California · Highlight · Politics

San Diego Mayor Faulconer, Newsom’s top antagonist, tackles the COVID crisis and 2022

If there’s a chief antagonist to Gov. Gavin Newsom amid a global pandemic, it’s likely San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

Newsom’s lengthy, regular briefings on the coronavirus pandemic combined with shifting edicts that have affected vast swaths of the California economy in the name of public health have regularly been met with pithy letters, tweets, and public condemnation from the San Diewgo Mayor.

Faulconer, a Republican running America’s Finest City, was long-speculated as a potential challenger to Newsom, first in 2018, and now for 2022.

Weeks ago, he gave a nod to the punditry, announcing he was – in fact – considering a bid to oust Newsom after he terms out of office in January.

Just ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, I spoke with Faulconer about battling the coronavirus in California’s second-largest city and his path forward to potentially challenging Newsom in 2022.


TAVLIAN: You’ve been one of the most outspoken local leaders standing up to Gov. Gavin Newsom – most recently attacking his infamous dinner at the French Laundry – but also pushing back on earlier regulations on small businesses.

Given your position running the second largest city in the state, what effect have these changes had on small businesses within the city and the region?

FAULCONER: I’ve continued to have a clear and consistent message asking all constituents to follow the protocols – wear the mask, practice physical distancing, good hygiene.

San Diegans want to do the right thing, and are.

You’re right, I’ve really tried to shine a light on ensuring that we’re keeping people safe and at the same time protecting our economy and small businesses.

Even though we’re the second largest city in California, small businesses – just like every city – are the backbone of our economy. And so I’m spending a lot of time trying to protect jobs that people will have the ability to go back to.

We will get on the other side of this pandemic and, as I said, doing everything we can help and to have people follow the guidance of our public health officials are incredibly important.

I think you saw the frustration and the anger from what people observed from the Governor – one set of rules for everybody else, but didn’t follow them himself.

That hurts public health and public confidence in our institutions when people see that.

California was already dealing with a homelessness crisis before the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic only appears to have exacerbated it. San Diego has long-combatted homelessness.

How are things going in terms of managing local homelessness conditions on top of a pandemic?

I will tell you, we’ve taken an aggressive and concerted effort.

San Diego County is the only urban county in California where homelessness has gone down the last two years – by double digits.

And you contrast that with other cities and counties around the state where you’re seeing an explosion – increasing by double digits.

I don’t allow tent encampments in San Diego. If you allow somebody to live in a tent on your sidewalk, you’re condemning them to die on your sidewalks.

We’re better than that. We’re better than that as Californians.

We’ve had a pretty aggressive effort on a shelter system, giving people help, support – not just to get them off the street for a night, but to match them with housing to get them off the streets for good.

I’ve opened up our San Diego Convention Center – we’re not having conventions right now, obviously, because of the pandemic.

We’ve used this as a silver lining to really examine how we’re providing that housing, how quickly we can do it, matching people with supportive services. And since March, we’ve placed over 700 people from the Convention Center to that place of their own, and matched another 350 with resources to get housing by the middle of January.

It’s been a gamechanger. It requires political will, it requires an all-hands-on-deck effort.

And again, I strongly believe that every individual has a right to shelter. And if we provide that shelter, they have the obligation to use it.

That is the fundamental difference in approach in San Diego versus other cities in California.

In the San Joaquin Valley, the State of California has become a key driver in homeless response during this period – namely via Project Roomkey.

Do you think the interplay between the state and San Diego has been sufficient? Or do you think it has been sufficient or has the state dropped the ball?

It’s been a failure of the state. The status quo is not working, it needs to be changed. The Governor talked about appointing a homeless czar and that hasn’t happened.

We’ve had passthrough CARES [Act] money from the Federal government.

Look, we were converting hotels long before Project Roomkey. You need to provide help, support, and shelter – and as I said before – you also need to insist that people use it.

Ensuring that quality of life is important.

By the way, it’s not a partisan issue. Democrats, independents, and Republicans want to get people help, don’t like stepping over needles on sidewalks.

This is why I’ve made this a hallmark for us in San Diego, particularly over the last four years. The status quo wasn’t working and we needed a change – we needed to help people but also needed to insist that there were consequences for bad behavior.

Turning to the future, you’re about to complete your final term as Mayor of San Diego. Ahead of the holiday, you made some news saying you’re actively considering running for Governor. It’s been an open secret for a while of this possibility.

What served as the tipping point to launch yourself publicly into consideration for a 2022 bid?

I am absolutely seriously considering it because California clearly needs new leadership.

Where’s the leadership on safely reopening our schools? It’s nonexistent.

Where’s the leadership on fixing our unemployment department during the worst recession and economic downturn, you have over 500,000 Californians that can’t get their unemployment check.

It’s leadership that understands that people are hurting right now. And we need to have a Governor that’s going to work to help them night and day.

It’s not just about lecturing and rhetoric, it’s about providing solutions and bringing people together.

Look, I’ve been elected twice Mayor of San Diego. The demographics of San Diego mirror those of the State of California.

You have to provide solutions that are real and when you do, you’re going to have Republican support, Democratic support, and Independent support.

I’ve had to work with a Democratic-majority City Council since the beginning and I’m very proud of the results we’ve made to achieve change in San Diego, that’s the type of change we need statewide.

I will tell you, one-party rule is not working for our state. And we’ve had one-party rule for 10 years.

It’s time for a competition of ideas. It’s time for leadership that’s focused on objectives and not partisanship. That’s what I think Californians are hungry for.

The prevailing argument is that coronavirus regulations from the Newsom administration have decimated small business slice of the state’s economy.

What are some of the steps you would take to restore small business growth?

First and foremost, you need to give them support now. We’ve made a concerted effort using our own city general fund dollars – over $20 million – to help keep small businesses afloat matched with some of the CARES [Act] dollars and [Paycheck Protection Program loans].

It takes a recognition that this is not just a political science debate, this is reality: that our economy, and every city’s economy, is based on people having a job to go to and small businesses.

Recognizing that at the forefront, and then eliminating regulations and barriers that allow them to be successful.

We were one of the first cities to allow outdoor dining on the sidewalks. You can have commerce in our parks and hold exercise classes.

I’m doing everything I can to ensure that people have a job to go back to once we get over this pandemic.

And so instead of supporting, for example, Proposition 15, which would have raised taxes on every single small business in this state. That’s the exact wrong approach.

We need to make it easier to not only stay in business but start businesses. But taxing everyone out of this state is not a way to achieve that.

Speaking of taxing people out of the state, California has weathered a decade-long economic exodus, with residents largely relocating to low-tax southwestern and Rocky Mountain neighbors.

But cost-of-living is also an issue across the state, including in your city – though I note it’s hard to sell a city branded “America’s Finest City” for cheap.

What are some of the initial steps to addressing housing and overall affordability in California?

It’s about action and not just rhetoric. We’ve really taken a leadership position on some of the key issues facing not only San Diego but statewide.

We just passed a seminal housing reform in San Diego, we call it “Complete Communities.”

That will dramatically cut the permitting and processing time, creating housing by-right along our transportation corridors. Which is where you want the housing – the multi-family housing.

And yet, what we’ve seen out of Sacramento is continued roadblocks, CEQA reform is talked about but never done.

So we took our own initiative in San Diego and that’s going to be a game changer.

Business climate is real, and people vote with their feet if you have a bad business climate. That’s what’s increasingly happening in California: business are going to locate other places.

We can compete on so many different areas if you have leadership that says ‘We want you to locate here, we want you to be successful’ and not leadership that says ‘You’re going to have the largest tax increase on small businesses in California history,’ not leadership that wants to put independent contractors out of business – in terms of AB5.

Californians sent a very strong message that that pendulum had swung too far to the left. It’s time to have leadership that recognizes we need to keep our jobs, we need to protect our quality of life, and we need to do it in a way that brings everyone together.

That’s the balance that I’ve tried to create in San Diego. It’s not about partisanship, it’s about leadership. And when you go out and you win the argument, then you’re going to win the vote. That’s what we need more of in California.

Alex Tavlian
Alex Tavlian is the Executive Editor of The San Joaquin Valley Sun and Executive Director of Valley Future Foundation. You can reach Alex at alex.tavlian@sjvsun.com.