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In the last couple weeks of his campaign for county supervisor, Nathan Fletcher faced a barrage of negative advertisements in voters’ mailboxes, and on cable TV and social media.
The conservative Lincoln Club dropped $323,000 against him after May 23 — that was added on top of $140,000 the group had already spent against him. At the same time, the labor unions United Food and Commercial Workers and Laborers United dropped $204,000 in late ads attacking Fletcher and promoting his rival, Lori Saldaña.
The Republican Party and its candidate for the job, Bonnie Dumanis, both hit him too.
It was the same formula that had ruined his first run for mayor. It was the same formula that tanked his second run for mayor — almost literally the same combination of spending and forces.
This race was a last chance for him to salvage the career in politics he coveted. Another loss may not have ended that career, but it would have been almost impossible to imagine. He went all in. Like a poker player at the end of his line, he bet all he had on the last card.
But it wasn’t entirely a bet.
This time, he had an army of resources and workers at his back. The Democratic Party — with help from his wife, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez — marshaled $880,000 in support for him to beat back the attacks and establish with voters his newly validated bona fides as a Democrat.
More importantly, the unions — led by the Building Trades Council and SEIU, which represents most county workers — walked precincts and mobilized their formidable get-out-the-vote effort for him.
It was the kind of base he never had before. His support in the past had been distributed among various constituencies with many affluent supporters. It left him able to raise a lot of money but never to balance out the attacks he endured.
Then, to top it off, a low-level effort to keep the business community from fully investing in his defeat was working behind the scenes.
“Nathan maintains significant support within the business community, and he worked to make it clear to them that he would be better for them than Lori Saldaña,” said Ryan Clumpner, a political consultant who works with the Lincoln Club and others.
Mitch Mitchell, a senior vice president at San Diego Gas and Electric, was part of that effort.
“Divisiveness isn’t helping anyone accomplish anything. That truly is what I was reminding people,” Mitchell said. (Disclosure: Mitchell is a member of Voice of San Diego’s board of directors.)
Mitchell’s efforts may have stymied some of the investment in the effort to kill Fletcher’s campaign, but Fletcher’s gratitude for his win now belongs almost wholly to one group: the coalition of labor unions that supported him. One of them — SEIU — broke out of a budding alliance with UFCW just to stick with him.
He ended up not just making the runoff, but in first place. He pledged to stay in the county seat and has already promised not to run for mayor or another office until his term is up. But his obvious, intense ambition now can be stored with more confidence and patience. And possibly income: Having lost his job at Qualcomm, he now has a clearer path to a public service job with enormous benefits.
It would be reasonable to ask what he may feel like he owes unions for this. SEIU will see an ally like they’ve never had on the Board of Supervisors when the union negotiates for benefits and structural change.
But the other unions expect something more visionary.
They think they’ve signed on a new leader.
“He’s not going to be someone who just nods and goes along with our preferences. He’s going to be an actual leader, and that’s the big difference between someone we would just endorse and do a small investment of resources on and someone we would support to this extent,” said Carol Kim, the political director of the Building Trades Council.
I’m not sure what Nathan Fletcher, labor leader, looks like. But it will be something to behold.