OAKLAND, Calif. — With the Gov. Gavin Newsom recall movement gaining intensity in California, Republican Kevin Faulconer on Monday said he will become the first major elected official to officially launch a gubernatorial campaign to challenge the Democratic leader.
Faulconer, who was San Diego mayor for more than six years, told POLITICO in an interview Monday he will run in the recall election should the drive qualify by the mid-March deadline. He will formally announce his campaign Tuesday at a Los Angeles campaign event with parents frustrated by school closures.
"It’s time for the California comeback," Faulconer said. "And I’m excited to be a voice for Californians who are suffering because Sacramento can’t do the basics. This campaign is going to be about restoring balance and common sense to our government."
As a moderate Republican who ran California’s second largest city, Faulconer is regularly viewed as the most viable Republican for statewide office in solidly blue California. But any GOP candidate would face an uphill climb against Newsom — who won in a landslide in 2018 in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans in voter registration by an overwhelming 46 percent to 24 percent.
Faulconer, 54, said he has already raised $1 million in the weeks since he launched his 2022 exploratory campaign for governor. He said that his robust fundraising and support has prompted him to launch earlier than he initially intended as proponents of the recall get closer to collecting the 1.5 million valid signatures they need over the next six weeks.
Few would have given Faulconer a chance a year ago. But recall dynamics defy partisan registrations, as former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proved in 2003 when he came out atop the list of 135 candidates as voters ousted then-Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat.
Meanwhile, Californians have grown frustrated as they approach the anniversary of when Newsom first ordered businesses closed to control the spread of coronavirus. While the governor was once praised for his success in locking down the state and avoiding widespread problems last spring, California has since endured unprecedented surges that raised the death toll past 40,000 in the state.
At the same time, most public schoolchildren have not been in classrooms since last March, while churches in most counties cannot hold indoor services. Restaurants cannot offer indoor dining and movie theaters and major attractions are shut. Newsom angered some residents when he admitted to having attended a fancy dinner party in the Napa Valley in November after urging Californians not to congregate.
Newsom’s perceived vulnerability has drawn interest from other political competitors. Republican businessperson John Cox, who lost to Newsom in 2018, texted supporters this week that he has put in $1 million toward the effort and has proclaimed he will run in the recall. And tech billionaire Chamath Palihapitiya has indicated to his million Twitter followers that he intends to run — though he has not to date contributed money toward the recall or made any formal moves indicating he is serious. Palihapitiya has been a Democratic donor in the past.
Faulconer said the fire behind the current recall effort comes because "there’s a real sense of urgency on the need for change" in the midst of a pandemic in which “the governor continues to botch the basics."
He pointed to “the fact that … our public schools have not been safely reopened. And yet private schools are open and public schools across the country have safely reopened.” Faulconer said Newsom has failed to reach out to teachers unions and address the issue with specifics in a way that serves the needs of California parents.
Faulconer also charged that on the issue of unemployment, "we have hundreds of thousands of Californians who can’t get unemployment relief. And yet we’ve racked up $31 billion worth of fraud," he said, that reportedly has been funneled to inmates and criminal rings through the the state’s Employment Development Department.
A businessperson, Faulconer said the exodus of top tech executives to Texas and other states has also been a chief failure of Newsom and that he would immediately get out the message that “California is open for business," by holding direct discussions with business leaders to assure them that the state will not continue to "take California companies for granted."
Major donors to Faulconer so far include Palos Verdes real estate mogul Gerald Marcil; investor Shawn Shiralian; Kelly Burt, the past chair of the New Majority, San Diego; Rancho Santa Fe builder Douglas Barnhart; and Sacramento real estate executive Philip Oates, according to data on file with the California Secretary of State’s office.
But Faulconer has a serious liability in the form of former President Donald Trump, who was deeply unpopular among California voters even before the deadly Capitol siege last month. Faulconer supported Trump in the last election, and Democrats will be sure to circulate a 2019 Oval Office photo of the former San Diego mayor standing next to the former president. A Faulconer spokesperson soon after that meeting tried to refute Trump’s claim that Faulconer had thanked the president for having built the border wall.
Dan Newman, a political spokesperson for Newsom, dismissed Faulconer’s bid and said "he and all the other GOP Trump supporters" will battle each other while Newsom focuses on vaccine distribution and coronavirus recovery.
"It’s appropriate that he picked Groundhog Day to announce once again that he’s running," Newman said of Faulconer. "He just keeps doing this at the start of each month, waiting vainly for people to pay attention."
Faulconer on Monday repeatedly aimed to seize the mantle of bipartisanship — and resolutely sidestepped questions about some of the more incendiary issues facing his party, including the future of President Trump as a candidate, his impending impeachment trial and the whether the party’s leadership should remain loyal to him.
“I’m not focused on President Trump … he’s no longer president," he said. "I think people are concerned about leadership, and not partisanship," he said, arguing that “I was proud of … the fact that I won mayor twice in a majority Democrats city. I think that speaks volumes about my approach — and my ability to get results.”
On the current story roiling the Republican Party in Washington, D.C. — whether Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a backer of the QAnon conspiracy theories, should be bounced from committee assignments — Faulconer said, “There’s no place for QAnon, period … and I’m focused on what we’re doing as Californians.”
Likewise, Faulconer refused to commit to saying whether, as a Republican governor, he might appoint a Republican to fill the U.S. Senate seat of Dianne Feinstein should she retire before her term ends — a seat that could change the balance of the Senate.
“I made a lot of appointments as mayor of San Diego," he said. “I appointed Republicans and Democrats and independents … I love to appoint qualified great individuals. That’s always been my philosophy."
He said he intends to spend the next months introducing himself to voters around the state with an aggressive statewide campaign.
"We are going to raise the money to be competitive … I’ve proven that," he said. And "I know how to get Republican, Democrat and independent support. That’s what it’s going to take to win the state, and that is what I did as mayor of San Diego."
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