April 4 2012 10:16 AM

Leaving the GOP was likely both calculated and principled

Mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher
Photo by David Rolland
Nathan Fletcher had just climbed down from atop the bar at The Lincoln Room, the Downtown pub, where the candidate for San Diego mayor had just delivered a short, rousing speech to a bar full of lubricated supporters. It was Jan. 11, the night Mayor Jerry Sanders delivered his final “State of the City” address, and Fletcher threw an after-party to rally the troops. Several CityBeat writers were there to see how energized the campaign was, and Fletcher made his way over to us to say hello, as he always does when we see him at events. 

He asked us, in his typically jovial manner, how he could earn our endorsement.

“You need to care about poor people.”

“I do care about poor people.”

“Then why are you a Republican?”

If Fletcher hesitated, it wasn't for very long. He said that was a question he'd been asking himself a lot lately. We attributed his answer to his knack for playing to his audience—in this case, liberals. But, in retrospect, there was something more to it.

Last week, Fletcher made national news by announcing, in an early-morning video sent via email, that he was leaving the Republican Party. We'd later learn that his wife Mindy, who'd worked for George W. Bush, the Republican National Committee and Arnold Schwarzenegger, was also splitting from the party for which she'd been so active.

The announcement dominated the chatter among the local political class for the next couple of days and, as you'd expect, was blanketed with local news coverage. Because Fletcher's a member of the state Assembly, the largest newspapers in California—the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The San Jose Mercury News—also reported the defection. But covering the story were CNN and MSNBC's Hardball program, and even influential and center-right New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote what amounted to a love letter to Fletcher.

This is what we believe was Fletcher's goal: widespread news coverage and buzz for a campaign that's been running on a sort of contained electricity. In our view, if Fletcher had time to chat one-on-one with every voter in San Diego, he'd win in a landslide. That has less to do with his good looks and compelling back-story than his charm and ability to connect with people—stuff that's in seriously short supply among opponents Carl DeMaio, Bonnie Dumanis and Bob Filner.

Problem is, chatting with every voter isn't logistically possible for Fletcher, and polls show that he remains the least known of the top four candidates, which is why he's facing a steep uphill climb compared with likely frontrunners Filner and DeMaio. Call it desperation if you want, but the simple truth is that making news is absolutely necessary for Fletcher to be competitive in the June primary election, and we're hard-pressed to think of another way for him to have generated the same amount of positive attention.

This reality is what's causing critics and other observers to take the cynical route, charging Fletcher with being, in the words of local Democratic Party Chairman Jess Durfee, “just another leopard trying to change his spots in an election year.”

But can't it be, as TV's Abe Simpson once said, when asked if he was stalling for time or just senile, “a little from column A and a little from column B”? Can't Fletcher's big move be politically expedient and genuinely principled?

How can a decision to leave either major party be seen as anything but at least partly righteous? Individual members are punished for even tip-toeing outside party orthodoxy. One prominent local politician told CityBeat this week that party politics is precisely why he won't run for state Assembly—he said he could never be who he'd want to be and would be rendered pretty much useless.

Filner's ideology and policy preferences still match ours better than Fletcher's do, although Filner's candidacy presents its own problems. If we end up endorsing Filner, there's a case to be made that Fletcher reaching the November runoff against him would be a bad thing (many observers believe Fletcher would beat Filner head-to-head). On the other hand, it would be reassuring to have the two superior candidates emerge from the primary, and they are Filner and Fletcher.

Electoral calculus aside, though, Fletcher's gamble to flee the Republican Party is another feather in his cap, another reason to like him and another reason to root for his success.

What do you think? Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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