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When he moved to greatly expand redevelopment downtown, the assemblyman put himself in position to be mayor — but also in an uncomfortable spot.
Most observers, when they describe Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher’s most important legislative achievement, the one that put him on track to run for mayor, point to Chelsea’s Law for convicted sex offenders.
Yes, that was a big deal.
But it was actually a different move that really endeared him to some of San Diego’s most powerful people and gave him necessary political traction to run for mayor. It’s also the move that will continue to dog him in the next several weeks, and into November if he makes it to the final election after June.
In October 2010, Fletcher found himself in a powerful position. Democrats in Sacramento needed a vote to pass the state budget they’d cobbled together. The independent-minded Fletcher, still a Republican then, was a natural target.
He later left the GOP amid much fanfare and talk. But that night in Sacramento might have been one of the most important hints for Fletcher of how powerful being an independent could be.
As we discovered later, he and Mayor Jerry Sanders and others had been working for months on a bill that would remove limits on downtown redevelopment and pave the way for the state to subsidize more building downtown, including potentially a new Chargers stadium.
That bill would also, however, circumvent a year-long public process the mayor had pledged to respect. It was an effort to decide if further redevelopment was necessary.
It would also sabotage negotiations with the county of San Diego, which would be one of the prime investors in downtown redevelopment. The county was being asked to sacrifice near-term revenues for the promise of long-term growth.
Concerns about redevelopment, its abuses, its corporate welfare and what it forced neighborhoods and schools to sacrifice had been simmering.
But Fletcher, the mayor and downtown insiders saw a golden opportunity in the state budget drama. With his decisive vote, he suddenly had tremendous power.
And he decided to wield it to deliver for Mayor Sanders the bill to unleash billions on San Diego’s downtown redevelopment dreams.
Flashback to that night. It was Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010. I was awake, unable to sleep. On Twitter, I began to see mentions of a bill from Fletcher about redevelopment in San Diego. Conservative lawmakers were bemoaning it as corporate welfare for a new stadium in San Diego.
Could it really be? I wondered.
Yep. I was able to pull together the bits about what happened by the early morning. And then the news exploded.
It was a giant insult to the public critics of redevelopment. It infuriated county officials.
But downtown insiders and what you might call the Get Shit Done Coalition hailed him as a champion.
He was perfect to them. Long frustrated with the public process and envious of other cities that got more money from the state and regularly pushed through bigger, bolder deals, these people looked at Fletcher as someone who could work his way into a position of power and then act decisively. The moans from the “naysayers” in San Diego only confirmed it.
The move also crystallized support among those most passionate about building a new stadium in San Diego.
Things got messy for Fletcher, soon after his big bold move. You see, others wanted to be that deliverer-in-chief. They included Councilman Kevin Faulconer, who also was thinking about running for mayor. He’d been leading the public process to get the job done the long way. He was incensed by the maneuver.
Then there was then-Councilwoman Donna Frye, who held a long-standing suspicion of downtown redevelopment. Combined, they ignited a firestorm.
And if there’s a firestorm, nobody is better at channeling it than Councilman Carl DeMaio. In an infamous confrontation with former Centre City Development Corp. Chairman Fred Maas, DeMaio showed fury not regularly seen at Council. Their argument led Maas to later promise an unprecedented political hit on DeMaio.
We’re still waiting to see what he meant by that.
Then, Frye found an opening to kill the bill. She noted, after all, that it was just a bill and then-Gov. Schwarzenegger had not yet signed it. The City Council could send a letter to him. If they were united against it, he’d have to listen.
And that’s when principled passion gave way to pragmatic politics.
As mad as Faulconer was, he apparently wasn’t that mad about it. He admitted he liked the results Fletcher had gotten. Faulconer delivered the decisive vote to let it be.
Frye and Councilwoman Marti Emerald decided to send a letter to the governor anyway. But even DeMaio wouldn’t sign it. Again, as irritated as he was, DeMaio didn’t think it was worth trying to undo.
Eventually, the next governor abolished the whole system of redevelopment making much of the drama moot.
Mayor Sanders, however, left his new friend hanging. The incumbent endorsed Fletcher’s rival, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, for mayor.
And, as if to pour salt on that unkind cut, just last week, Dumanis hammered Fletcher for the midnight redevelopment deal during a debate in front of a downtown audience. I don’t have exactly what she said but several people thought I should know about it. DeMaio has also picked at Fletcher for it frequently.
So, would Dumanis not have done the same deal for Sanders? That seems like a stretch. And DeMaio could have gone one step further to undo the deal, but chose to let it lie.
Does that mean their punches don’t land? I don’t know. Fletcher stole a process from the public in the kind of deal that has created the very resistance to progress in San Diego its supporters bemoan. His campaign may be proud he “delivered more infrastructure dollars” to San Diego with the vote. But those dollars never actually made it.
Fans of the move will remember it forever. He’ll have to hope that critics of it do not.
I’m Scott Lewis, the CEO of Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):
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