Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher became the first big-name candidate to declare for San Diego’s special mayoral election. His quick shift from Republican to independent to Democrat will inevitably factor into how receptive voters are to his pitch.
He told us Thursday he regrets his March 2012 effort to persuade local Republicans he was an authentic conservative, but isn’t going to rehash all of his votes and stances.
In November when you took the Qualcomm job, you said you had no plans to run for office again. You said the same thing when you announced you were becoming a Democrat in May. What happened?
We lost our mayor. San Diego lost its mayor. I didn’t have any plans. Certainly nobody wanted this to happen. I think all San Diegans want their mayor to be successful. They want to give him a chance to see that success. I was absolutely in that camp. It’s just an unfortunate turn of events that has now provided a conversation we gotta have about who’s going to be our mayor moving forward. That certainly changed the circumstances.
In March 2007, you signed the Norquist anti-tax pledge. During the mayoral campaign last May you said if you had to sign that pledge again, you wouldn’t. When did that change for you?
When specifically it changed, it was when I worked out the tax arrangement with (Gov.) Jerry Brown where we were essentially eliminating a loophole that benefited out-of-state corporations that would provide a real benefit to Californians. When I did that and was attacked even though the initial one was revenue neutral, I was attacked for raising taxes over a billion dollars by DeMaio.
That’s the point where I realized that in politics there is no rational conversation about tax policy. That was one that had tremendous support amongst the business community but you were still hit with this.
When you were talking to the Republican Party in March 2012 you touted the fact that you had signed this tax pledge. You’re saying your mind changed when you did the first deal with Brown, which was sometime in 2011. Why tout you signed the tax pledge after your mind changed on that?
I think in general that entire endorsement process was two things. It was an eye-opening experience in the sense of as much as I may have tried, they knew that I didn’t belong in the party. It was like one last attempt at reconciliation to say let me do everything I can to try and convince you I’m one of you. I knew in that instance I wasn’t. They knew I wasn’t. I think it was better for the both of us.
But in hindsight it was a mistake. I had broken with the party on so many issues that we were just in a place where we had irreconcilable differences.
Why say some of the things that you did if you didn’t believe in them?
We were trying to find everything. I had had this long history of the worst Republican and all the scorecards and the stories and all those types of things. I think it was an attempt to find anything we could hang our hat on to say that we were still one of them. I regret it.
There’s no doubt that the transition from Republican to Democrat could have been done better. I should have done it sooner. But these are difficult things. They’re hard in a partisan environment. It’s not an easy thing to do. I’m incredibly comfortable with where I am. I know it’s where I belong.
As part of that speech you touted that you’ve never supported a tax increase. Do you ever see yourself supporting a tax increase now?
We’ll see what we lay out in the course of the proposals. I don’t expect to have any proposals for that. I think the levels are fine the way they are.
Having governed in a period of great recession, the way you think about these things changes. I still want your taxes to be as low as possible. But we have to provide teachers and schools and roads and bridges. I think that we need a tax policy that actually encourages economic growth in today’s world. Having sat at Qualcomm, one of the real reasons that we aren’t hiring and expanding is because our education system isn’t putting out the engineers that we need. You can make an economic case that an investment in higher education actually benefits the economy.
We’ll take a look at that as we move forward.
Is there a particular vote that you took in the Assembly that you now regret taking?
Harvey Milk Day. That had less to do with that actual day. That was a period of time where had a huge budget deficit. We couldn’t get anyone to agree on deficits. We had all these big pressing issues and we had a series of votes on symbolic days. I got frustrated that we weren’t dealing with these big issues and voted against a number of them. I think it really discounted the importance that that vote meant to a huge community. I probably didn’t appreciate it at the time. That was certainly a mistake.
When you spoke to the party again, and I’m going to keep going back to this because you said a lot, you touted the fact that you voted to eliminate welfare. Is that one you would also regret?
That wasn’t an actual vote to eliminate welfare.
But you said that you did it as part of–
The point that I was making there – I think everyone would like to eliminate welfare by getting everyone jobs and getting them back to work. But that’s not a reality and we have to have a safety net for people who are in need. That vote was a procedural issue as each party put forward their different proposals. It’s certainly not something I would tout. It’s not something I would have ever supported if it had the possibility of being real.
But you told the Republican Party that you did that.
I understand that.
Did you vote for Mitt Romney?
So you voted for Obama?
Was that hard given Romney’s support for you?
It is hard. On a personal level. On a policy level, it wasn’t hard. I support the president and I think he’s doing the best he can in a very difficult environment.
One of the things that’s hard is when you make a change, the easy thing in politics is to stay in a place that you may believe is wrong but it’s easy because you avoid the criticism. It’s very difficult, especially when you have to do these things in the public and in the open, to admit that you’ve changed. It’s a hard thing to do because you face intense criticism and you face criticism that you’re a flip-flopper. But I can’t stay in a place that I think is wrong and pretend to be there when I know that it’s not what I believe.
Lifetime labor score: 18 percent. No annual Chamber of Commerce score lower than 92 percent. Lifetime League of Conservation Voters score of 48 percent. Do you expect those kinds of votes that you took at the time to reflect the decisions you’d make as mayor?
On some of those scorecards, you’ll see a progression; you’ll see a gradual change. Some of them you may not. I can’t reach back in time and tell you what I would do today now. All I can do is deal with the issues in front of us and take them as they come and explain where I am and why.
It’s interesting because most politicians say, ‘I’m running on my record.’ But when you look at your record, you’re sort of projecting something different now than what you did then, right?
It’s a question of running on your record, which you have to explain your positions on issues. But a big part of the role of mayor is a record of actually being able to bring people together and get things done. Legislative bodies do these types of things and mayors have to decide if they’re going to sign or veto things.
But one of the biggest parts of a mayor is having that ability to get labor together, to get business together and to try and sort out what’s right – not for either one of those two groups, but what’s right for the city. I’ll run on that record. I’m happy to talk about, whether you talk about the janitor’s strike, the tax deal I did with Brown, the number of times we were able to do that on these big, difficult, complex issues where we could get folks. At the end of the day they may not both be thrilled but they both say, “It’s good. It’s not great for me, but it’s good.” And that I think is the responsibility of a mayor.
It’s not just that. The mayor has a tremendous amount of power as far as initiating what the policy is. I noticed that you backed the prevailing wage, which is something that Filner had initiated and got through with a Democratic council to support that. I think maybe a good example for you would be big-box stores. You voted against the Juan Vargas bill on big-box stores. But that’s a policy that you could now as a mayor initiate. Is that the kind of thing that we would see from you now?
It’s the type of thing I’d be willing to take a look at in terms of the economic impact report. Not a ban.
Do you regret the big-box vote?
I’m not going to reach back in every vote I ever took.
You’ve talked a lot about the fact that your core values haven’t changed. And you bring up education and the equality of access. I’m interested in how you’d operationalize that. Let’s talk about one thing with it, the parent trigger. Back in the previous mayoral campaign you explained to Filner what that was and you described it in pretty positive terms. Is that something that you would still support?
Well, the mayor doesn’t have a huge role in terms of what happens with that in San Diego.
Sure. But you supported that concept then. Do you support that concept now?
The way we discussed it then, I would discuss it in a similar fashion now.
Are you all in for mayor at this point?
We’ll do a formal announcement next week. Yeah.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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