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Four years ago, San Diego’s then most powerful labor leader gave Nathan Fletcher some unsolicited advice.
Fletcher left the Republican Party during the 2012 mayor’s race and announced he had registered as a Democrat just months before the 2013 mayoral primary.
Mickey Kasparian, then-president of San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, had helped kill Fletcher’s mayoral run for the second time. He said Fletcher was only a fledging Democrat and should spend time in a lower-profile office – perhaps the County Board of Supervisors or the City Council – before he could count on progressive groups’ support.
“The mayor’s office is the most powerful position in the city and we have nothing to go off other than his statements the last 18 months,” said Kasparian, whose labor group had endorsed Fletcher’s opponent.
Fletcher has spent the last four years essentially following that advice. He’s been pushing Democratic causes and is running for county supervisor.
He methodically built relationships with key Democrats, displaying the zeal of a convert. A marriage to Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, one of the state’s most powerful Democrats, didn’t hurt. He threw himself into high-profile veteran and national security debates only to realize how little power he had outside of politics. His short career at Qualcomm came to an end. Everything is on the line in his race for supervisor.
Fletcher said his work the past few years reflects his commitment to public service and to the Democratic Party rather than political opportunism.
“I’ve never lost the desire to try and help other folks,” Fletcher said. “I’ve done everything in my power to do all I could to make a real difference, to impact others, and I’m incredibly proud of the work I’ve done.”
After his second failed mayoral bid in 2013, Fletcher was at a crossroads. He’d been battered by attacks from the left and the right highlighting his political party shifts.
Fletcher initially laid low after the 2013 loss. He resumed work as senior director of global strategic initiatives at Qualcomm and as a professor of practice in UC San Diego’s political science department, jobs he took on in early 2013. Both jobs drew attacks during the mayor’s race from opponents questioning whether former Qualcomm chiefs Irwin and Paul Jacobs, both Fletcher backers, had helped orchestrate them.
Fletcher took on lower-profile assignments for Qualcomm after the mayor’s race. That work took him around the globe, organizing events and attending high-profile ones.
But it didn’t excite him, he said.
Fletcher said teaching political science classes at UC San Diego, where he typically takes on a course each semester, buoyed him. He especially enjoyed mentoring students.
One of those students, UC San Diego graduate Stephanie Perera, said Fletcher nudged her to intern for a political campaign and later connected her with D.C. contacts. She now works for Rep. Ami Bera and credits Fletcher with helping her and others secure jobs and internships.
Fletcher also connected with many key Democrats.
Past allies, including friend and former Democratic Assembly Speaker John Pérez, spoke to Fletcher’s classes.
Former Councilwoman Donna Frye, who had a tense relationship with Fletcher after she endorsed his opponent in 2013, said Fletcher reached out to her a few months after his loss. The two started chatting regularly and met for lunches.
She was impressed. Fletcher seemed genuine. He seemed to have moved on from the 2013 loss.
“I think he’s grown a lot,” Frye said.
By that fall, Fletcher had launched a new project, the Three Wise Men Veterans Foundation. The cause was personal for Fletcher, a Marine who served in Iraq and Africa. His cousins Jeremy and Ben Wise had both been killed in combat in Afghanistan, leaving behind their brother Beau Wise, also a Marine. He named the nonprofit in their honor.
Fletcher said he consulted retired generals and other experts to ask where he could do the most good. Their answer: Let veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress know it’s OK to seek help.
Fletcher and former Three Wise Men COO Shawn VanDiver said the nonprofit helped organize thousands of fundraising and awareness events nationwide.
The organization was also one of many veterans groups to rally behind 2016 state legislation clarifying in military justice code that state service members should not be prosecuted for attempting to kill themselves, a rule Fletcher said only increased the stigma around asking for help.
One of Three Wise Men’s more prominent efforts was #MaketheCall, a 2016 campaign encouraging vets to seek support. Fletcher and personalities such as New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and CNN anchor Jake Tapper shared a PSA video.
In addition to awareness efforts, Fletcher has said his foundation donated more than $120,000 to other veteran-serving nonprofits, including the Honor Foundation and Courage to Call, which fields calls from struggling veterans.
Neither group returned a message from Voice of San Diego seeking more details but Joe Musselman, CEO of the Honor Foundation, is quoted in a Three Wise Men-produced report saying Fletcher’s foundation provided seed funding to start an entrepreneurship training program.
Fletcher’s charity benefited from his connections. Prominent companies and labor unions wrote checks in the years before the foundation merged with New York-based Headstrong in 2017. Three Wise Men reported receiving $70,000 from labor groups, including the county’s largest construction union and tens of thousands each from Qualcomm and Manpower, companies led by Fletcher supporters.
In 2016, before she married Fletcher, Gonzalez Fletcher’s Assembly office also solicited for his charity, directing $35,000 in donations to the nonprofit from Chevron, a national pharmaceutical lobbying group, San Diego Gas & Electric and tribal councils overseeing two casinos. State rules allow lawmakers to request so-called behested payments for legislative or charitable purposes, often when a donor has maxed out on allowable donations to an elected official.
Gonzalez Fletcher told VOSD that three of those groups had already committed to make donations before she forwarded details on an event Fletcher was hosting to them.
Fletcher’s advocacy on veterans and national security issues extended beyond his foundation work – and helped keep him in the spotlight. He made media appearances and wrote blogs and op-eds on issues like women in combat and the privatization of the Veterans Affairs health care system.
Mike Breen, CEO of the D.C.-based advocacy group Truman Center for National Policy, said a 2017 Washington Post op-ed Fletcher wrote arguing that veterans with post-traumatic stress deserve Purple Hearts triggered discussion in the Capitol.
Breen had gotten to know Fletcher through Truman, a group of veteran and national security pros who advocate on veteran and security issues. Fletcher’s work with the group led to his September 2015 meeting at the White House.
Photos of Fletcher beside President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State John Kerry discussing the proposed Iran nuclear deal were shared by countless news outlets.
During the meeting, Breen recalled Fletcher driving home how the Iran deal might help families avoid heartache.
“I thought Nathan did an excellent job bringing policy decisions back to human consequences,” Breen said.
Fletcher’s supporters, including Gonzalez Fletcher, say Fletcher has also spent significant time helping troubled veterans without any fanfare.
“I have watched him leave literally in the middle of the night to be there to support a veteran struggling,” Gonzalez Fletcher wrote in an email to VOSD. “I have watched him get them checked into rehab or support systems.”
More recently, Fletcher has committed to aiding deported veterans. He said the ACLU of California asked him to lead an advocacy group on the issue two years ago as it prepared to release a report on veterans who’d been deported after committing crimes.
Fletcher said he began flying to D.C. to lobby members of Congress and officials in the Obama administration. He also booked meetings and calls with staffers of then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Then Donald Trump became president. Fletcher refocused his efforts on the state Capitol. He briefed Gov. Jerry Brown and shared his theory that, if the veterans were pardoned for crimes they had already served time for, they could be eligible to return to the United States.
Fletcher said he took two more trips to Sacramento, wrote letters of support and collected necessary paperwork from the deported veterans to try to seal the deal.
Then the group waited, hoping Brown would consider the veterans for typical Christmas or Easter pardons. They believed the pardon would give attorneys a strong argument in immigration court.
Fletcher learned three veterans had gotten their wish the Friday before Easter 2017.
Two of those veterans, Marco Chavez Medina and Hector Barajas, have since returned the United States. A third, Erasmo Apodaca, is preparing for his naturalization exam.
Apodaca and Barajas said Fletcher worked tirelessly behind the scenes and publicly committed to a cause few other high-profile veterans have followed through on.
“He really cares about the issue, and he goes out of his way,” Barajas said. “Most people have their own lives.”
Fletcher said he’ll continue to lobby for more overarching policy changes to aid deported veterans.
Fletcher has made other moves that give him more progressive appeal.
Fletcher joined the coalition opposing efforts to repeal a minimum-wage increase in 2014. He knocked on doors for Georgette Gómez and Chris Ward, now Democratic members of San Diego’s City Council, in 2016. He served as a delegate to the state and national Democratic conventions.
He also joined boards signaling his Democratic commitment. First was Organizing for Action, a national group that advocates for Obama’s policy prescriptions, in 2014.
Last February, Fletcher joined the board of the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, a refugee advocacy group that has forcefully pushed for rent control and other bold liberal policies.
Jess Durfee, a Fletcher supporter who chairs the Democratic National Committee’s Western Region, said Fletcher’s moves reflect a realization that he needed to build his Democratic network after the 2013 mayor’s race.
”I think he recognized that he needed to build relationships,” Durfee said. “He needed to demonstrate his values through his actions so that people recognized him as a Democrat and a leader within the Democratic Party.”
One of the relationships Fletcher built has been particularly powerful. Fletcher married Gonzalez Fletcher, a progressive force whose policies have drawn national attention, last New Year’s Day.
Accusations that Gonzalez Fletcher has used her influence to support Fletcher’s political career have followed, particularly when it comes to endorsements and campaign donations.
Fletcher has reported numerous donations from Sacramento players, including lobbyists and current and former elected officials. At least some of them have worked on bills heard or set to be discussed in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which Gonzalez Fletcher chairs. Any bills that require a certain amount of government spending must clear Gonzalez Fletcher’s committee to become law.
Fletcher, himself a former Assembly member, and Gonzalez Fletcher have said he boasts many Sacramento connections of his own.
Gonzalez Fletcher said she has spoken in support of her husband at some events, something she does for other candidates she’s endorsed, but that she did not make calls to encourage party endorsements. She also said the dates of Sacramento fundraisers, including one a few days before a crucial Appropriations committee hearing last fall, reflect the couple’s efforts to juggle family and work obligations rather than to compel more donations. The couple say they won’t apologize for supporting each other.
“I absolutely support my husband in his race for supervisor,” Gonzalez Fletcher wrote on Facebook last week. “I would have never married him if I didn’t know his values, support his view of the world and absolutely know we shared a desire to make this world a better place. Those who wish to somehow use this as a negative in a campaign either are petty, sexist or simply have a different, unfortunate view of the world.”
Despite the blowback, the couple’s alliance has also helped convert some skeptics.
Former Democratic Assemblyman Howard Wayne supported Fletcher’s opponents in a string of past campaigns. But he said Fletcher’s marriage helped convince him to back him for supervisor.
“If (Gonzalez Fletcher) is impressed enough to marry him, that means a lot to me,” Wayne said.
Indeed, Fletcher said his wife was one of several Democrats who encouraged him to run for county supervisor. He began considering the idea in 2016, he said, after reading a San Diego County Grand Jury report that revealed the county was failing to spend mental health money collected via a voter-approved millionaire’s tax.
“I had a realization when I read the Grand Jury report that I’m never gonna have the impact on mental health issues running a nonprofit that I could have if I go to the county and try and move $160 million,” said Fletcher, referring to nearly $166 million in Prop. 63 money that had been sitting in a county bank account as of last year.
Fletcher left Qualcomm around the time he began publicly hinting at a supervisor run.
But the departure wasn’t voluntary. In an October court declaration, Fletcher reported that his job had been eliminated. Fletcher also reported receiving nearly $85,000 in severance after he lost the Qualcomm post.
A Fletcher campaign spokesman said Fletcher accepted the standard severance offered to laid off employees.
Years before Fletcher lost the Qualcomm job, he had already begun following Kasparian’s advice. He spent years building his Democratic resume. He even built a better relationship with Kasparian until the labor leader was accused of sexual assault and discrimination. Then Fletcher joined the chorus calling for Kasparian to step down as president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union.
Now, the labor leader, at the helm of a new labor group, is again spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to sink Fletcher’s political aspirations.