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In shedding the Republican Party, Nathan Fletcher might have found the only way to become mayor. He risks destroying the political identity he’s spent his entire life building to do so.
Nathan Fletcher’s identity always has involved Republican politics.
He had Ronald Reagan in mind when walked door-to-door campaigning for Republicans as a teenager and registered Republican voters outside Home Depots in college. He became a professional Republican operative, even working as the state party’s political director. He married a former campaign staffer for President George W. Bush. He counts big-name Republicans — Karl Rove, Pete Wilson, Meg Whitman and Mitt Romney — among his supporters in his bid to become San Diego’s next mayor.
“I’ve lived our principles,” Fletcher told local Republican faithful at the party’s mayoral endorsement meeting three weeks ago. “I am the American dream.”
Fletcher lost that endorsement to another Republican candidate. And in a stunning choice less than three months before the June primary election, Fletcher decided to lose the Republican Party altogether and re-register as an independent.
“Nothing has changed in terms of my core beliefs,” Fletcher said at a Wednesday morning press conference. “Nothing has changed in terms of my position on the issues. The only thing that’s changed is I’m sending a commitment and a statement that the people’s interests will be my interests, not what some party insider would want me to do.”
Fletcher’s move comes off as both principled and desperate. He spoke as if he didn’t leave the party, but the party left him. The local party’s long deliberate march from consensus to conflict no longer fit his style, he said. And even Fletcher admitted that it greatly endangered his status as a rising Republican star.
He said in the end the city’s future mattered more than his political career.
Fletcher also stands at or near the bottom of the polls, far behind the Republican-endorsed Carl DeMaio and Democrat-endorsed Bob Filner. He needs a Hail Mary to knock off either of them. The polls also show that large numbers of San Diego voters don’t know Fletcher. This is the kind of move that could bring him the attention he’s desperately seeking.
Not all of that attention will be good. The heads of both the local Republican and Democratic parties lambasted Fletcher, calling his decision an expedient sham instead of a principled stand.
“It is impossible to trust Nathan Fletcher, because he isn’t about ideas, principles or solutions,” local GOP head Tony Krvaric said in a release.
Three weeks ago, Fletcher argued he was the most conservative candidate in the race as he tried to block the party from endorsing DeMaio. Fletcher said he was more anti-tax. He said he was stronger on family values than DeMaio and made an issue out of the councilman’s sexual orientation. Fletcher claimed DeMaio hadn’t kept his promise to leave the fact that he’s gay out of the debate.
When DeMaio won the party’s endorsement on the first ballot, Fletcher had charged far more to the right than he ever had without anything to show for it.
But the party’s decision also cemented a change that began years ago. It used to be that the party backed the kinds of coastal Republicans that Fletcher embodies. Wilson, who was San Diego’s mayor in the early 1970s and has become Fletcher’s political mentor, used his military background and social moderation to local and statewide success. San Diegans have elected Republicans in this mold as mayor almost exclusively since Wilson. Fletcher, with his clean water, open space and bike path plans, fits the bill.
The local party, though, has started to brand those kinds of Republicans as wishy-washy. It began to deride legacy Republican business organizations, such as the local Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Corp., as ineffective. DeMaio, a pension and outsourcing hawk, fits the party’s new outlook much better than Fletcher ever will.
Still, it appears the party didn’t know what to make of Fletcher’s announcement.
It first sent out a press release making clear Fletcher was still a conservative Republican.
“Nathan Fletcher running for office as an independent is about as credible as Rick Santorum trying to run as a Green Party candidate,” the statement said.
Less than an hour later, Krvaric issued a new statment that shifted the message to Fletcher’s untrustworthiness and personal ambition over principle.
In Sacramento, Fletcher’s ability to cross the aisle and maintain his party bona fides made him appear like a rising star.
He was the only Republican to support a bill that mandated the teaching of gay history in textbooks. He was one of two Republicans to back Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s failed jobs plan. He gave a rousing speech in favor of ending the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that kept gays from serving openly in the military.
Party boosters touted Fletcher as a potential savior for the party in California. Bill Whalen, a former Wilson staffer, not too long ago touted Fletcher as much in a Sacramento Bee article.
But you can’t save a party you don’t belong to, Whalen said in an interview Wednesday.
“Now he’s gone,” Whalen said.
When Fletcher was seeking the local Republican endorsement three weeks ago, he explained to the party faithful why he didn’t work as hard for their endorsement as he could have.
Fletcher was torn, he said, between what was best for him and what was best for the party as a whole. It was best for him if the party endorsed him to be their standard bearer. It was best for the party if it stayed out of a race that featured himself and two other high-profile Republicans.
“At some point,” Fletcher told the crowd, “being a part of a team means you have to care more about the team than your individual ambitions.”
On Wednesday, Fletcher quit the only political team he’s ever known.
Liam Dillon is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?
Please contact him directly at email@example.com or 619.550.5663.
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