sexual advances.
A special election to replace him is set for Nov. 19. Three Democrats and a Republican are running, though their party labels won’t appear on the ballot. Municipal elections in California are officially nonpartisan.
None of the candidates mustered a majority of likely voters in a poll by SurveyUSA released Sept. 23. If no one receives 50 percent of the vote, the top two will face each other in a runoff.
With the theme “Rebuilding from the ground up,” California Republicans held their annual convention earlier this month in Anaheim, between Los Angeles and San Diego. The party holds mayoral offices in just two of the 10 largest cities, 12 of 40 Senate seats and 25 of 80 Assembly districts.
“The future of the party is in the local offices,” said Tony Krvaric, chairman of the San Diego County Republican Party. His office is festooned with souvenirs of Ronald Reagan, who was California’s governor before becoming President. “That’s where the future statewide officeholders are going to come from. San Diego is the biggest springboard that’s available.”
Krvaric handed out fliers at the convention urging activists to “make history in San Diego” by coming to the city Oct. 18-20 for a get-out-the-vote drive for City Councilman Kevin Faulconer. “San Diego is ground zero for California Republicans,” the flier says.
Faulconer supports same-sex marriage and touts his work on environmental issues in a council district hugging the Pacific coast. In an interview in Balboa Park, where a cluster of museums, gardens and the internationally acclaimed municipal zoo form the city’s cultural heart, Faulconer described himself as a social moderate and a fiscal conservative, “the right mix for San Diego.”
He said he backed pension roll-backs for city workers and opening departmental functions to competition from independent contractors. Faulconer voted against a proposal to require that union-backed prevailing wages be paid by contractors on projects valued at more than $25,000.
“It’s not necessarily about unions versus the private sector,” Faulconer said. “It’s about doing the job as efficiently as possible.”
The local Democratic Party and a group of 135 unions, the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, with 200,000 members, are behind first-term Councilman David Alvarez.
Alvarez’s challenge is to reassemble the coalition of Latinos and African-Americans concentrated south of Interstate 8 that carried Filner into office, said Richard Barrera, who heads the labor council.
South of 8
“Politics in San Diego ultimately will be decided by the growing number of families south of 8 -- blue-collar, immigrants, working families -- as they get more and more involved in the political system,” Barrera said in his office overlooking the highway. “Politics in San Diego historically has been dominated by a small number of downtown business people.”
Alvarez, whose council district lies south of I-8 and extends to the Mexican border, calls himself a progressive and said the city’s “establishment” hand-picked Faulconer. In an interview at a coffee shop in Barrio Logan, a predominately Latino neighborhood in his district, Alvarez said Republicans coalesced around Faulconer after a meeting at the La Jolla home of developer Thomas Sudberry, and urged former councilman Carl DeMaio, who lost to Filner last year, not to run again.
“The establishment is very clearly out there,” Alvarez said. “They definitely want to come back into power.”
Sudberry said more than 40 professional organizations were represented at the meeting, held to help choose an electable candidate. In a telephone interview from Toronto, where he was vacationing, Sudberry said entrepreneurs are looking for stability in the city after business regulations became unpredictable during Filner’s time in office.
“It was about promoting the candidacy that had the best chance of winning, the best chance of promoting free enterprise and growing the economy in San Diego,” he said.
DeMaio, who is running for congress, declined to comment.
In addition to party-endorsed Faulconer and Alvarez, candidates include a pair of former officeholders: Mike Aguirre, a Democrat who was the elected city attorney from 2004 to 2008, and Nathan Fletcher, a former Republican assemblyman who ran for mayor as an independent last year before becoming a Democrat this year.
Aguirre said he’s not afraid of alienating unions by keeping a focus on the city’s unfunded pension liabilities.
“There’s three political parties in San Diego: the Republican Party, the Democratic Party and the pension party,” he said in an interview. “And the pension party is the most powerful.”
As a Republican, Fletcher joined Democratic California Governor Jerry Brown in September 2011 in supporting a bill to eliminate an option for some out-of-state businesses to lower their tax rates. The bill was favored by Qualcomm Inc., the telecommunications company that is San Diego’s second-largest nongovernment employer, which later hired Fletcher as senior director of corporate development. Republicans in the Senate blocked the bill.
Fletcher, in an interview after a campaign event, said Republican resistance to the deal with Brown helped nudge him from the party.
“I’ve never been really great at partisan politics, but that’s not the job of mayor,” he said. “Political parties change and so do people. I’ve always been about getting the job done in a bipartisan fashion.”
Fletcher was backed by 30 percent of likely voters in the SurveyUSA poll. Faulconer was second at 22 percent, followed by Alvarez, 17 percent, and Aguirre, 9 percent. The telephone survey of 527 likely voters conducted Sept. 19-23 had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 to 4.4 percentage points, according to U-T San Diego, one of its sponsors.
Gus Chavez, a 70-year-old retired academic who spoke at Fletcher’s rally in Barrio Logan, said the special election may further marginalize Republicans in San Diego and California.
“Republicans cannot win in California because of the tremendous damage they have done in the Latino community,” Chavez said.
California is home to the largest Hispanic population in the U.S., according to a report by the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project. Projections show Latino residents of the state will outnumber whites within a year.
Chavez said former Governor Pete Wilson backed a 1994 ballot initiative to deny public services to people who entered the U.S. illegally. The measure, which passed and later was overturned in court, soured many Hispanic voters on Republicans, he said.
Republicans can win in San Diego by appealing to fiscally conservative independent voters, said San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce President Jerry Sanders, a Republican who was the city’s mayor for seven years before Filner.
“We are a city that’s not majority Republican anymore,” Sanders said in an interview. “What the Republican Party needs to do is to open the party up.”