Nathan Fletcher knew, the moment he left the Republican Party, that he had left behind enemies for life. Republicans don’t like him and he expected he would face a unique fury from them forever.
What he didn’t expect is what got him.
After his last mayoral campaign, Democratic Party leaders urged Fletcher to join their party. When he did, they celebrated.
He had the support of Lorena Gonzalez, the assemblywoman. The woman who, as head of the local labor coalition, helped secure across-the-board victories for Democrats and workers in 2012. They both knew, however, that they needed someone else: Mickey Kasparian.
After all, Fletcher could deal with a challenger on the left. But if Kasparian, the leader of the United Food and Commercial Workers, the largest union in San Diego, wasn’t on board, things might go poorly. Kasparian is also president of the Labor Council. If a rival on Fletcher’s left were to arise, Kasparian’s support both in leadership and resources would matter.
Fletcher might be able to match the money Kasparian could muster. But the labor movement is much more than money.
Gonzalez says Kasparian offered supportive words. Some unions joined with Gonzalez and Fletcher. At the very least, she and Fletcher did not think Kasparian would go to war with them.
As I noted a couple months ago, however, that’s exactly what Kasparian did. Whatever it was that got him, Kasparian was insulted when Gonzalez got behind Fletcher publicly without waiting for the Labor Council to lead. And Kasparian began searching for an alternative.
A few passed on the opportunity. David Alvarez did not.
But that was just one decision. Kasparian made two more crucial ones.
Alvarez was not well known outside his Council district. That takes money.
Kasparian decided to find money and spend it — $1 million in all.
Then came the third decision: They had to bury Fletcher. Kasparian’s disparaging take on Fletcher was one of many that offered a green light to supporters to promote the Republican claim that Fletcher was no less than a fraud.
And with that, the two most powerful coalitions in local politics — the right-of-center business Republicans and the largest labor unions — were both spending and working to persuade voters that Fletcher simply could not be trusted.
They used the same language.
When I asked Richard Barrera, the secretary-treasurer of the Labor Council, it’s paid executive, whether he really believed that Fletcher’s job at Qualcomm was a sham, as a handout one of labor’s neighborhood walkers left at my door claimed, he wouldn’t say. “There are questions that are definitely out there.”
Fletcher’s early dominance in name recognition was wiped out. He slid, fast. His own coalition, cobbled together from groups not associated with those heavyweights, revealed its worry when it returned fire at both Alvarez and Faulconer.
It wasn’t just Kasparian, obviously. Kasparian symbolized and articulated the deep distrust many had that Fletcher was not a progressive they could trust. His record as a politician certainly didn’t help.
But distrust doesn’t automatically turn into a million dollars and boots on the ground. That’s where Kasparian mattered.
Among the dozens of mailers that were sent, supporters of Faulconer and Alvarez left each other alone. Not so for Fletcher. It became clear that the Lincoln Club, a conservative group, wanted to set up a runoff between Faulconer and Alvarez. The Lincoln Club is led by Bill Lynch, a longtime philanthropist and staunch conservative who much preferred Faulconer’s chances against Alvarez.
And his team raised significant funds to make that happen. Even Faulconer launched late attacks on Fletcher from his own campaign account.
They underestimate Alvarez at their own risk. Former Councilman Carl DeMaio, whose team boasted of helping Bob Filner through his primary campaign, watched as Filner dominated him in the runoff. But that, of course, was a general election with presidential contenders and congressional rivals and controversial propositions all attracting voters to the polls.
But again, Fletcher expected fight from the right. It was the onslaught from the left that drowned him. In a special election with low turnout, he could not withstand it. His lead over Alvarez evaporated.
The lesson is clear: In a special election, you can fight Kasparian and the coalition he leads. You can fight Lynch and his team.
But you can’t fight them both and win.