As the recall effort against California Gov. Gavin Newsom heats up, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer is hoping to accomplish what no Republican has since 2003: become governor of one of the bluest states in the country.
“I believe Californians want a change,” Faulconer said. “As we look at the reality, we all love our state, but what we’re seeing is jobs are fleeing. Our state can’t do the basics.”
Faulconer, who served as mayor from 2014 to 2020, announced his candidacy this week following months of attacks against Newsom over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. In an online video released Monday, the 54-year-old moderate depicted California as a failed state fraught with scandal and a worsening quality of life. He said he is running “to make a difference, not to make promises.”
“He’s failed us,” Faulconer said of Newsom in the video. “I know we can clean up California.”
As of this week, volunteers have collected more than 1.4 million signatures statewide in support of recalling Newsom. The campaign must gather 1.5 million signatures by mid-March to force an election, and it will need a surplus of signatures because some are likely to be disqualified during the certification process. State officials had verified 410,000 as of early January.
Fueled by an economic downturn during the coronavirus pandemic, Newsom critics say the governor has kept public schools closed too long and failed to fix the state’s unemployment benefits system, its record homelessness and an affordable housing shortage.
According to a poll released Tuesday by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, 54 percent of Californians approve of Newsom’s job performance, down from 65 percent in May.
What started as a conservative-led recall effort has gained bipartisan support in recent months with Democrats also criticizing Newsom over his shifting Covid-19 vaccine strategy and for allowing schools to stay closed. Now, Faulconer is promising a "California comeback" if voters chose him over Newsom.
“The recall will happen,” said Thad Kousser, political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. “Clearly Republicans smell blood, and this is the best shot of flipping a blue state.”
Still, Kousser described Faulconer’s chances of beating Newsom as a “long shot.”
“The Republican party [in California] has been declining steadily, and really became politically irrelevant,” he said. “You had a Republican party that was clearly putting itself at odds with the diverse electorate of California.”
Faulconer considers himself a different kind of conservative. Raised in Oxnard, a coastal city northwest of Los Angeles, Faulconer learned Spanish at an early age and has stayed away from the anti-immigrant rhetoric that ultimately doomed another Republican, former Gov. Pete Wilson.
Faulconer won two terms in a majority Democratic city with a majority Democratic council. As mayor of California's second-largest city, with a population of 1.4 million, he helped to curb homelessness in San Diego, relocating people living on the streets to the city’s convention center after a hepatitis A outbreak swept through the population. Afterward, his office's efforts helped hundreds of people without homes to find housing solutions, NBC San Diego reported.
“We have to say that it is unacceptable to allow people to live and die on our sidewalks,” Faulconer said. “I believe individuals have a right to shelter.”
Despite some achievements in alleviating the city’s homelessness problem, Faulconer has been criticized for relying too heavily on law enforcement to sweep people off the streets. Police teams cleaned up sidewalks and cleared encampments, and a new law banned sleeping in cars. People experiencing homelessness were swept into temporary shelters, but housing costs remain high throughout the city.
Under his watch, the Chargers football team relocated to Los Angeles after 55 years. Faulconer said the decision was made by the team: "It was a done deal."
Another likely challenge for Faulconer is his support for former President Donald Trump. He voted for Trump in 2020 after saying four years earlier that “his divisive rhetoric is unacceptable,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
Since November, Faulconer has brushed aside any potential handicap his voting record could pose in a state that voted overwhelmingly for President Joe Biden.
“We have our own unique brand,” he said of conservatives in California. “I consider myself a California Republican who is fiscally sound, cares about the environment, builds bridges and gets results.”
Faulconer is one of several Republicans who have signaled interest in unseating Newsom. Businessman John Cox is considering a run against the governor if the recall effort is successful. It would be the second time Cox takes on Newsom - he lost to the current governor in 2018.
Faulconer said that even if he does not succeed in beating Newsom during a special election, he will run for governor again in 2022.