Just one-sixth of his 29 staff members are white, heterosexual males. He founded a nonprofit called One San Diego that raises money for laptops and after-school programs in underprivileged areas. A booming economy has allowed Faulconer to add community-center hours across the city as well as to break ground on a $13 million new library in a low-income neighborhood. He also makes most of his major announcements in communities of color, paying particular attention to southeastern San Diego, the city’s seat of black political power, which has also seen a major influx of Latinos in recent years. At a holiday toy giveaway in the neighborhood recently, Faulconer easily toggled between English and Spanish—he started learning the language in grade school—while speaking to families in the crowd.
As a Republican in a blue city, it doesn’t hurt that Faulconer is seen as competent and easy to get along with. When he was on the City Council, Faulconer became close with Tony Young, a black Democrat who represented the city’s southeastern neighborhoods. After Faulconer won the mayor’s race, he appointed Young to lead his transition team. Faulconer’s push to improve communities of color, Young said, is sincere. “It has to be the right plan of engagement, and it also has to be the right person,” Young said. “It can’t be fake. People know when it’s fake. Kevin really wants to do this.”
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But feel-good projects and a commitment to diversity won’t be enough if Faulconer wants to move the needle for urban Republicans. Khalid Alexander, a community-college professor and the head of an activist group called Pillars of the Community, told me there’s little difference in what Faulconer has done for the black community versus his Republican predecessors—Faulconer just has more black leaders surrounding him.
On the campaign trail two years ago, Alexander recalled, Faulconer headed into a black barbershop for a conversation with neighborhood leaders. Faulconer brought along some prominent black supporters. The talk turned to the police department’s well-publicized racial-profiling problem, and Faulconer was asked what he would do about it. Faulconer, Alexander said and the barbershop owner affirmed, replied that the answer to racial profiling was to hire more police officers—a bit of a non sequitur that troubled the crowd. The black leaders with Faulconer asked him if he was sure that was what he meant. Faulconer said it was. At that point, Alexander said, the air went out of the room. (Faulconer, for his part, recalls saying that racial profiling would not be tolerated and that the city needs more diverse cops.)
“There’s a clear disconnect between the way he sees the world and the way the black community and Southeast San Diego sees itself,” Alexander said.
And Faulconer’s party, he said, isn’t the issue. “If people saw him as a Republican doing things for southeast San Diego, I don’t think people would have a problem voting for him,” Alexander said. But Faulconer’s agenda is bereft of any major policy ideas that target the communities he’s trying to engage with.