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During Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher’s time in the Legislature, he said he learned some hard and fast pledges don’t work when you’re trying to govern.
These kinds of pledges and partisanship more generally, he said, keeps politicians from having honest conversations about big issues. It’s this realization and a growing comfort with his own beliefs that made him cast off the Republican Party to become an independent and attempt to build a new coalition that could carry him into the San Diego mayoral runoff.
It didn’t work.
Fletcher finished third in last week’s primary behind Republican City Councilman Carl DeMaio and Democratic Congressman Bob Filner, both of whom received their respective parties’ endorsements. He said he wishes he became an independent sooner, but concern that it wouldn’t work held him back.
Fletcher remains undecided about his future plans and hasn’t chosen who’s he’s backing in November.
In a Q&A we published earlier this week, fourth-place finisher Bonnie Dumanis accused Fletcher of going back on a pledge to her not to run for mayor and of trying to push her out of the race. Neither, Fletcher said, happened.
One of the more surprising things during the campaign was the relationship that you and Bob developed. Why do you think that happened as it did?
I think it happened because for a huge number of debates he and I were the only ones to show up.
We had one in Kensington that I think was probably one of the more substantive and informed debates. At some point we just let the time limits go, and each of us took the questions in a comprehensive way. We talked about where we agreed. We talked about where we disagreed.
I knew him the least before the campaign. I’d only met him on a couple of occasions. I enjoyed getting to know him. He’s a fascinating guy. When you sit down and you talk to him about the civil rights movement, things that we read about in books, to hear firsthand the stories of what happened and what took place, it’s an amazing track record of service.
There was one thing that Bonnie said to me that I did want to ask you about. She said you had told her before anyone had decided to run that you weren’t going to run and that you changed your mind.
That’s not true. I never said that to her.
Do you have any idea where that would have come from?
No, I don’t know. Look, everyone who has a vision and a passion and an energy ought to run. I never liked this kind of insider arm-twisting game that people play in politics where they try and get one candidate in and one candidate out.
Clearly, she was upset about that fact that she felt you folks were trying to push her out.
I never did that. I never asked anyone to call her. I never encouraged anyone to call her. She wanted to run for mayor. She ran. She had a vision. She had an approach. She conveyed that to voters. The voters weigh in. The decision of who runs is up to the people who want to run. The decision of who advances is up to the voters of San Diego.
Everyone seems to admit that for a moment there you had a shot of breaking through and making it to the runoff. What do you think happened specifically so it didn’t end up that way?
(Laughs.) We took a couple hits. But I think at the end of it, we’ll see when it’s all totaled how much was spent against us. It was certainly a sustained effort by multiple fronts and entities. I think at the end of the day, the voters who my message resonates with tend to be more November voters or less likely to vote at all. Both parties have organized and established ground operations to turn out the vote. They have decades and decades of organizational skill. When you’re an independent you don’t have that.
If there’s anything you could do over again what would that be?
I would have gone independent sooner. It was something I really wanted to do earlier. But you know, it’s hard. It’s a difficult thing to say I’m going to chart a different path and do it a different way. Then you understand why. When you see the outcome, you understand why.
What held you back from doing it earlier?
The conventional wisdom that it can’t work. You won’t have the infrastructure you need. Folks in a low-turnout June primary tend to be more partisan. They tend to be more extreme. It’s very difficult to build a base that way.
The big criticism about it was that you were just doing something that was opportunistic. If what was holding you back was that you didn’t think it would work, doesn’t that feed that perception?
I think there’s a healthy level of skepticism in anything that you do. I think my track record throughout my time in the office in the Assembly is clearly one where I demonstrated a willingness to break from the party, time and again, on multiple things. I’ve been that independent voice.
I feel like it was consistent with my track record.
Do you think you got to a point where you were more comfortable with who you were toward the end of your term in the Legislature than you were at the beginning?
That’s a fair point. On a number of issues, that’s certainly true. You come in and you have a base of knowledge that’s this wide and you know on a handful of issues what you believe. But then as you spend time and you learn, you definitely evolve and you gain more information and you get more comfortable.
It’s also hard. The party enforces a fairly rigid discipline and you only can break so many times. I think there comes a point where you become much more comfortable being different and being independent and being what you believe is right. That’s certainly been an evolution I’ve experienced during my time in office. No doubt.
I’m thinking of things like the Norquist tax pledge.
Perfect example. When everyone runs, they make pledges and it makes sense. Then you get there and you understand the realities and the complexities of government.
And how something that might make sense in the campaign or when you first start, when you’ve been there and you’ve been in office and you’ve had to make difficult decisions why it doesn’t work. I think one of the measures of someone as a leader is a willingness to say OK, but here’s what I learned, here’s the new information I gained.
In this party-dominated, very partisan — particularly on the Republican side — we aren’t allowed to have some of these intellectually honest conversations about things like tax reform or about ending loopholes or ending subsidies. Or the role education and infrastructure play in building an economy of the future.
It’s true on issues where you just get more comfortable. For example, when I ran the first time I supported gay marriage. I supported marriage equality. But I supported it by saying I believe that it’s this, but it’s not government’s job to make that determination. My position is still the same. I support marriage equality. But I’ve clearly become more comfortable talking about it. I’m more comfortable advocating for it.
Early on in the campaign, you got donations from Mitt Romney and his wife. Some of his family helped you fundraise. Then I was surprised at the NBC debate when you were asked who you were going to vote for president, you wouldn’t say him. Why?
The question was asked, who were you going to vote for in the primary. As a [decline-to-state], I didn’t have an option to vote for someone in the primary. Republicans excluded.
OK. But it’s very easy for you to say Mitt Romney if the question was who do you want to be president, right? Why not say it?
I don’t know. None of the candidates did except Bob.
Do you want him to be president?
We’ll see. We’ll watch it play out. I have a tremendous respect for him. I don’t think I’ll be real involved in the presidential campaign. I imagine at the end of the day I’ll vote for him.
I guess I’m just wondering why it takes a little bit to get you to say that.
I don’t know.
Do you think you would have gone independent had you blocked Carl from getting the GOP endorsement?
I don’t know. We could play a never-ending series of, if-this-had-happened or if-that-had-happened, I don’t know. I felt like it was the right decision for me. I felt like it was the right decision for our city. You make decisions with the information you have.
Scott Lewis talks about political parties as a coalition of interests. After you left, you tried to build a different kind of coalition. I’m talking about dog owners and bike riders and just a diverse set of folks. I’m just wondering what you think happens to that coalition now.
I don’t know. It’s a fair question.
It was a unique coalition that we brought together. I know that the coalition in general from both parties was really speaking or searching for a candidate who talked to them. Who talked about solutions, who talked about moving us forward, who talked about a real vision for our city. In addition to filling potholes. We all want to fill potholes. But who is it that we want to become as a city and a region? I think the candidate that best speaks to those issues will be the candidate that will gain the most traction with that coalition.
Do we see you sustaining a connection with decline-to-state? Is there a movement there?
I said a number of times I was never trying to create a movement that nominates a president. I was doing what I thought was right for our city and what was right for me. For the long term, I just don’t know. It’s a little soon.
What’s next for you?
I don’t know. I literally don’t know. It’s been a week.
I’ve gotten some pushback on what you said last Wednesday. You said you felt you ran the best campaign. I’ve got a lot of questions about how can this guy say he ran the best campaign when he finished third.
(Laughs.) I think I ran the best campaign. I could not be prouder of my team, my staff, my donors and my volunteers. They worked tirelessly.
At the end of the day, none of it matters if you don’t advance. Clearly, I’m aware of that fact. But I think if you look at the ground that we covered, if you look at the excitement we generated, I think it was something really special.
Your message did really seem to be geared more toward November than it did to June.
Yeah, I realized that Tuesday night. (Laughs.) “Oh, so this isn’t the general? What do you mean?” But you know, I can only be who I am. And my message was who I am.
I don’t have any regrets for doing it.
Who are you voting for?
I don’t know.
What I offered was such a stark contrast to the two that advanced, I want to give both of them the opportunity to really lay out what type of mayor they’ll be. I’ll be a resident and a citizen of this city and I’ll make an informed decision on who I think is best positioned to lead San Diego moving forward.
That doesn’t sound like you’re making an endorsement.
I might. I don’t sit out too many things.
I know Filner has already said …
And DeMaio called as well. I’ll sit down with both of them.
Interview conducted and edited by Liam Dillon, who can be reached at email@example.com or 619.550.5663. Liam covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?
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