"If you can't lick 'em, join 'em."
Nathan Fletcher, the political darling of the evening, was having trouble locating his car.
The former Republican member of the state Assembly, unsuccessful independent mayoral candidate and freshly minted Democrat had just exited the San Diego County Democratic Party's 33rd annual Roosevelt Dinner at the Mission Bay Hilton Saturday night and seemed a bit overwhelmed.
Unlike previous years' Democratic galas, there was plenty to chest-bump about given last November's election results—most notably a mayoral win for the first time in two decades, a Board of Supervisors seat and a countywide majority in Congress. In all, party officials boasted, 71 percent of endorsed candidates entered the winner's circle in 2012.
But the buzz of the night belonged to the party's newest highprofile member, and Fletcher seemed dazed by the love—something rarely afforded him within Republican ranks for his sometimes moderate views and willingness to compromise with enemies across the aisle. His nationally noted dalliance with independence over "partisan politics" during last year's mayor's race—after the local Republican Party rejected him in favor of Carl DeMaio—only fomented the right's hostility toward the Marine veteran.
"I guess it's his coming-out party," local architect Mark Steele told Spin Cycle shortly after Fletcher arrived at the gala to swarming news camera crews and party well-wishers.
It was only that morning that Fletcher had posted on his Facebook page a 1,700-word screed explaining his decision to register as a Democrat.
"I was reluctant to make this move," he wrote. "It wasn't due to any doubt about where I belong. It was simple dread over the criticism I would face. I know this is the party that reflects my values and beliefs, but I was reluctant to admit it."
He attributed the timing of the switch to a recent discussion he had with Lou Orozco, a Marine colleague who'd served alongside him in Iraq. "Lou asked if I missed the Republican Party," Fletcher wrote. "I was honest—I didn't miss it one bit. Then he asked how independent was working out for me. Again, brutal honesty—it didn't fit. It felt empty."
Another conversation earlier this year with a Myanmar Parliament member seemed to seal the deal. The member, Fletcher wrote, had Googled him and, learning of his move to independence, remarked, "It doesn't mean anything. It conveys no values." The member, he said, gave Fletcher his party pin "until I figured things out."
Fletcher also wrote that he watched former President Bill Clinton's Democratic National Convention speech three times "trying to find something I disagreed with. I couldn't. It was clear—at least to me—that I was a Democrat."
The reaction was swift, and unsurprisingly mixed.
"Very proud of you. Very excited," said freshman Congressmember Juan Vargas, while his new colleague, Scott Peters, added, "It makes it an even better party."
Escondido Councilmember Olga Diaz, a rising party star who's thrown her hat into that city's 2014 mayor's race, jabbed the opposition by noting, "It does make me a little bit sad for the Republican Party because I don't think they have anybody good-looking left."
Meanwhile, old press releases slamming Fletcher began vanishing from the Democratic Party's website. "Oh, probably just a little spring cleaning," former party chair Jess Durfee tweeted with a smiley face.
From the right, however, the criticism came howling across social media. "No principles," tweeted local GOP Executive Director Francis Barraza. "That's what happens when you have no character," San Diego City Councilmember and self-proclaimed non-politician Scott Sherman snorted on Facebook, along with a misdirected slap at Fletcher's work to get Chelsea's Law passed, confusing it with Megan's Law.
"No backbone." "No soul." Even knocks to his military service—"MINO=Marine in Name Only" bellowed one tweet— seemed fair game from the rabid Republican faithful.
What may have prompted the foaming response from the right was an email delivered the same day signed by Fletcher urging contributions to Peters' 2014 reelection campaign, which some speculate will involve a battle royale with DeMaio.
"Recent news out of Washington D.C. is that Tea Party extremists are recruiting one of their own to run against my friend Scott Peters," Fletcher said in the email. "After running against him last year, I know that Carl DeMaio will be bad for San Diego and Southern California."
While Fletcher expected the stinging rebukes—"You're always going to get naysayers. That's fair," he told Spin Cycle after the gala—what was missing from the Republican response was any lick of self-reflection on how far the party has fallen from local grace.
As new county Democratic Party Chair Francine Busby noted, online voter registration since October has drawn 20,000 more Democrats than Republicans countywide. The city, she added, is now home to nearly 90,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, who rank even below decline-to-state voters by roughly 5,000.
So, is Fletcher, a former college baseball player, just joining a hotter team for the sake of political opportunism, as a ripping U-T San Diego editorial whined Monday? Time will tell, but, for now, Fletcher said in his Facebook post, he "loves" his work at Qualcomm and UCSD and feels like "I actually have a life." He did predict that the party switch "would immediately trigger a wave of what is he angling for now,'" a sentiment he addressed with only the proverbial "no plans" response.
Most likely, Fletcher wanted to shape the message himself rather than let the media grab it and run. A former Assembly colleague had apparently leaked the news to a Los Angeles Times reporter, who then tweeted the news. Even that came out ironically weird when autocorrect changed "Democrat" to "Deregulate red."
"Nathan Fletcher did not become some kind of merlot. Just a Democrat," Times reporter Anthony York later corrected.
After the gala Saturday, Fletcher seemed less interested in dealing with such analysis and more concerned with finding his car. "Actually I don't know where I'm parked," he said. When Spin Cycle wished him luck on the search as he headed off into the night, Fletcher replied, "Yeah I know. I have to work on that."