The day in July when mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher announced his backing for a pension reform initiative that’s dominated San Diego politics for the last six months, the head of the city’s police officers union reacted as expected.

“It makes it much more difficult for us to consider Nathan for an endorsement,” police union head Brian Marvel said at the time.

Difficult, but apparently not impossible. On Wednesday, when Marvel announced his union had endorsed Fletcher’s bid for mayor, it proved that pension politics, no matter how bitter, won’t be the sole factor in the race.

“There’s more to being the mayor than just pension reform,” Marvel said.

The initiative, which gives most new city employees 401(k)s instead of pensions, has created a new level of line-in-the-sand divisiveness between the right and the left. Fletcher, a Republican assemblyman, now has shown he can walk what looked like a thin tightrope.

That’s exactly why the cops say they like Fletcher.

“He has shown the ability to get a coalition of people together with opposing ideas to find a solution to solve a problem,” Marvel said.

Both the timing and the choice of candidate show the depth of the police officers’ support. The union made its selection more than seven months before the June primary, the first major visible interest group to make a decision.

And it chose someone that by all accounts is polling fourth and has the least name recognition among the quartet of major candidates. Only two will make it through next June’s primary if any one candidate doesn’t get a majority.

“We just felt that we needed to play a more decisive role in the mayor’s race,” Marvel said. He wouldn’t estimate how much the union will spend to support Fletcher.

To be sure, it’s not as if this move was entirely unexpected. Fletcher carried a bill at the union’s behest through the state Legislature last year. Fletcher’s signature achievement, a law that gave tougher penalties to sex offenders, had strong law enforcement backing.

Fletcher’s political consultant, Tom Shepard, owns the lobbying company that represents the police union. Marvel said his lobbyist, Kimberly Hale Miller, recused herself from the union’s endorsement discussions.

Still, Wednesday’s announcement stings two of Fletcher’s three main opponents, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and Congressman Bob Filner.

Remember, this storyline — someone who can rise above the pension politics fray — could have been told through a different candidate. And for a while, it was.

At first, Dumanis opposed the pension reform measure but still secured the endorsement of two of the initiative’s key backers, Mayor Jerry Sanders and City Councilman Kevin Faulconer. Then in August, Dumanis decided to flip her stance and back the pension plan.

Dumanis has long said she wasn’t seeking the police union’s endorsement. She believes there’s a potential for a conflict of interest as the region’s top prosecutor responsible for trying Police Department cases and at times individual officers. But Marvel said Dumanis was hoping the police union would stay neutral. Her inability to keep the union out of the race has allowed another candidate to claim some of her law-and-order gravitas.

In a statement released after the union’s announcement, Dumanis ticked off the list of eight state and local law enforcement groups that are endorsing her.

For Filner, Wednesday’s announcement shows he was unable to unite public employee union support behind him, even though he’s the only major candidate to oppose the pension initiative.

“Coming out against it and coming up with a solution to solve it, I think are two different categories,” Marvel said.

In fact, it appears the union didn’t think much of Filner’s candidacy. Marvel said the congressman never even got an interview. The union gave Filner’s campaign their questionnaire, but didn’t wait for his response before picking Fletcher.

“We have a process,” Marvel said, “but the process isn’t written in stone.”

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for 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 or 619.550.5663.

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Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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