Kevin Faulconer will head to a Jan. 10 runoff with Lorena Gonzalez to fill the San Diego City Council District 2 seat.
Faulconer, a public relations executive, got 35 percent of the vote, to environmental attorney Gonzalez's 25 percent.
Carolyn Chase was in third place with 9 percent.
None of the other 14 candidates had more than 6 percent of the vote.
"We are going to have a runoff, but we are going to be ready," Faulconer said, surrounded by supporters at Golden Hall.
"We have a message that says, 'Let's reform City Hall,"' Faulconer said. "Let's bring it back to the neighborhoods and we are confident that message will be successful."
Gonzalez, joined at Golden Hall by her husband and daughter, who carried a sign that said "vote for my mom Lorena," said the results are much better than she expected, and vowed to work to fix the city's fiscal crisis.
"We need to clean up City Hall, bring a fresh face to it and get rid of the old-boy network," she said.
"We need to reach out and talk to those voters and explain to them we are going to protect the neighborhoods of District 2," Gonzalez said.
The election is being held to decide who will fill the council seat left vacant by the resignation of Michael Zucchet.
Zucchet was forced to quit his post after being convicted on federal bribery charges in the so-called "stripper-gate" trial.
District 2 includes the communities of Pacific Beach, Mission Beach, Ocean Beach, Point Loma and portions of downtown.
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