As random shoppers hustle across a sizzling Mission Valley parking lot toward the air-conditioned innards of a Ralph's supermarket, a man approaches and offers an introduction. “Hello, I'm Steve Francis and I'm running for mayor of San Diego,” he says.
Some people just blow by without looking up; others slow their pace only to explain that they already support another candidate. But a handful stop to meet Francis and hear his spiel.
Francis, 50, is the executive chairman and founder of AMN Healthcare, a San Diego company that provides temporary nurses to hospitals across the country. Prior to starting AMN, he served two terms in the Nevada state Legislature in the 1980s, rising to the rank of Republican majority leader before moving to San Diego County in 1987.
But today, Francis, a multimillionaire, is focused on two well-honed themes. The first, because he's been busy running AMN, he's an “outsider” with a business perspective and approach. And second, because he plans to largely finance his own campaign-published reports have suggested he may spend more than $1 million to get elected-he won't be beholden to any “special interests.”
His message plays well with those who stop to listen, and in just a few hours Francis and his campaign staff collect hundreds of signatures supporting his candidacy. It's an indication of the electorate's willingness to listen to a fresh face and an impressive showing during the first official public outing of Francis' campaign. It also has to be a bit of a relief because so far things haven't gone very well.
Two days earlier, Francis managed to parlay what should have been considerable media coverage of his campaign kickoff into a public-relations snafu.
After concluding his introductory speech, Francis turned his back on the sizeable crowd of media and supporters assembled outside City Hall and bolted in the opposite direction. Flanked by campaign staffers, he nearly made it across the plaza before the media gave chase. The pursuit careened through a security checkpoint and up one floor in the City Administration building before coming to an abrupt halt in the City Clerk's office. As Francis waited at the counter to file his candidacy papers, a throng of reporters asked questions but Francis just ignored them, staring off into space
After several bizarre minutes, Francis huddled with his high-priced political consultant, George Gorton, before escaping to the office of Bonnie Stone, the clerk's elections analyst, for candidate orientation. On the other side of the counter, Gorton-who has helped Arnold Schwarzenegger and Boris Yeltsin, the first democratically elected president of Russia, win office-tried to convince the press that Francis' mute act wasn't anything worth reporting, while his cohorts were overheard in an adjacent hallway concocting a plan to spin the unfolding fiasco. And when one Francis media liaison approached a veteran Union-Tribune reporter to find out why everyone was so taken aback, the reporter made it simple for her and everyone else in the room.
Holding a press event announcing a mayoral candidacy without fielding questions “is like not having sex on your wedding night,” he said.
It didn't take long for an apologetic Francis to reappear.
“I had an appointment here at 11:10 with Bonnie and I just wanted to make sure that I'm always on time,” he said before answering a few questions. And while it should have ended there-with Francis blaming the entire incident on his unwillingness to be tardy-somehow it didn't.
Later that afternoon, a reportedly chagrined Francis called various media outlets, offering up a different explanation. This time he told reporters that his campaign staff hadn't wanted him to answer questions, but, after seeing the media's irritation, he overruled them and reversed course.
The dual explanations had many wondering why a man who had just hours before promised, “No more excuses. No more double talk,” would attempt to peddle exactly that.
As one member of the local press corps put it, given the current climate at City Hall, telling a lie to the media is a really awful way to start a campaign.
Back in the Ralph's parking lot, Francis admitted the incident was a mistake. However, he insists it ultimately showcased his leadership abilities. “I think that's what leadership is about,” he said. “To be able to look at a situation, decide that we are going down a wrong path and to reverse that and go the right direction.”
Although Francis won't specify how much he plans to spend on his campaign, he says he's not afraid he'll be seen as attempting to buy the mayor's office, but, rather, ensuring independent leadership.
“You know the thing about using your own money, the nice thing about it, is that you know there will be no accusations that you are beholden to anybody,” he said. “This city is a nest of special interests... so I think using my own funds is a plus in this election.”
When pressed, Francis defined special interests as “people or organizations who are trying to exert their influence over elected officials.” In San Diego, he said, that includes developers, professional sports teams and labor unions.
But a list of endorsements published on Francis' campaign website-the list has since been removed-reveals that at least half of those 18 endorsements are from big-name developers. Francis downplayed the list's importance, saying that it was “raw” and that those names may have simply been collected at a single campaign event sponsored by real-estate mogul Doug Manchester.
“It's not an indication of anything.”
Francis could already be gaining ground in the race. A recent poll of registered voters conducted by Datamar Inc. ranked him fourth among mayoral candidates with the support of 9 percent of respondents, but because budget analyst Carl DeMaio withdrew from the race last week, Francis is now in third behind City Councilmember Donna Frye (31 percent) and former Police Chief Jerry Sanders (21 percent). Just hours after DeMaio withdrew, Francis was courting his supporters, estimated to comprise 10 percent of the total electorate.
If that poll offers a snapshot of a race in which Francis admits to being the underdog and Frye is widely expected to capture the most votes but not enough to win the July 26 primary outright, the endorsement of the Republican Party of San Diego will certainly impact who else makes it to the general election. On June 13, 65 members of the party's central committee will choose between Sanders, Francis and a handful of other Republican candidates.
Jonathan Buettner, party chief operating officer, said the victor will inherit an already established neighborhood-precinct program and considerable financial resources while the others will get nothing.
Buettner reported that all of the candidates, with the exception of Sanders, have begun lobbying committee members for their support. And according to the missing list of endorsements from Francis' website, he already has at least one of their votes.