"A politician's words reveal less about what he thinks about his subject than what he thinks about his audience."
—George F. Will
Two-plus weeks into the Kevin Faulconer mayoral administration, and already state Republicans are hoisting up the Blond Bland One as 2018 governor fodder? Really?
Well, heck, why not? If progressive-minded voters decide that staying home for all but presidential elections is the way to go, anything's possible. And who can blame California right-wingers for dreaming, given their pathetic track record in recent years?
Still, the question remains, is the Faulconer Phenomenon a one-trick pony? Or is it scalable for a broader political assault statewide against a backdrop of shrill Tea Party bravado? In other words, can a man who stiffens at the thought of an ideological discussion take his show on the road and succeed?
In an article for Campaigns & Elections last week, Faulconer's Washington D.C.-based TV-ad creator talked about the challenge of helping a "wooden" Republican candidate appeal to moderates.
"We understood it wasn't Faulconer's issues that needed to be sold, it was Kevin himself," wrote Sam Dealey, the managing principal at Monument Communications and formerly editor of the conservative Washington Times.
"We wanted him to be distracted," Dealey continued. "If he was going to speak to camera, we made sure he spoke to someone just off-camera, and in his kitchen. If he was going to be walking somewhere, we wanted him to be walking and talking with someone he knew well."
Dealey said they even mounted cameras in his car "and just drove around San Diego, talking."
What they were trying to avoid, Dealey explained, was what came across from Faulconer's previous campaign ads, which he described as "by the book" straight-into-the-camera clips of the candidate rambling on about pension reform and the occasional "walk-in-the-park cutaway." The technique, Dealey surmised, "wasn't working for Faulconer, who appeared uncomfortable and wooden."
The "docu-style" technique used in the most recent ads, Dealey wrote, allowed Faulconer's "rote sound bites" to disappear "in the give-and-take of a real conversation. He was relaxed, engaging and authentic.
"And when we told Faulconer the cameras were turned off, that's when he really came through."
Contacted by Spin, Dealey declined to go into more detail publicly about the challenges of his task, nor what this might mean for the new mayor, given that press conferences rarely occur in a mayor's kitchen or involve surreptitious videotaping.
Talk to local media types privately about covering Faulconer, and the overwhelming reaction is something akin to an eye-roll, followed by a pantomime of a nap. Boring, in other words. Highly choreographed. Little to no divergence from message, sometimes to ridiculously awkward levels.
About the only issue upon which Faulconer so far has shown some teeth is SeaWorld, a company he knows well from his public-relations days that, as Spin noted in previous columns, Faulconer found so discomforting talking about during the campaign.
He has clearly shown his irritation with state Assemblymember Richard Bloom, a Democrat from Santa Monica, who's proposed a bill that would ban not only captive breeding but also the use of orcas at the politically connected San Diego theme park for "entertainment or performance purposes."
It's a technique Faulconer falls back on frequently to stay on message: Highlight the economic significance and ignore the moral dilemma—whether it's an industry's environmental impact on residents in a neighborhood like Barrio Logan or if highly intelligent animals belong cooped up at a for-profit tourist mecca. Apparently in Faulconer's world, there is no room for ideological debate, only ones involving dollars and cents.
That's an interesting precipice from which to govern, because it appears to discount exactly what his handlers used to catapult him into the Mayor's office—the emotional claims that his opponent cared little for neighborhoods beyond his south-of-8 sphere being arguably the most damaging. And yet, these are the same people he now surrounds himself with as he sets sail as mayor.
Dealey wrote that when he met Faulconer, "I got the sense he was a politician in the Romney mold," someone who "preferred the nuts and bolts of administration to the preening and baby kissing of the trail. This is a man, after all, who attended City Hall meetings as a kid—for fun."
In other words, it's the perfect antidote to the wild unpredictability of the Bob Filner era, which seemed fueled by theoretical discussions. That lack of discipline had its severe downsides, clearly, but it also returned Balboa Park's Plaza de Panama back to pedestrian use swiftly and cheaply. Spin doubts that would have occurred under the disciplinarian authority of a Faulconer or a Carl DeMaio.
In his article, Dealey contended that it was his company's TV ads— from the initial Spanish-speaking spot to the Father Joe Carroll homelessness strolls and the kitchen-table chats—that "helped take Faulconer from a nail-biting edge to a commanding lead."
Spin has no idea how much tape remained on the cuttingroom floor in order to pull out a few 30-second spots' worth of humanizing Faulconer moments, but governing leaves little room for second takes.
Perhaps San Diego will never be a progressive city. It certainly seems there are enough wealthy people in town who, when faced with even a hint of a more level playing field, will shell out the dough to play to the darkest human emotions.
But if Faulconer is truly a nuts-and-bolts guy, he must demonstrate to all San Diegans that he's listening. Most engaged citizens understand that trickery is an ingredient of political campaigns, but they are intolerant of its use for governing.
San Diegans want to see results. They want to know they've had a fair hearing. That's Faulconer's challenge in the unforgiving spotlight going forward, whether here or in Sacramento. No smart D.C. ad man will change that.