Mayoral candidates Kevin Faulconer and David Alvarez could face more than just broken sidewalks.
“When I said the city would be stronger, I didn't know that. I just hoped it. There are parts of you that say, 'Maybe we're not going to get through this.' You don't listen to them.'”
— Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York City
Yes, potholes are a big deal. People hate potholes.
And budget shortfalls are a big deal. People hate budget shortfalls, particularly if they lead to libraries and rec centers closings.
That's why when people run for mayor they often talk about filling potholes and closing budget shortfalls.
But the job of mayor is a lot more than just taking care of daily business. Even in pretty, sun-splashed San Diego, you never know what a day could bring:
Wildfires, a mass shooting, an airline disaster, a military jet crash, a cop shot dead …
Council members Kevin Faulconer and David Alvarez may have to take a leadership role that has nothing to do with an uneven balance sheet or a pothole epidemic should they become mayor.
It happened to former Mayor Jerry Sanders, when, in 2007, wildfires swept into San Diego, causing deaths, mass evacuations and the loss of 1,500 homes. But his calm demeanor through the crisis was praised, with the San Diego Union-Tribune comparing him to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Sanders was a former San Diego chief of police who saw considerable adversity in his long career with the police department. Indeed, he was the SWAT leader in 1984 when a gunman opened fire and killed 21 people at a San Ysidro McDonald’s. At the time, it was the nation's deadliest mass shooting.
Yes, cities are safer — crime is down in many of them — but they are vulnerable to horrible acts. Last year's Boston Marathon bombing showed just how vulnerable. And the city's then-mayor, Thomas Menino, helped to rally his city. He was in the hospital recovering from surgery to fix a broken leg when it occurred. He left, even though he was in considerable pain and was taken to events in a wheelchair.
It's unknown how Faulconer or Alvarez would handle such a crisis. But how they handled past challenges may give some clue as to their abilities to lead. So we asked them to think of, well, the unthinkable and how their past experiences could help them if pressed.
Alvarez is 33 and his age has been an issue in this campaign, with some arguing he is simply not ready for such a challenging role. He's a freshmen council member, and that's the only elected position he's held.
But Alvarez says his life experiences have seasoned him. His well-documented life growing up poor in Barrio Logan taught him resilience and perseverance, he said. “Every experience I have had has prepared me for this great opportunity,” he said.
His was not an easy childhood. His older brothers had problems with gangs. One once came home with a gunshot wound. His parents held menial jobs. His mother was a fast-food worker, his father, a janitor.
That kind of hard-scrabble life formed him to be tough and strong-willed, he said. Seeing nearby plants belch pollution made him an advocate for environmental causes at an early age. Indeed, he began attending community meetings as a teen.
His life is the American narrative and he's proud and appreciative of it, he said. He thinks it helps others identify with him. And because of that, he thinks it will help him lead.
Politically, his most challenging effort has been to update the Barrio Logan community plan to create a buffer zone to protect residents from the nearby industries. The City Council narrowly passed it last year, but Alvarez didn't exactly make any friends when working out the compromise to see it through. Some residents didn't think it went far enough in offering protections. And the shipbuilding industry is so upset — calling it a job killer —it's mounting a referendum drive to have it overturned.
“I realize there are no easy decisions,” Alvarez said. “But I believe in keeping a level head and a positive attitude.”
Alvarez admires mayors who aren't afraid to be leaders. He points to former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom for his stance on gay rights and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for his gun control efforts.
“They do things they believe are right,” he said.
Faulconer never had to deal with the kind of economic strife that Alvarez did. He grew up in Oxnard, where his father worked in the city's manager's office. With his mom going to night school, Faulconer spent some evenings at city council meetings.
Faulconer gravitated toward leadership roles at an early age. He was student body president at San Diego State University and, following a stint, in public relations, ran for City Council.
At 46, he's has the longest current tenure on the body, having served nearly eight years. And he points to that experience as the reason he has the ability to handle the duties of the mayor's office, regardless of what it brings.
He noted how he was on the City Council during the 2007 wildfires and took part in the city's response. Daily, he was at Qualcomm Stadium, which had become an evacuation center for fire victims. He sought corporate help in assisting those affected as well, he said.
He's worked with different city and county emergency agencies over the years, so he has that key experience, he said. “I know personally how to act and how you need to act quickly,” he said.
He's had to take action in other emergencies as well. In 2007, a hillside collapsed in Mount Soledad, which is part of his district, damaging more than 80 homes.
Additionally, he was on the City Council when the city had to dig itself out of one of the worst financial situations in its history, Faulconer said. A pension crisis caused by inflated benefits and underfunding had forced cuts in other city services. Faulconer helped champion reforms, which have been implemented, even though some question whether the city is truly out of the woods.
“We needed to make fundamental changes,” he said. “And when you change the status quo, you're going to get fought.”
But one of his biggest battles was over, of all things, beer. Specifically, beer on the beach.
After a melee broke on Pacific Beach on Labor Day, 2007, Faulconer announced the next day he had seen enough: He wanted to stop the long-standing practice of allowing people to drink on public beaches.
Never convinced a ban was needed, he changed positions because he was concerned that public safety was in jeopardy. It was Faulconer's boldest political move. Neither Sanders nor San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne supported a full ban. Polls showed that the populace was virtually split on the issue and passionately so. So, either way, Faulconer was going to upset and potentially alienate half of the city's voting population.
After a one-year temporary ban, city voters approved a permanent ban by a slight margin.
“I made that stand because I thought it was in the best interest of the city,” he said. “After what occurred, it was clear to me we needed drastic change. And I have never looked back.”