Can a Republican mayor beat California Gov. Gavin Newsom?

By Garry South

January 25, 2021

Sacramento bee

For almost three decades, California Republicans have nurtured political fantasies about what I call their “great white hopes” — big-city Republican mayors that they believe would make peachy-keen candidates for statewide office. After all, they were elected and re-elected as chief executives of major, diverse cities. So, what could possibly go wrong if they try to step up to statewide office?

When I moved to California in the early 1990s, the GOP’s great white hope was newly elected San Diego Mayor Susan Golding, the first Jewish chief executive of the state’s second-largest city. Golding, a relatively progressive former San Diego councilmember and county supervisor, was almost instantly considered a potential candidate for governor or United States Senate.

For a while, she lived a charmed political life. She even lured the 1996 Republican National Convention to her balmy city. But her star dimmed, partially because of public anger over a financially disastrous deal to keep the San Diego Chargers in the city. After announcing a run against Sen. Barbara Boxer in the 1998 election, she unceremoniously dropped out in January of that year, after raising less than a million dollars and running a distant third in polls.

Golding’s career as an elected official ended in 2000, with her political obituary drawing this headline in the Los Angeles Times: “Controversy clouds legacy as San Diego mayor leaves office.” A county grand jury had leveled charges against her, alleging back-room dealing with the San Diego Padres — charges later thrown out by the district attorney. But the damage was done. Neither of the mayoral candidates that fall even sought Golding’s endorsement.

Next came Richard Riordan, the retired two-term Republican mayor of Los Angeles. He was lured into the 2002 governor’s race by George W. Bush’s political advisor, Karl Rove. Having been mayor of California’s biggest city, the regionally well-known Riordan started out in public polling 41 points ahead of political novice Bill Simon in the GOP primary.

Riordan was so overconfident about winning the nomination that he spent his time in the primary running ads against Gov. Gray Davis, not against his fellow Republican opponents. But after a clunky campaign in which he made a fool of himself (with assistance from the Davis campaign, which I managed), Riordan was smashed by Simon in the GOP primary, 49% to 31%.

Next came Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a former business executive with an MBA. In 2014, after losing all eight statewide constitutional offices in 2010, Republicans were convinced that Swearengin was their best bet to win a statewide office. Swearengin ran for the open controller’s seat, avoiding a race against a Democratic incumbent.

Republican operatives were particularly gleeful when the leading Democratic candidate, Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, was primaried in the controller’s race by outgoing Assembly Speaker John Pérez. What better fortune than to have an Asian American candidate in a slugfest with a Latino candidate on the Democratic side? But after a close race with Pérez, Yee handily dispatched Swearengin, drawing 54% of the vote to Swearengin’s 46%.

Now we have just-departed San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who has already formed an exploratory committee to run for governor in 2022 and is hinting that he may run in ‘21 if a recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom qualifies for the ballot.

As with Golding, Republicans are citing Pete Wilson as a model for a San Diego mayor to run successfully for governor. But they ignore the actual facts of Wilson’s political history. He first ran for governor in the 1978 Republican primary as the sitting mayor of San Diego. He came in an embarrassing fourth, with a measly 9.3% of the vote. Wilson was elected governor in 1990, but he was a sitting U.S. senator, long gone as mayor of San Diego.

One reason this Republican strategy hasn’t worked is that mayors in California are chosen in non-partisan elections, regardless of how they are registered. But once they decide to run statewide, they have to paste an “R” after their name on the ballot — truly a scarlet letter in deep-blue California, where the GOP is down to only 24% of registered voters.

Another reason is that California has 40 million people and 20 million registered voters. Even the mayor of a big city is scarcely known outside the media market serving their area. Ask people in Los Angeles if they know who the mayor of San Jose is. Ask a person in San Francisco who the mayor of San Diego is. Those are the four biggest cities in California.

After Faulconer left the mayor’s office last month, the San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board graded his whole time in office as a C-minus. Even more damning, it described him as “the latest in a long list of San Diego mayors who have been mediocre or worse.”

Ouch. So welcome, ex-Mayor Faulconer, the latest of the GOP’s great white hopes. Good luck with that.

Garry South is a veteran Democratic strategist who has managed two winning campaigns for governor of California and one for lieutenant governor.