For the second time in the last year, San Diego voters will be asked to determine who they trust to lead the city.
By Andy Cohen
Who do you trust? That’s the overriding question in this 2013 San Diego Mayoral Special Election. After what most San Diegans consider to be a major betrayal by our ex-mayor Bob Filner—whether you agreed with his policies or not—the major question on the minds of probably most voters is can we trust the current crop of candidates vying to replace him?
There are currently four major candidates running to complete Filner’s first term: City Councilman Kevin Faulconer (R), City Councilman David Alvarez (D), former State Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher (D), and former City Attorney Mike Aguirre (D). San Diego broke with historical tradition and elected a Democratic mayor for the first time in 20 years in 2012, and now there’s a sense that voters could revert back to Republican rule, despite there being a nearly 90,000 voter registration advantage for Democrats within the city limits.
Combine that with frighteningly low voter turnout expectations for the special election—circumstances which almost always favor Republican— and it’s easy to imagine that Kevin Faulconer has a major leg up on the other contenders.
But what matters, too, is the character, the demeanor of the candidates. In 2012, Carl DeMaio was viewed as so extremely divisive and untrustworthy that it allowed Filner to walk away rather comfortably with the electoral win, despite the many warts he brought to the race. Set aside the harassment charges brought against him that led to his downfall; those did not become public knowledge until well into his term as mayor. Filner was known as a gruff, aggressive, assertive, often-difficult-to-work-for champion of civil rights and the little people. His politics were right, but his personality flaws were a major issue throughout the 2012 campaign. Fortunately for him he faced off with a general election candidate who may have been viewed as having even more flaws than he did.
And so now San Diego is once again looking for a leader; someone who they can trust, which is no small order. In viewing several of the first debates, one can get a sense for the leadership style and personality traits of the candidates. How do they carry themselves? Are they the kinds of leaders that command the attention of their audience? What do their debate performances tell us about what kind of mayor they’d be?
Watch the debates and it’s difficult not to be impressed with Nathan Fletcher on style alone. He carries himself with a supreme confidence that inspires confidence in others. He has “it.” His charm and his charisma make it easy to overlook the fact that his answers to debate questions rarely feature anything of real substance; they don’t tell us much about his policy positions at all. This could be because he is trying very hard to avoid partisan politics. He doesn’t want to take sides, despite his newly brandished Democratic credentials.
Fletcher is campaigning as a middle-of-the-road candidate and he is trying almost too hard to project that image, taking positions without taking a stand. We don’t know where he stands on the Barrio Logan Community Plan; we don’t know where he stands on economic and community development. We don’t know where he stands, exactly, on the Balboa Park plan. We do know that he sure looks good in saying not really much of anything at all, and certainly sounds good doing it. And he tells us he’s going to do the right thing by San Diegans, but it’s difficult to draw that conclusion on substance. He is very well spoken, but he has yet to stake out a definitive position on any of the major issues facing San Diego today.
Kevin Faulconer, as this campaign moves forward, is looking more and more like his former City Council colleague. He, like DeMaio, is a smooth talker. He notes his commitment to neighborhood development, but his record belies that. He continues to lament the 46,000 maritime jobs that are being jeopardized by the Barrio Logan Community Plan that was recently approved—twice—by the City Council, continuing to mislead the public about the true impact of the plan. And he touts how he “stood up for the tourism industry,” decrying the lack of funding to the TMD and how it has hurt tourism in San Diego, when the numbers clearly tell us otherwise.
Faulconer has been less than honest in his statements during this campaign. It’s hard to fathom that he can be trusted to be honest with us as Mayor of San Diego. He has talked a good game, but can he be trusted to act in the best interests of all San Diegans?
Mike Aguirre, circa 2013, has been a “kinder, gentler” Mike Aguirre, as his opponent Kevin Faulconer noted, than the Mike Aguirre we came to know as San Diego’s City Attorney. However, this should be viewed with no small amount of skepticism. As City Attorney, he fostered what was described as a hostile work environment. The city repeatedly had to turn to outside council in order to represent the city’s legal interests. Given what we’ve just been through, that does not sound at all appealing.
During the debates thus far, Mr. Aguirre has revived images of Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign. For Giuliani, every third word uttered was “9-11.” For Aguirre, his cause célèbre is pensions, and the amount that the City of San Diego continues to pay toward reducing its pension deficit. He may be right, but he never makes it clear during the debates what he would do differently as mayor; what his solution to the problem is. Our pension morass was caused by nearly a decade of massive underfunding of the system, and that deficit must be paid down. It is not at all clear what Mr. Aguirre would do to accomplish that goal, or whether he would return to the practice of underfunding it.
His single-mindedness makes it difficult to determine where this “kinder, gentler” Mike Aguirre stands on other key issues, and whether his leadership style has truly changed.
David Alvarez’ debate performances have been somewhat uneven. At times he appears poised and confident, other times he has been rather shaky in conveying his answers. Unlike his opponents, he has made it relatively clear where he stands on the issues, particularly the Barrio Logan Community Plan. He has touted himself as someone who is adept at playing the role as mediator, bringing both sides of an issue together to form a consensus, and his record clearly supports that assertion.
However, he lacks the gravitas of his Democratic opponent, Nathan Fletcher. Unlike Fletcher, he does not command the room when he speaks. He tends to be rather soft spoken, raising questions about his ability to be the type of authoritative leader that is sometimes necessary in order to sway opinion in his direction. He is a decent, mild mannered candidate with a compelling story. But does he have the charisma needed to take charge of the country’s eighth largest city? Can he put his foot down and make difficult decisions, and inspire trust that it was the right decision? Is he capable of standing up to the fierce resistance that will be brought against him from the city’s traditional power brokers? Is he tough enough?
Filner certainly was. Fletcher probably is, although it is unclear how much space there will be between him and the downtown special interests. Faulconer, like Sanders, won’t have to be concerned about it since his positions are so closely aligned with the private business interests that have driven policy decisions in this city. And if history tells us anything, Aguirre would be one of the most combative mayors the city has ever seen.
All candidates have their flaws. However, this race, more than most others, may come down to a determination by voters of which candidate is the least flawed.