The new Steve Francis

By CityBeat Staff

Who are you, and what have you done with that conservative rich guy?

Is it possible that San Diegans crave a mayor who thinks, talks and acts like Donna Frye—but isn't Donna Frye?Presumably, Republican mayoral candidate Steve Francis has done his polling. If so, he's learned that San Diegans are nervous about the establishment insiders with whom Mayor Jerry Sanders has surrounded himself, and that they believe their government has walled itself off from the public's prying eyes, and that they actually give a damn about what's happening to the working poor and lower-middle class in this town.

Whatever the case, Francis has spun himself around 180 degrees from the direction he was heading when last we saw him running for mayor, deciding that the only possible way to beat Sanders is by sprinting to the far left of him.Ladies and gentlemen, meet the new and improved Steve Francis: Mr. Populist, Mr. Open Government, Mr. Friend of the Working Poor.

And Mr. Friend of Donna Frye.

If it weren't for the hairspray-slick 'do and the pinstripe suit, Francis would have been almost unrecognizable last Thursday night at the meeting of the Broadway Heights Community Council, held in the comfy living room of Jo Ann and Thomas Vance and attended by a racially diverse group. So far, Francis has held events and met with community groups in neighborhoods—Hillcrest, Fox Canyon, Broadway Heights—where Democrats are in large supply. These areas are ripe for the picking, as Robby Robinson, chair of the Broadway Heights Community Council, made clear while introducing Francis, commenting that Sanders has largely forgotten about the District 4 community.

One of the very first comments out of Francis' mouth was “Donna Frye… is a friend of mine,” and he repeated her name several times more. He told the group that if he could take back his 2005 endorsement of Sanders and give it to Frye, he would. “I believe that she was right,” he added. When pressed, however, Francis said he wouldn't be as quick as Frye was to place a tax increase on the table, a bit of Frye honesty that pretty much doomed her mayoral bid.

Nevertheless, Francis pushed all the populist buttons that night, asserting a commitment to deal with homelessness (and touting his affiliation with Father Joe Carroll); railing on the “downtown political elite,” well-connected developers and hoteliers and casino-owning Indian tribes; focusing attention on crumbling roads and deteriorating water pipes; criticizing abuses of eminent-domain law; pledging support for a living wage and universal broadband in underserved communities; and proposing the establishment of enterprise zones to encourage economic investment in lower-income neighborhoods.

So focused was Francis on Joe Lunchbox and his family that the folks seated on the Vances' couch were probably wondering who this imposter was and what he'd done with the real Steve Francis—you know, the conservative rich guy who sauntered to the right of Sanders three years ago.

Francis acknowledged his lofty tax bracket and his north-of-8 zip code Thursday, and said he feels “a special responsibility” to bring attention, tax dollars and private investment south of San Diego's great “economic divide.”The stated purpose of Francis' talk was to highlight the “Inspiring a New Urban Renaissance” section of his grand vision statement (available for perusal at The grand Francis plan is a detailed policy paper on just about every issue under the sun: environmental protection, the city's pension mess, small business, schools, water, healthcare, balanced budgets, law enforcement, job outsourcing, transportation and even tax credits for working families. It's filled with references to programs he says have worked elsewhere: New York City, San Francisco, Atlanta, Phoenix, Seattle, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, San Jose, the city and county of Los Angeles and the state of Kentucky.

But lest you think Francis has gone all squishy liberal on us, we should note that his policy director is Vince Vasquez, the prototypical young Republican free-market evangelist and big-government skeptic who's also a senior policy analyst for Francis' conservative think tank, San Diego Institute for Policy Research. A quick Google search on Vasquez turns up commentaries assailing government-funded wi-fi projects (Capitalism Magazine) and extolling the virtues of genetically modified agricultural crops (San Diego Business Journal).

What Francis is doing is an impersonation of either Barack Obama (who believes Democrats, Republicans and independents should all hold hands and sing “We Are the World”) or Mitt Romney (who'll say anything to get elected).Local progressives aren't sure what to make of it all. “The question is—would you rather have a moderate [Sanders] that governs far to the right to hold on to his base, or a conservative that governs to the middle [Francis] in order to stay popular?” said local labor chief Lorena Gonzalez. “It's a toss-up.”

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