SAN DIEGO (AP) — A moderate Republican city councilman scored a decisive win in the election for San Diego mayor, offering a dose of good news for a party that has fared poorly in California and in races to lead major American cities.
Kevin Faulconer, 47, said Wednesday that his emphasis on working across party lines and his embrace of fiscal measures such as cutting pensions for city workers and putting more city services up for private bidding led to his surprisingly large margin of victory.
The two-term councilman and former public relations executive led Democratic Councilman David Alvarez by 54.5 percent to 45.5 percent with all precincts reporting.
San Diego becomes the nation’s largest city with a Republican mayor and Faulconer is the only Republican to lead a major city in California, where Democrats hold all statewide offices.
“The themes of inclusion, of bringing everyone together, of reform and making changes are themes that will resonate not just here in San Diego but in other cities across the country,” Faulconer said.
He will fill the unexpired term of Bob Filner, 71, who was elected San Diego’s first Democratic leader in 20 years in 2012 but resigned after less than nine months in office amid a torrent of sexual harassment allegations. Filner, a former 10-term congressman, pleaded guilty in October to one felony count of false imprisonment and two misdemeanor counts of battery and began a three-month sentence of home confinement on Jan. 1.
Alvarez, 33, and groups supporting him — mainly organized labor — outspent Faulconer and his largely pro-business allies by about $1 million. Faulconer sought to turn that to his advantage by relentlessly portraying Alvarez as a tool for labor unions.
“Our tracking polls showed that Alvarez’s union ties were devastating,” said Faulconer pollster John Nienstedt. “We morphed it into an anchor on him.”
Faulconer’s win comes as the nation’s eighth-largest city turns more Democratic. President Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by 25 percentage points among city voters, and Democrats enjoy a 13 point advantage over Republicans among registered city voters.
Unlike Filner, Alvarez was unable to ride the coattails of a popular president. Turnout in the special election was 43 percent.
Faulconer played down his party affiliation throughout the campaign and cast himself as an even-keeled consensus-builder.
“It was a big and convincing win for a Republican in a decidedly blue city,” said Nienstedt, president of Competitive Edge Research & Communication. “That happens when you have a Kevin Faulconer Republican running — an inclusive, caring, moderate gentleman, not a table-pounding man or woman.”
Brian Adams, a political science professor at San Diego State University, said voters who weren’t paying close attention may not have known Faulconer was Republican. Alvarez, he said, failed to appeal to independent voters and seemed unprepared for some pro-Faulconer attack mailer, including one that insinuated he would shower money on a few low-income neighborhoods and ignore the rest of the city.
“(Alvarez) was effective at getting his base out but he wasn’t able to pull in a lot of moderate voters,” Adams said. “You’ve got to win your base and pick up some in the middle. This isn’t New York, where you can just rely on Democrats.”
Mike Zucchet, general manager of the San Diego Municipal Employees Association, said Alvarez fell short because low-turnout elections tend to attract more Republican voters and that it would be a mistake to read the outcome as a rebuke of organized labor. He said the union representing city white-collar workers didn’t consider it a catastrophic setback.
“We’ve worked with Kevin for seven years and, even though we often disagree, he’s always been a person who understands that finding an agreement is better than fighting or litigating,” Zucchet said.
Faulconer, a former student body president at San Diego State University who jogs on the beach, cycles and plays with his two children on his spare time, was elected to the Council in 2006 after another mayor, Dick Murphy, resigned amid a crisis over city finances. He often recalled how the city weathered the turmoil, drawing a contrast with the less experienced Alvarez, who was elected to the Council in 2010.
He supports same-sex marriage and abortion rights but rarely discusses social issues, focusing instead on fiscal measures that have endeared him to the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and other business leaders. During the campaign, he highlighted his opposition to a 2010 ballot measure to raise the sales tax, which lost resoundingly, and his support for a 2012 measure to cut pensions for city workers, which passed overwhelmingly. Alvarez backed the losing sides.
Faulconer is expected to take office March 3. The City Council will likely appoint a Democrat to fill his term that expires in December, giving Democrats a 6-3 majority.
Alvarez, who grew up speaking Spanish at home, extolled his family’s immigrant roots to an electorate that the registrar estimates is 18 percent Latino. He adopted a populist campaign theme of stripping power from hoteliers and developers who he said have long controlled the city.
Alvarez was a close political ally of Filner but one of the first Democrats to demand he resign. The candidates scarcely mentioned the disgraced former mayor, while embracing his emphasis on neighborhood priorities like street repairs and library hours over ambitious civic projects.
“We wanted to make this about turning the page,” said Nienstedt, the Faulconer pollster. “If you’re always talking about Bob Filner, how is that turning the page?”