Ex-San Diego mayor’s exploratory team to challenge Newsom raises over $1 million, ' hungry for an alternative'

Californians are ‘ready to elect a new governor’: former San Diego mayor

Kevin Faulconer joins ‘Your World’ as Gov. Gavin Newsom lifts the state’s regional stay-at-home order and efforts to recall the governor reach a key threshold.

Since announcing an exploratory committee earlier this month to challenge California Gov. Gavin Newsom, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer has raised more than $1 million, a figure Faulconer’s campaign manager believes is a sign that Californians are hungry for new leadership.

Faulconer, who was San Diego’s Republican mayor between 2014 and 2020, launched the committee as a petition to recall Newsom over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic was gaining steam. As of Jan. 31, organizers of the recall effort say they have gathered more than 1.2 million signatures out of the required 1.5 million. Their deadline is March 17.

Faulconer’s campaign manager Stephen Puetz told Fox News on Sunday that if any Republican has a chance of ousting a Democratic governor in California, it’s Faulconer.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer participates in the San Diego Pride Parade at Balboa Park on July 14, 2018 in San Diego, California.  (Getty Images)

"Throughout his time as mayor, (Faulconer) was known as the only big city Republican mayor in the country. And he was known as someone who could get things done," Puetz said. "He was the only mayor of a large city in California to reduce homelessness two years in a row. He made a pledge to pave over 500 miles of streets. He ended up paving over half the streets in the entire city in six-plus years. And did it all without raising taxes."

Since launching the exploratory committee, Faulconer’s team has reached out to a wide spectrum of potential supporters in California, Puetz said, running the gamut from grassroots organizers, political decision-makers, state lawmakers, regional leaders like District Attorney’s and county supervisors, as well as major donors and "everyday Californians."

"Whether it be Republican donors or party activists or Democrats or just kind of sick of the one-party rule, it's people who are hungry for an alternative," Puetz said said. "People are hungry for a check and balance in Sacramento."

Faulconer, a moderate Republican city councilman was elected mayor of San Diego in early 2014 in a special election brought about by the resignation of Democrat Bob Filner over sexual harassment allegations.

San Diego held the distinction of being the nation’s largest city with a Republican mayor, and Faulconer was the only Republican to lead a major city in California, where Democrats hold a firm grip on statewide offices.

Despite running against a Latino Democrat and despite being outspent by labor unions by some $5 million in his reelection, Faulconer won with 42% of the Latino vote, and 30% of Democrats supporting him.

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Faulconer’s ability to do that, Puetz said, "provides hope for people paying attention, who say, 'well, of course, we'd like to make a change. Of course, we want someone who can defeat Gavin Newsom.’"

"But there's also the realism element of it, that it has to be someone with a proven ability to win and then get things done. And quite frankly, he's the only person in California right now that's done that," Puetz said. "There is no other person who has won a tough race ... with demographics similar to the state of California, as Kevin Faulconer has. And so that's part of the reason why he's gotten so much support in the last few weeks."

The recall effort against Newsom – the sixth such effort since he took office in Jan. 2019 – was initially dismissed as a crackpot effort by fringe activists. But the effort steadily garnered mainstream support amid growing discontent over the governor’s handling of the pandemic. Critics – Republicans and even some Democrats – have accused Newsom’s administration of failing to make transparent the data which they have supposedly relied upon when ordering businesses and schools closed.

The recall campaign saw a surge in support last November after Newsom was photographed dining at the high-end French Laundry restaurant while appearing to violate some of his administration’s own coronavirus guidelines.

But Puetz believes years of failed Democratic leadership in California is also playing a pivotal role in the success of the recall effort.

"Is it just Gavin Newsom? No, it's not just Gavin Newsom. It's the entire system, the entire failed system in Sacramento," Puetz said. "We're one of the highest taxed states in the country. And when we don't even need to raise taxes, they still raise taxes … while giving away somewhere between $10 and $30 billion to criminals in unemployment fraud."

Last week, California’s state auditor found that the state agency that oversees unemployment benefits paid out at least $10.4 billion in fraudulent claims due to "significant missteps and inaction." The audit also found that the agency paid at least $810 million to prison inmates – more than double the amount previously thought. Newsom’s administration has pointed the finger at the federal government and refused to share details about how often Newsom was briefed on the problems.

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"It's not reflective of the majesty and beauty of our state and its people," Puetz said. "The state government does not reflect who the people of California are, the innovation, the care, the smarts, the entrepreneurship. Gavin Newsom and the one-party rule state legislature are holding Californians back. I think people are going to see through that and they already are."

Fox News’ Morgan Phillips and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Bradford Betz Fox News