April 15 2015 12:42 PM

You can almost hear the helium hissing out of the local Democratic Party's 2016 balloon

Will Todd Gloria ducking a mayoral run mean minimum wage lays an egg?
Photo illustration by John Lamb

A good statesman, like any other sensible human being, always learns more from his opponents than from his fervent supporters.

—Walter Lippmann

When termed-out San Diego Councilmember Todd Gloria announced his decision last week to seek the seat of outgoing state Assemblymember Toni Atkins, rather than wage battle to be San Diego's mayor, you could almost hear the helium hissing out of the local Democratic Party's 2016 balloon.

At this past weekend's party gala, the annual Roosevelt Dinner, attendees said talk focused on the rising hopes of building Democratic voter turnout. Discussion regarding who might challenge Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer, on the other hand, was limited to idle banter during speeches.

In preaching to the faithful, state Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, who's had to swat away mayoral-run rumors of her own, confirmed that she called on Atkins "in the nicest of ways" to run against Faulconer. "I just don't understand why a Dem with no place else to go wouldn't run," she told Spin Cycle.

Then she added what local Democrats need to ponder long and hard if they make it an easy race for Faulconer: "We are going to lose minimum wage if we give him a free pass."

When the city's referendum-delayed minimum-wage increase to $13.09 an hour was relegated to the (lower-voter-turnout) June 2016 primary, it was believed that a vigorous mayoral challenge opposing the wage hike's most visible detractor, Mayor Faulconer, would be waged simultaneously.

A healthy mayor's race, it was hoped, would also spill into council district races, most notably the tough, conservative-leaning District 1 race to replace termed-out Council President Sherri Lightner. The Democrat's Republican-reliant elevation to that post was seen as a foil to Gloria's mayoral ambitions. Such coordination, and the campaign money that would flow as a result, now seems uncertain.

As one experienced campaign strategist put it privately: "All those resources are basically off the table if you don't have a competitive mayor's race."

So, why are no Democrats champing at the bit to challenge Faulconer? For one reason: some crazy-ass polling. Recent snapshot surveys have Faulconer's approval rating as high as 78 percent.

This shouldn't surprise anyone, really, given the strong tail wind a recovering economy can produce for any sitting elected official. Even the Faulconer fawners on the U-T San Diego editorial board had to admit Monday, when the mayor released yet another goodie-packed city budget, that it's "no doubt a lot more fun to be a mayor who has money to spend than a mayor who doesn't."

One recent poll found Faulconer's "strong" approval rating at only 33 percent, which might suggest that the mayor's support is soft, and that any minefields in his path to re-election—like the Chargers passing on whatever stadium financing plan his task force proposes next month—could sour those numbers quickly.

Favorable poll numbers could also indicate that Faulconer is benefiting, for now, from voters lacking any appetite for yet another bloody mayoral battle— the third in four years. Frequent fluffy coverage from San Diego's mainstream media outlets of the mayor's almost-daily photo-ops doesn't hurt, either.

Richard Barrera, head of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, a prime money-machine for local Democratic candidates and causes, said he thinks a viable challenger to Faulconer will emerge.

Barrera believes support for the local minimum-wage hike is as sky-high as Faulconer's favorable rating, and how the business community approaches its campaign against the wage increase will also reflect on the incumbent mayor.

"I think people know where they stand on minimum wage," Barrera said. "We're a year out, and a lot can happen over the course of a year. I don't think this is a done deal. I don't think the mayor is going to have a free run."

All that can be said with certainty now is that Gloria, arguably the city's most visible defender of the minimum-wage increase, won't be a roadblock for Faulconer.

Gloria has chosen the path of least resistance, where the numbers in the 78th Assembly District pencil out to an anticipated easy slide into state office. In his announcement, Gloria described his long-awaited decision as "an opportunity to go to the next level."

When asked about the race he avoided, however, Gloria sounded less assertive. As he meekly responded to a KGTV reporter last week, "I don't think the time is right for me?" 

For Atkins, she's already established a 2020 campaign committee for state Senate, with an eye towards incumbent Marty Block's seat. Block has already signaled his intentions to run for re-election in 2016. But that hasn't stopped rumors that Atkins is actively seeking a new occupational setting for Block in Sacramento, so she can run sooner. A recent rumor that Block was contemplating a run for city attorney, since denied, had party insiders assuming it came from the Atkins camp.

No one believes Block has any intention of stepping aside, so could Atkins (like Gloria, known to be politically risk-averse) now be waiting to see if the highly choreographed Faulconer trips on any upcoming political booby traps?

"The Speaker is flattered that people think she would do a good job as Mayor," the Atkins camp said in a email statement. "That being said, she is focused on the current job at hand and will consider future plans at a time in the future."

For their part, Gloria defenders think he will remain front-and-center in the minimum-wage debate, despite now jumping into a state race in a district that runs from Imperial Beach to Solana Beach and includes only a portion of San Diego.

"I am certain Todd will make sure there is a vigorous public debate on minimum wage, no matter what office he is seeking," emailed Jen Tierney, Gloria's campaign consultant.

Clare Crawford, executive director of the Center on Policy Initiatives, a key advocate of the wage hike, agreed. "Todd has been an effective leader on minimum wage, and I am quite sure he will continue to play that role."

With recent polls showing nearly two-thirds of likely June 2016 voters supporting the wage hike, Crawford said the better question would be, "Will the current mayor align with what most San Diegans want?" 

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


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