Following from afar, the campaign of Nathan Fletcher was an interesting case study. Fletcher proved an important example as a former GOP California Assemblyman running as an independent candidate for Mayor of San Diego – that his party defection worked, to a certain extent. Remember, Fletcher left the Republican Party in the middle of the campaign, pivoting successfully to run a high profile non-partisan race for office. On a smaller historical scale than Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, and Jesse Ventura, Fletcher’s campaign was an equally important chance to examine the reality of running as an independent politician in today’s here and now.
Fletcher was certainly an interesting candidate, and finishing third to a Republican and a Democrat in the non partisan primary for Mayor of San Diego, with 23.2% of the vote was no small feat. His “independent conversion” from the GOP made headlines after the local party endorsed his opponent, Republican and June 5th top two primary winner Carl DeMaio. The party switch even inspired a column from David Brooks - and for good reason – Fletcher has a compelling life story that makes for a great column:
Nathan Fletcher was raised in Arkansas, played college baseball in California and enlisted in the Marines as a reserve in 1997. He saw combat in 2004, based in the Sunni Triangle in Iraq.
As detailed in fine reporting by Craig Gustafson of The San Diego Union-Tribune, Fletcher was awarded an achievement medal with a Combat “V” for Valor.
Over the course of the campaign, it was interesting to watch Fletcher try to beat the rap that he was an IINO (Independent in Name Only), simply changing his party affiliation for the sake of picking up additional votes after he failed to become the endorsed GOP “party candidate.” From an outsider’s perspective, it was certainly easy to be cynical about Fletcher’s party switch despite his persuasive campaign rhetoric, but two recent items of news have come to light in the wake of the primary election that shed fresh perspective on the ideological foundations of Fletcher’s candidacy and independent switch.
First is a post election interview with Fletcher by Liam Dillon of VoiceOfSanDiego.org that sheds more light on Fletcher’s own retrospective thinking:
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.
Additionally, a separate news item has shed favorable light on Fletcher’s character. A report from Jen Lebron Kuhney of the San Diego Union Tribune detailed how Fletcher quietly negotiated with stakeholders on both sides of the table to help prevent a large scale janitor strike during a high profile labor dispute. He did all this independent of his primary primary campaign, and didn’t overtly try use it for political gain or draw attention to his volunteer mediation:
Fletcher didn’t publicize his involvement with the “Justice for Janitors” movement before or after the election… “It wasn’t about the mayor’s race,” he said. “It’s about people who should have health care and preventing a work stoppage that would not have served anyone’s interests or helped our economy. Who cares about an election when you’re dealing with people’s lives?”
Nathan Fletcher certainly did a lot of things right during his 2012 campaign for Mayor of San Diego. His PR strategy certainly capitalized well his party switch, with coverage from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and other major outlets. He built innovative voting coalitions of Veterans, CEOs, and even dogs (and their owners) that presumably crossed party lines. He even had his own super PAC commercial.
It’s interesting to speculate what would have happened if Fletcher had run as an independent candidate earlier, perhaps even from the beginning of his mayoral campaign. Would he have made up enough of an authenticity gap to connect with more nonpartisan voters and motivate higher turnout, or was the San Diego electoral deck too stacked against his candidacy from the start? Regardless, as Nathan Fletcher’s record as a “rising star” in the California Assembly and his undercover labor dispute mediation have shown, he excels at coalition building and fostering cooperation in the environment of extreme partisanship – skills sorely needed at every level of American government, not only the oft publicized gridlock of US Congress.
Stay tuned to see what Nathan Fletcher’s next move is. Even he doesn’t know yet:
What’s next for you?
I don’t know. I literally don’t know. It’s been a week.