Oct. 16 2013 10:48 AM

Props, but not endorsements, from former bosses

Kevin Faulconer, in a 2012 photo
Photo by David Rolland
"Public-relations specialists make flower arrangements of the facts, placing them so that the wilted and less attractive petals are hidden by sturdy blooms."

—Alan Harrington

Most biographical sketches of San Diego City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer seem truncated. Born in Oxnard, student-body president at his alma mater San Diego State University, and two-term District 2 representative seem the typical highlights.

But for more than a decade prior to his 2006 special-election council victory to replace Michael Zucchet, Faulconer did public relations. Viewed by his colleagues as a handsome, affable, ambitious employee, Faulconer dove into projects with a zest that impressed his superiors.

Karen Hutchens—Faulconer's boss from 1996 until his election 10 years later at Nelson Communications Group and its successor, NCG Porter Novelli, the megafirm that purchased the local PR shop—remembered first meeting him at the National Republican Convention in San Diego in 1996.

"He was working for Solem & Associates in San Francisco at the time, but he really wanted to move to San Diego," Hutchens told Spin Cycle. "He was very impressive—an articulate, bright, ambitious, knowledgeable individual with a strong expertise in what he did."

Faulconer joined the firm as a senior associate and was soon working with Sharp HealthCare on a proposed expansion of Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa, Hutchens said.

But where Faulconer seemed to shine, she said, was when he was assigned to lead the 1998 election campaign to expand the San Diego Convention Center. The City Council at the time had approved a financing plan for the expansion, but a referendum forced a public vote that year. The public had become leery of such deals after the council had approved a new lease agreement with the San Diego Chargers to expand what's now Qualcomm Stadium.

Facing a distrustful public, Faulconer led the marketing campaign that swept through the city, Hutchens said. In the end, Proposition A won by a landslide, and the rest, as they say, is history.

While marketing was Faulconer's forte, he did once register briefly as a lobbyist in 2001. Hutchens said her memory of that time is vague now, but Faulconer's lobbying client was his old college stamping grounds, the Associated Students of San Diego State University, the school's student-governance organization.

Hutchens said Faulconer's job was to calm the fears of neighbors who worried that expansion of the college—from a new parking structure to a sports arena—would overwhelm the community. "He was the leader of many meetings with neighbors," she said. "I think it's the common theme about Kevin: He's very good at bringing diverse interests together for a common cause."

So, naturally, he would now make a good mayor, right?

Hutchens paused, then said diplomatically, "I have the highest regard for Kevin, but last year I made a strong investment in Nathan Fletcher's campaign. It pains me that these two are going head-to-head this year. But my feeling is that for vision, leadership and experience, I think Nathan is the stronger candidate at this time."

Same goes for Bob Nelson, for whom Nelson Communications Group was named. While he sold the company years ago, Nelson still considers Faulconer his closest friend among the mayoral frontrunners.

Nelson described Faulconer as the "photographic negative opposite" of former Mayor Bob Filner, whom he described as "more of an arsonist who was willing to throw a firebomb into the room" but lacked adequate firefighting skills.

"That's not what you get with Kevin," Nelson told Spin Cycle in a phone interview from Istanbul, Turkey, where he's vacationing. "In many ways, he's the ideal Republican candidate. For people who like stability and predictability, he's a lot like the stock market. Some people like to invest in what they feel is going to produce a reliable return."

But for all his personal flaws, Filner did raise the bar on the idea of doing the traditionally impossible in staid San Diego. "I just think Fletcher is the right guy now to carry out bold initiatives, and Kevin is more akin to [former Mayor Jerry] Sanders. More predictable," said Nelson, who now serves as a port commissioner, thanks in no small part to Faulconer's recommendation.

Nelson, who said he helped guide Faulconer "over a long period of time" to be more supportive of LGBT issues, did acknowledge that his decision to support Fletcher's mayoral run was "painful for me," but in politics "you support someone who you think is the right person at the right time."

Mike McDade, an attorney now semi-retired but at one time arguably the most powerful lobbyist in San Diego, worked with Faulconer during his PR days, including on the convention-center expansion.

While he said that, at the time, "the furthest thing from my thoughts would have been that Kevin would some day be running for mayor," McDade said he's watched Faulconer grow into someone more knowledgeable about San Diego over the last couple years.

"I thought he needed more seasoning, and it's proved to be true," the former chief of staff to Mayor Roger Hedgecock told Spin. "He stopped being sort of a knee-jerk Republican and started getting in-depth into the issues. He was also willing to step forward and take a leadership role, particularly regarding Mission Bay and, more recently, the Filner situation."

McDade said he's backing Faulconer in this race, but he agrees that the candidate won't be admired in every community. "I can't say he's become the advocate for all of the low-income districts in San Diego," he said. And while McDade—a former port commissioner himself—can see both sides to the argument now bubbling forth over land uses in Barrio Logan, he said the issue isn't as Henny Penny for businesses as Faulconer portrays it.

"For shipbuilders, [new zoning] might make it inconvenient for them, but I don't think it's in any way a death knell for them," he said.

While Faulconer campaign spokesperson Tony Manolatos took exception to claims that his candidate can't be bold—he pointed to Mission Bay among examples—he did say that Faulconer is who he is.

"We're running Kevin right down the middle," Manolatos said. "We're not going to reinvent him." 

Got a tip? Send it to johnl@sdcitybeat.com or follow John R. Lamb on Twitter @johnrlamb.


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