A Steve Francis handshake is one of those grabs you get when you meet someone who really means business. You just know that his handshake, somehow, somewhere along the line, helped him accumulate his vast wealth. When his grip is released, you instinctively flex your right hand, just to make sure all the bones are still where they're supposed to be.
Francis has energy to spare. If you decline his offer for a cup of coffee, be ready for several repeat offers—it takes three or four for him to accept you really are just “fine, thank you.”
In conversation, Francis clutches his own coffee cup and alternates between lounging relaxed against the back of the couch in his plush office and perching on the front edge of the seat. When he gets going, he sometimes doesn't finish a sentence, or several words get fused together—he's in that much of a hurry to get to his next thought. It's a quality that, if he's not careful, could lead voters to dismiss him as a fast-talking salesman, albeit a charming one.
Formerly a one-term state legislator in Nevada and currently the chairman of AMN Healthcare, the temporary-nurse staffing company he founded with his wife Gayle 20 years ago, Francis ran unsuccessfully for mayor of San Diego in 2005. In that campaign, he was the conservative Republican who pledged to run the city like a business and pushed eventual winner Jerry Sanders to take any and all thought of new taxes off the table as San Diego grappled with the prospect of pension-scandal-fueled bankruptcy. At 53, he's back for a second run, this time running a campaign of much more “depth,” he says. He's embraced liberal City Councilmember Donna Frye, struck a progressive-populist chord and focused on “underserved” communities south of Interstate 8. And he's begun to savage Sanders, portraying him as a lapdog of big-money special interests and someone cut from the same mold as wildly unpopular President George W. Bush.
“Independent” is his campaign's main buzzword this time 'round. He's pledged to take no contributions as he self-finances his run—that will allow him to remain free from the influence of lobbyist fund-raisers and Republican Party mainstays who've already thrown in with Sanders, anyway.
CityBeat sat down with Francis one recent Friday morning for an 80-minute interview.
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$newpage$Ask Francis why he wants to be mayor, and he'll start by giving you the standard rich-guy boilerplate language about how San Diego's been good to him and his family and how it's his responsibility to give something back. But he doesn't waste much time getting to Sanders, excoriating the mayor for breaking campaign promises—Francis has a list—and doing nothing to reform the city's employee-pension system.
“He's been such a disappointment that I feel like someone needs to step in and right the ship,” he says. “And I feel a special responsibility—I'm about the only one in town who could challenge him at this point and possibly win, and I want to right the ship because I care about this place.”
Francis says that other than getting Prop. B passed in 2006, which requires a public vote for pension-benefit increases, Sanders has neglected to reform the pension system in a way that would make it sustainable over the long haul, such as switching to a 401K-style plan for new hires.
A source intimately familiar with the pension system told CityBeat in an e-mail that the system's health has improved during Sanders' tenure thanks to better stock-market performance—although more troubled waters might be looming—and that Sanders has done little more than increase city payments to the fund. By 2005, “the battle had been fought and all that remained for Jerry was to wander the battle field and finish off (kill) the wounded,” the source quipped.
Francis noted Sanders' inability to get the city back in the public-bond market. Without access to the bond market, the city can't borrow money to finance a backlog of infrastructure improvements. And he ripped Sanders' failure to lay off 10 percent of the city's workforce in order to reduce expenses. “They've cut positions—they're vacant positions that they've cut,” he says. “They haven't cut any people. We don't think they've cut anybody. We're looking into that right now.”
Francis wants to exploit what he says is an exodus of high-level members of Sanders' management team, portraying those who have departed as people with integrity and those who have remained as political henchmen and women. In the former group are people like Ronne Froman, the retired Navy admiral whom Sanders hired to run the day-to-day affairs of the office, and Lance Wade, Sanders' former head of purchasing and contracting. After resigning, Froman told voiceofsandiego.org that she'd been asked to oversee political functions in the mayor's office, and she expressed a certain distaste for that part of her job. Wade told the Union-Tribune that he was asked to resign and that Froman's replacement, Jay Goldstone, told him that he wasn't “political enough.”
“What happened is that the organization became very political, and so the good people either quit or they were fired,” Francis says. “It's tragic what they've turned themselves into.”
He notes that Sanders pledged to run a transparent government, yet he's been widely criticized—particularly by City Councilmember Donna Frye—for holding information close to the vest. “You know as well as I do that he's had the most secretive, button-down administration of any mayor in San Diego history. All information has to go through [communications director] Fred Sainz. Everything's been clamped down. That's not what he campaigned on.”
But what really riles Francis is what he calls Sanders' “pay-to-play” system, in which the “special interests” that have contributed to Sanders' campaigns get special access. Francis will make no friends in the real-estate and tourism businesses during this campaign. He lumps them together whenever he talks about what he believes is wrong with San Diego. You hear a lot from Francis about San Diegans for City Hall Reform, a independent group that formed a couple of years ago to help Sanders pass Props. B and C—Prop. C, which Francis supported, allowed the city to outsource additional jobs to the private sector—and has since been raising money for a campaign to increase power in the mayor's office. The group has received significant contributions from developers and hoteliers.
“His organization downtown is the most special-interest-ridden group I've ever seen,” Francis said. “It's unbelievable.”He says the “poster child” of Sanders' treatment of campaign contributors is Sunroad Enterprises—a development company that was famously allowed to build an office tower in Kearny Mesa that exceeded federal aviation height guidelines—and, he adds, “we all know what's going on in Otay Mesa.”
Francis is referring to an ongoing update of the Otay Mesa Community Plan that has been funded by a coalition of housing developers who want to convert some industrial land near the port of entry at the Mexico border to residential land. Francis says the area should remain industrial because residential encroachment would lead to conflicts over air and noise pollution from heavy truck traffic and endanger industry. Good, job-rich industrial land is thought to be in short supply in San Diego.
“Why mess that area up for short-term profit for developers and for development that's probably not a good idea because of air quality?” he asks.
Short of money to pay for the plan update, the city has allowed the developers to finance it. Sanders' planning staff insist that their analysis of the plan will be above board.
Francis doesn't buy it. “You look at the contributions that were given to San Diegans for City Hall Reform—they are some of the biggest developers for that area. So, this is what I mean—it's pay-to-play. Sunroad was an example, Otay Mesa is an example, of the shenanigans that are going on right now, and I'm sick of it. And I'm the only guy who wears a business suit who's willing to speak out against it.”
CityBeat will endeavor to get Sanders' take on these criticisms as soon as possible.Defeating an incumbent mayor is a tall order, but Francis thinks he can compete once he reintroduces himself to voters. He says he's done “informed” polling, in which respondents are reminded that Francis is the businessman from the 2005 campaign, and once that seed is planted, the gap between Sanders and Francis is eliminated.
It remains to be seen whether voters will remember the 2005 Francis once he fully rolls out the 2008 model. After all, the new version is trying to attach itself to the hip of Councilmember Frye, against whom Francis ran in 2005. When he met recently with the Broadway Heights Community Council, “Donna Frye is a friend of mine” was one of the first sentences out of his mouth.
“What I knew about Donna Frye before I met her is what the Republican establishment put out about her, and the business establishment put out about her,” Francis says. “So, I bought in to the concept that she was somebody who was radical and bad for the city.”
That concept was wrong, and he grew to admire Frye.
“I didn't always agree with her, but I respected her, and I found her to be someone who had a lot of common sense,” he says. “Whenever she talks, she actually backs it up—it's not rhetoric, it's actual substance.”
Francis and Frye have met for lunch on a couple of occasions at Maria's Mexican Restaurant, Frye's favorite downtown spot, to talk politics and policy. “We're finding that as time goes on, and we get to know each other better and better and talk, that we agree on a lot more than we disagree.”
Frye has told CityBeat that she doesn't plan to endorse a candidate for mayor this year.
Francis says he has not undergone a miraculous transformation. He says he's always been a populist—we just didn't see that side in 2005 because the campaign then was all about the city's dire financial straits.
One way this campaign will be a little different, he says, is that it'll focus less on blaming people—other than Sanders, of course—for past mistakes. In 2005, Francis says, he was too harsh on city employees.
“It's like a bad relationship, you know, at some point, you gotta give it up and move forward, and so I'm not going to be beating up on the unions and the city employees, or I'm not going to be beating up on the past City Council,” he says. “What I'm going to say is let's move forward and get everybody together and see if we can solve the problem. That's the difference.”
Francis says he's “always been somebody who feels for people who are underserved or who have had a bad break in life.”
For evidence, he points to his stint in the Nevada Legislature, when, he says, he fought on behalf of renters. “They called me Mr. Renter,” he says, reading from a campaign brochure that touted his renters' rights work. “This is from the Las Vegas Review-Journal: ‘Mr. Renter proud of title.'”
And his “landmark legislation,” he says, was AB 400. Passed in 1985, it created the Nevada Commission on Mental Health and Developmental Services.
“Some of my constituents had come to me and said that their family members had been abused in the mental-health system, so I started looking into this thing,” Francis says. “It was horrible. It was like the Dark Ages in Nevada, so I brought this to the administration's attention, and they said, ‘We have a model system…. People come and look at our system from all over the country,' which is total horsesh—crap.
“That commission that oversees the mental-health department and mental-retardation system in Nevada is still in existence today. So, I have a history of legislatively helping the little guy.”
Francis has recently opened his eyes to how the little guy's been treated in San Diego, and he says he hasn't liked what he's seen. People who live in Carmel Valley, as he does, don't spend much time south of Interstate 8, he says, but they do when they run for mayor, “and I'm realizing how neglected this area of our city really is.”
For example, he says, “I was shocked when I found out that there's a side street near Lincoln High School in which the kids and the parents want a sidewalk put in down there, and they fought and they asked, and they couldn't get anything, and [the city] finally put an asphalt sidewalk [in there] for them, which is just, like, a little hump of asphalt that they've leveled off at the top for the kids to walk on. Now, would that happen in Carmel Valley? Would that happen in La Jolla? Hell no would it happen there. But they can get away with doing it to those people down there.”Francis is quick to point out that he's the chairman of the board of Father Joe's Villages, the homelessness charity, and that he and his wife once funded a production of The Laramie Project, a play about the 1998 murder of gay 21-year-old Matthew Shepard in Wyoming.
Francis is trying to walk a fine line on the politics of homosexuality. One of his first events after announcing his candidacy was a meet-and-greet in Hillcrest. There, members of his campaign staff noted that while Francis is against gay marriage—setting himself apart from Sanders, who last year very publicly and very emotionally announced that his daughter's homosexuality helped him decide to change his mind and led him to support same-sex marriage—this conservative Republican wasn't afraid to hold an event in a largely gay neighborhood.
“Even though I'm against same-sex marriage, my wife and I are very pro-gay rights,” he offers.
But how can one be against same-sex marriage and pro-gay rights at the same time?
“Because I think everybody has human rights, and to discriminate against somebody for those basic rights is wrong,” he says. “But when you get into marriage, it gets into a religious and cultural situation in which I think it's very destructive to the family. I think we want to promote a culture in which we have families, we have moms and dads and we have children.”
Gay marriage is destructive to heterosexual families?
“No,” he amends. “Same-sex marriage goes against our Judeo-Christian culture, and because of that, I think that it's not the right time for it. Who knows about 20 years from now or 30 years from now, but right now, I don't think it's something that we ought to be pursuing as a culture and society.”So, he's not yet completely evolved as a social progressive, but he's showing vital signs as an economic progressive.
His support of managed competition, where certain city functions are opened up to competition among city workers and private companies, doesn't make progressives feel particularly warm and fuzzy about him. City workers enjoy decent health benefits, and the concern among progressives is that companies that win service contracts won't have to provide that same level of pay and access to healthcare.
The city has a living-wage ordinance on the books—$10.34 per hour plus health benefits for contract workers, or $12.41 per hour without benefits—but Murtaza Baxamusa, research and policy director of the Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI), a progressive think tank, notes that the $2.07 differential isn't enough to pay for healthcare these days. “Thus, it may be cheaper for employers to pay the wage differential than pay for health insurance,” he said in an e-mail to CityBeat. He said a publication CPI will soon release “will show that it costs $829 per month for a two-parent family with two children to get basic health insurance in San Diego. That's $4.88 per hour assuming full-time year-round employment.”
What's more, Baxamusa says, not all of the functions opened up to competition will be covered by the living-wage ordinance.
For his part, Francis says he supports the living-wage law and favors managed competition only because he believes it will result in increased productivity.
“I'm not for bringing in low-wage workers for low benefits,” he says. “What you want to do is you want to mandate that certain city employees have a certain wage level and benefit package. You want to mandate that for the private companies coming in—or close to it—so when they come in, they are competing on productivity, not on wages and benefits.”
In his interview with CityBeat, he couldn't support that sort of policy fast enough.
“Would you back that up with a specific policy…” he was asked.
“… that would mandate…”
“… that you have to…”
“Yes, yes and yes.”
“… you have to have benefits to get that contract?”
Speaking of CPI, the organization has compared San Diego to other large California cities and found that it's a relatively low-tax town. No conservative Republican worth his salt is going to go along with that kind of talk, so Francis makes it clear that he does not recommend raising taxes. But he does acknowledge that revenue isn't keeping up with expenses, so, inevitably, the conversation leads Francis to places where savings can be found.
He goes first to pension-system reform and then quickly to the Centre City Development Corp., the agency that administers redevelopment downtown. He says he agrees with Frye that CCDC ought to take over repayment of Petco Park construction bonds so that the burden is taken away from the city's general fund and given to the redevelopment agency, which derives its funding from property-tax revenue generated from redevelopment projects.
Francis isn't likely to make many new friends among the CCDC board.
“I find that the CCDC, and all the money that they have, are being greedy, and I think that these ballpark bonds should be paid for by the CCDC,” he says. “Where they chose to put [the ballpark], it was all about redevelopment.
Why is CCDC not picking up those bonds? It's criminal.”
Then he goes back to the villains in the tourism industry.
“I'll tell you what's more criminal: the Tourism [Marketing] District,” he says, referring to the formation last year of a district that will levy additional hotel-room taxes and use the proceeds to market San Diego as a tourist destination.“It's inconceivable to me, and the height of arrogance, for the hoteliers to put through a 2-percent tax on their hotel guests when there's been a vote on this twice—and when there was a vote on this issue, the hoteliers said that if you raise the hotel tax, tourists aren't going to come. But when they're able to use it for themselves and control the money themselves, they're all for it. So even though the voters turned it down twice—because of their campaign—they pushed it through in a way that they didn't need a vote of the people, and that was through the City Council and through the mayor.”
Presumably, then, given that the discussion of the marketing district comes up in a conversation about revenues, Francis would have preferred it if voters had imposed a higher room tax on visitors that would augment the city's general fund, which finances general city services.
He added that while he's not a big fan of borrowing money—it's a tax on future generations of San Diegans, he notes—he laments that selling bonds will be an unfortunate reality, once the city can again do so at reasonable interest rate, thanks to the length of the city's list of deferred maintenance projects.
Opinion polling is a key element of campaigning these days, and Francis has done his share. Asked if his polling has changed his thinking on any policy matters, Francis pauses—and he rarely pauses.
“I'm not going to answer your question because there's no ‘Ah ha!' there, so I don't want you to report that there's an ‘Ah ha!' here,” he says. “I'll tell you something that I was a little surprised with, and this wasn't political polling; this was [San Diego Institute for Policy Research] polling. What we found was that when you start to ask these questions about taxes… I was surprised that the people of San Diego are willing to pay for services that they want as long as they feel the government is reformed. They want good streets. They want libraries and parks, and they want the bathrooms cleaned. They want these things, and they're willing to pay for it. I was always under the impression that people here were totally anti-tax. What I'm finding here is that we have a reasonable population. I do think that they are conservative tax-wise—there's no question about that. But that wasn't as much as I thought it was.
“But let me make myself crystal clear: I am not advocating new taxes,” he stressed.
“You can't ask the people to pay more taxes when they see Sunroad buildings going up, you have a political machine in the mayor's office, when you see they haven't even implemented managed competition, even though it was passed in 2006, when they see people getting fired because they're not political enough, when you see the city attorney and the mayor in a sandbox like little kids fighting. Publicly. Until all this gets stopped, you're not going to hear me talking about that, because it's inappropriate.”$newpage$
Voters might consider it interesting that when Francis is given an opportunity to talk about anything that hasn't yet come up in conversation, the topic he immediately goes to is the environment, which not long ago, was considered anathema to Republican politics.
“We've put forth concrete proposals to help move this city in a direction of being more environmentally sound and friendly, and my goal is—and it's in our plan—that we want to be listed as one of the top 15 cities in the world as far as being environmentally sound and friendly,” he says, noting Grist.org's list of the world's greenest cities.
Francis wants to set a target date—maybe seven, eight, 10 years in the future—for San Diego's inclusion on that list, which is rather ambitious considering that most of the cities on the list are there because of their public transit systems.
“Can it all be done overnight? No. I know that's not realistic,” he acknowledges. “But I think we have to set a goal. I think it's good for tourism. I think it's good for public pride. It's good for just general living to be one of these cities that are the most environmentally sound and friendly cities in the world. And if Austin can get there, we can get there—and they're in Texas, for God's sakes.”
Francis is camping in the political center.
“I'm going to be incredibly and apparently independent. You're not going to see me being beholden to labor. You're not going to see me being beholden to the Chamber of Commerce or the business community,” he says. “I like to think of my ideology as being a little bit more broad than just fiscally conservative Republican, which I am. I like to think of it being a little more open, a little bit more trying to do the right thing.
“I have found in life that when you are dealing with complex issues, or maybe not-so-complex issues, the answer to things is usually in the middle. Usually, both sides have good points. If you get into this divide-and-conquer kind of mentality, then I think it causes dysfunction. Look at George Bush. Look what happens when a Republican ideologue takes the White House.”
And speaking of the president:
“I think that Jerry Sanders has aligned himself—he's sort of the George Bush Republican,” Francis concludes. “I mean, you saw his picture in the paper the other day in the Union-Tribune, with him and George Bush. He takes great pride in hanging around with the president and all the policies that go along with that, and I [don't]. I'm going to run my campaign as sort of the Joe Lieberman of San Diego; I'm going to be the independent candidate.
“I'm not registered independent; if I were to do that, people would think I was really cynical. I've been a Republican all my life, but I'm running as an independent man, independent person, not a George Bush Republican, not somebody who is endorsed by the Republican Party, not somebody who is raising unlimited contributions from the developers and Indian casinos and hoteliers through his San Diegans for City Hall Reform. It's all part of that establishment game, and I'm going to run away from that because I don't want to be part of it.”
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