San Diego mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher is spending a lot of time these days explaining his 14-month shift from Republican to independent to Democrat. But he wants to talk about another shift, too: an embrace of a neighborhoods-first message.

“I think one of the best conversations we’ve been having over the course of this year that has to continue is the one about neighborhoods and neighborhoods that have been neglected for a long time, and I think that’s clearly we have to do a better job,” Fletcher told me Thursday.

On first glance, Fletcher talking about prioritizing underserved neighborhoods is not very surprising. Outgoing Democratic Mayor Bob Filner credited his victory last November on voters backing the same concept and rejecting the primacy of downtown. By all accounts, the pitch remains popular.

But like Fletcher’s partisan shape-shifting, his message about neighborhoods is a new one. Back in late 2010, Fletcher engineered a middle-of-the-night deal to funnel a big share of $6 billion in future tax dollars to downtown redevelopment, though the legislation was ultimately rendered meaningless when Gov. Jerry Brown killed the program. In the early stages of the mayoral campaign, Filner’s downtown-hate and Fletcher’s downtown-love was the starkest contrast between the two candidates.

To be sure, Fletcher and others who focused on downtown always argued that a more prosperous downtown provided more money to help other neighborhoods. Former Mayor Jerry Sanders, the most well-known supporter of downtown development efforts, believed Filner distorted Sanders’ record on neighborhoods. (Sanders also provided the grossest example of the downtown-first message before his final State of the City speech when he showed a video set to an Eminem soundtrack of a young black kid running from his crime-ridden neighborhood to downtown megaprojects.)

Fletcher and I went back and forth on his redevelopment deal in our conversation Thursday. He said that San Diego Unified school board member Richard Barrera embraced it, which is basically true. And Fletcher argued the deal would have resulted in more money for the city’s day-to-day budget. That depends on how you look at it. An analysis found that the deal took $45 million from the day-to-day budget over four decades, but added $49 million to the budget over the same period once you factored in other possible benefits from the deal.

Fletcher also reiterated something he said on the campaign trail in the last mayoral election: He never would have done the legislation had he known redevelopment was going to go away.

Here’s the full exchange, starting with Fletcher:

“I think one of the best conversations we’ve been having over the course of this year that has to continue is the one about neighborhoods and neighborhoods that have been neglected for a long time and I think that’s clearly we have to do a better job.

“I live in University City. My neighbors will all get mad at me, but our street just got repaved. I bike, I cycle. My street was fine. There’s other communities, they don’t have sidewalks, they don’t have street lights and I don’t think that they would understand why that is the case. I think that’s an issue that’s been raised and that conversation has to be continued, along with having more people involved in the conversation in San Diego.”

Beyond the partisan issue you were also seen as the downtown guy.

I dispute that.

Well, the redevelopment deal was a huge move that you made that was a tremendous amount of tax dollars that would go downtown.

We can re-litigate that. I think that was a decision that would have benefited the entire region. I believe that. You had Richard Barrera come out and say it’s more money for our schools.  You had the city do an analysis that said it was more money for the city general fund. And you had things that would have benefited the thing regionally. I do believe that that was something that benefited the entire city.

In terms of that, I’ll take support from anywhere. I’m not going to pit neighborhoods against each other. That’s not my style or my tenor. But it is a fair conversation that you have neighborhoods that have been left behind. And that is true not only in sidewalks, in street lights. It’s true in response times. It’s true in crime levels. It’s true in rates of obesity. It’s true in failing schools. We’re never going be one as a city if we don’t focus on how we’re going to address some of those inequalities.

Going back again to the deal. No one ever said, well we’re going to benefit downtown to the exclusivity of other neighborhoods. What folks said was downtown was a catalyst to help other neighborhoods through increases to the tax base generally.

But if the city general fund gets hundreds of millions of dollars more, the city general fund doesn’t go exclusively to downtown.

I understand that. What that bought into, and I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, was the narrative that by helping downtown, you help everybody else.

I understand that narrative. I disagree with that premise. I fundamentally disagree with the premise. I that think if you have an opportunity to provide more money to your schools in all of San Diego Unified. More money to the city general fund that do things like fire stations and police staffing levels that we need and provide more money for infrastructure those are the types of things that you should do.

You also said at a debate that if you knew what was going to happen afterward you wouldn’t have done it.

Well, of course. If Jerry Brown’s going to eliminate it, of course you wouldn’t do it. Of course. Why would I take all that grief for something that was never going to …

I’ll take pain to do the right thing, but I would like the good thing to actually happen. I got all the pain and no one saw the benefit of it.

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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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