That’s a good question. Let me try to evade you.
Last month, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s re-election campaign guru took to the digital airwaves to proclaim the importance of incumbents defending their record against challengers in public debates.
“I think elected officials, when they’re incumbents, the election is a referendum on them at the end of the day,” strategist Jason Roe said in a March 4 Voice of San Diego podcast. “And I think officials have an obligation to stand and debate and accept criticism, to promote their accomplishments, because the voters at the end of the day are first, in an incumbent election, making a decision on if this person is doing the job that we want them to do.
“So this isn’t me driving, this is the mayor that wanted to do the debate.”
Perhaps the reference to “the debate” was simply a slip of the tongue or a generalization and not a tally of clashes to which the mayor will subject himself. But with less than seven weeks to go before the June 7 primary, the facts are undeniable: One debate on a Spanish-language television station down, two more to go— weeks after ballots drop in voter mailboxes.
Even if Roe believes that incumbents have an “obligation” to debate, he also acknowledged in the podcast, “I mean frankly, if I’m just trying to think strategically about the easiest path to re-election, not doing debates would be fine.”
Naturally, this notion does not sit well with Faulconer’s challengers. On Tuesday, Democratic challenger Ed Harris, a city lifeguard sergeant and former City Council member, issued a press release with the headline, “Faulconer Runs and Hides from Debates.”
“So much for transparency and accountability,” the release begins. “When he was making promises as a candidate for mayor, establishment Republican Kevin Faulconer was anxious to debate. He took part in six televised debates. But now, when he has to explain why most of his campaign promises have been broken, he’s doing everything he can to avoid debates.”
Attached to the release were a series of emails from Roe and campaign manager Francis Barraza declining debate requests from two community groups and a television station.
In one to the La Jolla Town Council, Roe thanks the group for the invitation, but adds, “We have already agreed to three debates which will be televised to give maximum exposure to the San Diego voters…Those are the only three the mayor will be participating in.”
In another to television station CW6, Roe wrote, “Given the multitude of invitations we receive we’ve established the three forums in the release. We will not be adding any additional forums unless the race proceeds to November.”
To the Ocean Beach Town Council seeking confirmation for a debate later this month, Barraza had bad news: “I have reviewed the mayor’s calendar and unfortunately he is not available that date.”
In his release, Harris notes that the remaining two debates will occur “two weeks after absentee voting has already begun” (a May 24 forum hosted by incumbent friendly KUSI and the San Diego Union-Tribune) and “when a majority of ballots will already have been cast” (a June 3 event put on by NBC7 and Voice of San Diego).
“[Roe’s] suggestion that these debates will give ‘maximum exposure’ to the voters of San Diego is like much of Faulconer’s tenure as mayor—smoke and mirrors,” the release charged, adding that media should “demand Faulconer participate in a minimum of six televised debates. If he says no, we encourage the stations proceed without him.”
That doesn’t appear likely, given the reaction the candidates are getting from groups pondering a forum without the incumbent participating. For many community groups, these forums are also membership drivers. Lacking the star participant—the incumbent—tends to lead these groups to pass on organizing an event involving only challengers.
“That’s the reaction we’re getting,” said Michael Kreizenbeck, campaign manager for the other challenger, former state Assemblymember Lori Saldaña, who is running as an independent.
Kreizenbeck said the list of rejected forum organizers includes a local organization of architects, the League of Women Voters, the Catfish Club and one proposed for San Diego State University, Faulconer’s alma mater.
“Without the incumbent, who everyone normally asks first, there’s not much reason to do one,” Kreizenbeck said. “Unfortunately, these groups give up before they get to us.”
Even when there is a debate, Faulconer seems somehow to avoid direct questioning. During the first debate last week on Spanish-language network Univision, delays in translating the discussion forced the station to cut two segments from the hour-long forum (a half hour broadcast live and another half-hour live-streamed online), including the portion where each candidate would have an opportunity to ask a question of their competition.
“We learned a lot,” news director Lourdes Sandoval told Spin Cycle. “Last time we had a debate it was [city councilmember] David Alvarez and Mayor Faulconer, so only one translation was needed because Mr. Alvarez speaks Spanish fluently. It was easier and really fast paced. This time we found with three candidates, it was a challenge. There were some gaps where the candidates were speaking over each other, and the translation was terrible. We slowed down the pace so the translators could do their job.”
When Alvarez and Faulconer ran for mayor to replace Bob Filner in 2014, the two sides agreed to six televised debates, although one was canceled when Alvarez felt a proposed moderator was biased.
Former councilmember Donna Frye said she recalled “at least 10 or more” pre-primary debates with eventual mayoral victor Jerry Sanders and nine others in 2005—“morning debates and evening debates and TV debates and radio debates.”
City attorney candidate Gil Cabrera said he’s participated in a half-dozen debates with another eight pending prior to June 7. “I feel like we’ll do more than three in the two-week period surrounding today,” he said.
So why such a debate drought in the mayor’s race? Fear of Faulconer’s minimum-wage veto coming up? Roe, in the podcast, said that won’t be “a vote-determinative issue for most voters.” But Harris countered that a recent poll he heard about suggested that Faulconer “was there when minimum wage passed.”
Oh, he was there all right. Just not participating.