Kevin Faulconer challenges Newsom's handling of pandemic as he jumps into race for governor

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The future of California Governor Gavin Newsom could rest on three "R's." A slow vaccine rollout, an accelerating recall campaign and now: A Republican challenger.

Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer has officially jumped into the 2022 gubernatorial race -- the first Republican to officially do so, although undoubtedly not the last.

At his announcement Tuesday morning in Los Angeles, the moderate Republican stood outside two schools -- a public school that is closed and a private school that is open -- and went after Newsom's handling of the pandemic.

"The fact that public schools in states across this country have safely reopened, but yet private schools are reopened here in California, but public schools are not, and that's putting our kids at a distinct disadvantage," Faulconer told ABC7 News. "Parents all over the state want a governor that's going to safely reopen the schools and get our kids back in the classroom. We cannot wait any longer."

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Faulconer's decision to enter the race 22 months before the gubernatorial election comes as Newsom faces a growing recall effort and plummeting approval ratings. A new survey from the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies shows Newsom has 46% job approval among California registered voters, down from 64% in September.

"Seeing Faulconer jumping in, which looks to me like he sees vulnerability in the Governor, here's our poll which shows greater vulnerability in the electorate," Berkeley IGS poll director Mark DiCamillo explained. "So, this is politics. It's hardball. And the Governor's going to have to defend himself and obviously attend to the important issues facing the state. That's what voters want him to do."

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So who is Kevin Faulconer? The dad of two was born in San Jose, grew up in Oxnard and moved to San Diego for college. He was an executive at a public relations firm before getting into local San Diego politics. He served two terms as mayor from 2014 to 2022. He touts his record on combating the city's homelessness crisis, although critics say he used controversial tactics, such as police enforcement and sweeps of homeless camps.

In response to Faulconer's announcement to jump into the race, a spokesperson for Newsom's team criticized his handling of the pandemic and homelessness crisis and called him a "Trump supporter" who is "trying to exploit a global pandemic to advance a political career."

When asked about that attack, Faulconer said he believes it's a sign the Newsom team is getting worried.

"Gavin Newsom always wants to talk about Donald Trump because he never wants to talk about his failures in Sacramento, and that's what Californians are concerned about," Faulconer told us. "I'm a proud Republican who's known in San Diego as working with everybody on all sides of the aisle and getting results."

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"The Governor and his team are clearly worried about me, and they should be because what I represent is a positive change for this state," he added.

Faulconer might be the first Republican to officially challenge Newsom, but many more are likely to jump in the race. Republican businessman John Cox, who lost to Newsom in 2018, says he'll run for governor again if a recall election is held.

Organizers of the recall say they have 1.3 million signatures. They need 1.5 million by the deadline in March.

According to the Berkeley IGS survey, only 36% of voters say they would vote for a recall if it should happen. But 19% -- a pretty large number -- say they are currently undecided.

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