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They gathered in circles, snacking on potato chips and sipping beers. They waited around with hands in pockets. They told one another to maintain “positive words, positive thoughts” and to “wait til the last votes come.”
But eventually, that dam of nervous optimism Nathan Fletcher supporters had built up throughout the night Tuesday broke open as vote totals revealed City Councilman David Alvarez – not Fletcher – would move forward to a runoff election.
Within a few hours, a parking garage turned makeshift celebration room in Mission Valley was abandoned and some of the same backers who started the night confident wiped away tears.
Fletcher, a former state Assemblyman whom early polls indicated was likely to be Tuesday’s No. 2 finisher, instead took third place in his second unsuccessful mayoral primary. At the end of the night, he trailed Alvarez, who received significant union support, by just 2,638 votes. Kevin Faulconer, the only major Republican in the race, was the first-place finisher with 89,043 votes at the end of the night. Alvarez and Faulconer are now set to compete in a February runoff.
This wasn’t the ending Fletcher allies predicted, even when the night’s initial returns weren’t as rosy as they’d hoped.
At 8 p.m., when some of the mail ballot results were revealed, Fletcher had just a 3,115-vote edge.
Campaign manager Tim Walsh, who previously led campaigns for Rep. Juan Vargas, didn’t openly acknowledge any concerns.
“We’re 2 ½ (percentage points) ahead,” said Walsh, surrounded by buzzing supporters.
The campaign knew it would be a long night, he said.
He’s had reason to hold out before. Wash led Vargas’ 2010 state Senate victory, which ultimately came down to a 22-vote win for Vargas.
The experience taught Walsh to “wait til the last votes come.”
He was prepared to do that Tuesday night.
Fire union chief Frank De Clercq was outwardly optimistic too.
“I think what carries Nathan is those mail-in ballots that got mailed in early,” said De Clercq, whose union was among the first to publicly back Fletcher for mayor.
Some volunteers, like Val Macedo of the local Laborers’ International Union of North America, repeatedly cautioned others that it would be a tight race.
“You have to remember you have the (San Diego and Imperial Counties) Labor Council backing another candidate,” Macedo said. “It’s gonna be close.”
They realized how close just after 10:30 p.m. With about 68 percent of precincts reporting, Alvarez trailed Fletcher by just 202 votes.
Supporters gathered around waiting for results fell silent.
“Oh shoot,” one said.
Others began texting and refreshing the election results page on their cell phones.
Keith Jones, managing partner of Ace Parking, approached me with his hands in his pockets. It was close. Very close.
He and others began speaking in euphemisms.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Jones told me. “The numbers are what they are.”
Then he started to reflect on smaller triumphs despite a potential Fletcher loss. Business and labor groups united behind the former assemblyman and that in itself was an accomplishment, Jones said.
Moments later, at about 10:45 p.m., Fletcher handlers wrangled reporters. He was about to speak.
Campaign workers chanted his name and waved signs behind a podium.
Walsh, the campaign manager, took the microphone first.
“I’d just like to introduce to you the next mayor of this great city, Nathan Fletcher!”
Fletcher and wife Mindy held hands as they walked swiftly to the podium. When Fletcher took the microphone, he sounded less confident than his campaign chief.
“We have fought every single day of this campaign and we’re going to keep fighting for a few more hours,” Fletcher said, inspiring cheers.
And he hedged at the end of his roughly one-minute speech.
“We are cautiously optimistic that we will fight strongly ’til the end,” he said.
After the speech, retired Marine Col. Richie Coleman, who said he’s a registered Republican, tried to remain optimistic. But he couldn’t hide his frustration.
Coleman said negative ads from Republican groups misrepresented Fletcher’s positions.
“It disgusts me,” said Coleman, who said he’s called dozens of Republicans to try to persuade them that those attacks are misguided.
Still, Coleman said, he expected voters would realize Fletcher was a rare politician honest enough to admit that his political views shifted.
That’s when a loud gasp came from the other room.
It was 11 p.m. and the county had just posted its latest results. For the first time, Alvarez crept past Fletcher into second place.
Silence swept the room.
But 23-year-old volunteer Yousef Abraham of La Mesa wasn’t willing to give up yet. He tried to encourage fellow supporters as they shook their heads and sighed.
“Positive thoughts, positive words,” Abraham said, patting another volunteer on the back. “Stay positive, man.”
The next wave of results might swing in Fletcher’s favor, the recent San Diego State graduate said.
Meanwhile, a cache of campaign volunteers and supporters gathered around a television to watch a CBS 8 reporter interview Alvarez. A few clutched their cell phones, continuing to refresh the election results or send frantic text messages. Some sighed.
Walsh tried to stay positive.
“It’s gonna be a nail-biter,” he told me. “We’re gonna keep watching.”
But some fellow campaign workers began to get glassy-eyed. Others fought back tears. A few huddled behind a wall, away from the cameras and young volunteers, and emerged wiping their eyes.
City Heights resident Mohamed Ahmed, a 23-year-old Somali refugee, stood in front of the election results screen waiting for the 11:30 p.m. update.
Ahmed, who spent hundreds of hours encouraging fellow refugees to vote for Fletcher in recent weeks, wasn’t ready to admit defeat.
“To me, we’re down by a field goal,” he said.
Moments later, the final results appeared.
Alvarez’s lead had grown.
Walsh and a couple other top campaign staffers walked toward a back room where Fletcher and his wife had spent much of their night.
A silent Ahmed put his arm around a fellow volunteer still wearing her campaign T-shirt as she sniffled and wiped away tears.
It was over.