by Joanne Faryon
Nathan Fletcher has been every man — a Republican, an Independent, a Democrat– right down the middle. A comprehensive analysis of his thousands of votes in the California legislature backs that up: it places him between the most conservative Republican and most liberal Democrats.
But what the data doesn’t reveal is whether Fletcher’s willingness to break from party ranks is motivated by political expediency or by an ability to compromise for the greater good.
His former allies in the Republican Party, now among his most ferocious foes, believe his record shows he is more an actor than politician, motivated by ambition not policy.
Fletcher’s new Democrat friends say he’s a man willing to listen to the other side; one who has the ability to change his beliefs with new information; a consensus-builder who gets things done.
Fletcher, a California assemblymember from 2008 to 2012, is running for San Diego mayor for the second time. He lost last year’s primary as an Independent, and now has a do-over as a Democrat. It’s a non-partisan race, but party status has increasingly played a financial and philosophical role in the outcome.
Boris Shor, an assistant professor at the Harris School of Public Policy in the University of Chicago, has been studying state legislative records for years , and analyzed Fletcher’s for inewsource. He used the 2,692 votes Fletcher cast as both a Republican and Independent over four years, and concluded Fletcher was more centrist than ideologue: the data placed him nearly equidistant from the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats.
“I wouldn’t be surprised in that short amount of time he could move sufficiently to the left to be competitive in a race like the San Diego’s mayor race,” Shor says.
Fletcher himself believes his overall record is probably where most San Diegans would land.
“Somewhere between the extremes on each end…. And,” he says, “where most folks would like to see their mayor.”
Whether Fletcher wins or loses this election may come down to whether voters believe he truly transcends partisan politics or whether he’s crossed the aisle for political opportunity.
“It’s hard to know what’s inside people’s hearts and minds,” Shor says.
“I’ve been a Republican my entire life…”
Last March, Fletcher gave an impassioned speech to the San Diego Republican Party. He wanted its endorsement for mayor in the 2012 primary. Recorders were banned from the members-only event, but audio of his speech ended up in Youtube anyway.
“I’ve been a Republican my entire life,” he says, describing a “long and committed track record” with the party. One which included standing outside Home Depot as a college student to register voters and forgoing pay while working on campaigns because he wanted the money to “go to the cause.”
Fletcher didn’t get the Republican endorsement. It went to former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio. Days later, Fletcher announced on YouTube he was leaving the party and becoming an Independent.
inewsource reviewed Fletcher’s votes on dozens of key bills relating to gay rights, women’s health, labor, taxes and the environment.
His votes show many contradictions. Some examples:
He voted in 2009 against Harvey Milk Day – a day commemorating California’s most prominent gay rights activist. And that same year he voted no on a law that would have recognized same-sex marriages performed out-of-state prior to Prop 8.
But in 2010 Fletcher denounced the don’t ask don’t tell policy and spoke in support of gays serving openly in the military. In 2011 he was the only Republican to support teaching gay history in the classroom.
In 2009 he voted against a bill requiring insurance companies to provide maternity services, but a year later voted yes on a similar bill.
He consistently voted against pro-labor bills including one that strengthened prevailing wage requirements.
But in 2012, he supported a bill protecting farm workers from heat stroke.
In 2009 Planned Parenthood gave him a zero percent on his pro-choice record but in 2012 he earned 100 percent. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association gave him an “A” for his stance against raising taxes at the beginning of his time in office, but by the time he left he had an “F” from the same group.
Breaking the political mold
Fletcher’s record isn’t typical.
“It turns out politicians changing their political stripes is extremely, extremely rare,” Shor says.
Shor has been analyzing the voting records of every state assembly member in the country – devising a system in which he scores how Democratic or Republican they vote.
“The right way to think about politicians is they’re ideologues. The reason they go into office is because they believe strongly in a particular set of issues; a particular philosophy of how government is supposed to operate and what they’re supposed to do,” Shor says.
Shor hasn’t publicly released his most recent data, but he agreed to plot Fletcher’s partisan record for inewsource and compare him to other California legislators between 2009 and 2012. Negative scores are assigned to legislators on the left (Democrats), positive scores on the right (Republicans).
Fletcher’s score was .6, compared to 2.6 for the most conservative Republican in the state, Tim Donnelly. The most conservative San Diego assembly members, Brian Jones and Brian Maienschein both scored 1.7
The most liberal Democrat in California, Tom Ammiano scored negative 2.4. The most liberal in San Diego, Lori Saldana was at negative 1.9.
Fletcher was almost as far away from the most conservative San Diego assembly members as he was from the county’s most liberal Democrats.
“He is by far the most liberal Republican in the assembly,” Shor says.
The question Fletcher’s critics and his supporters are now addressing – what was his motive for moving to the left?
“What Nathan has demonstrated over the last 18 months and even before, that these principles, these positions on public policy are nothing but a means to an end,” says Jason Roe, a long-time Republican campaign strategist – currently working on Councilmember Kevin Faulkner’s bid for mayor.
Roe once considered Fletcher a friend and credits him for helping him adopt his four-year-old son by introducing him to his adoption provider. He says the two of them no longer have a relationship.
When Roe met Fletcher 15 years ago, he saw him as a rising star in the party, and hired him to work on a Republican campaign.
“Nathan Fletcher used the political party to advance his career for 15 years and when it became inconvenient for his political aspirations to continue to be a Republican, he abandoned 15 years of relationships, of loyalties, of people who propelled his career,” he says.
Fletcher “can make you feel in a Clintonesque way like you’re the only one in the room. But it’s an act,” Roe says.
Marty Wilson, a long time Republican campaign operative who worked alongside former Governor Pete Wilson for many years, says he and Wilson both believed Fletcher had a lot of potential.
“This is not a guy who was a casual Republican. This is a guy who held key positions,” including political director of the California Republican party, Wilson says.
While Fletcher has lost many friends in the Republican Party – he’s been making new ones among influential Democrats.
Lorena Gonzalez, assemblywoman and former San Diego labor leader, is one of them.
Gonzalez stuck her own neck out to support Fletcher, instead of Democratic Councilman David Alvarez, the official choice of both the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council and the San Diego Democratic Party.
“I saw in him somebody who wasn’t going to go away, somebody who was going to be a rising star. He had the right charisma and personality and background,” Gonzalez says.
“He went to war and has done incredible things, and I thought he could become a very good Democrat.”
Gonzalez says that even before Fletcher became a Democrat he was open to supporting labor causes once he learned more about the issues.
“I’ve seen him progress and evolve. I’m very comfortable with where he’ll be with working families in the mayor’s office,” she says.
Gonzalez was among a handful of other state Democrats including, Congressman Juan Vargas and California State Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, who last year began courting Fletcher – bringing him to union meetings and introducing him to other Democrats.
“Because I do what I think is right not only for myself, but my community,” she says.
Fletcher also has the support of one of the wealthiest and most and powerful San Diego families. Qulacomm founder Irwin Jacobs and his wife Joan together gave the independent committee supporting Fletcher $75,000.
Qualcomm chairman and CEO Paul Jacobs gave Fletcher a job after he lost his bid for mayor last year and has used his powerful megaphone to promote and defend Fletcher.
“I am a pro-jobs Democrat and so is Nathan,” Jacobs wrote in a mass email to potential supporters.
“He was never a good fit in the Republican Party and no doubt the Democratic Party is lucky to have him,” he wrote.
“I’m comfortable as a Democrat. It’s where I belong and it’s where I’ll stay.”
It’s rare for a politician to switch parties. About 18,000 state legislators have served between the mid 1990’s to 2011. Shor says he’s counted nearly 200 who have crossed over.
Shor says an optimistic interpretation of why someone like Fletcher would switch parties might be that “he wanted to be more liberal but his party was preventing him from expressing positions on issues that he cared about.”
But the data has a more pessimistic view. More legislators leave minority parties to join the majority – the party in power.
“(If it was) for philosophical reasons, you’d sort of expect it to go equally in both directions.” Shor says.
All the Presidents’ parties
When Nathan Fletcher asked San Diego Republicans to endorse him for mayor last year, he cited Republican President Ronald Reagan as the first president of his youth, who defined the difference between “individualist and collectivist.”
When he sat down for an interview with inewsource earlier this month, he remembered a different president from his youth, Democrat Bill Clinton who was Governor of Arkansas when Fletcher toured that state’s capital as a “little guy.”
Fletcher says it wasn’t until college that he got interested in politics. He joined the military at 19, which was “a very Republican kind of leaning entity,” he says.
Of his voting record in the state assembly, he regrets his “no” vote on Harvey Milk Day, argues the issues are complicated and can’t always be addressed with a simple yes or no, and admits he’s changed, but so has the Republican party.
“There’s this part of politics where you’re not allowed to say you were wrong. You’re not allowed to say you changed your mind or you’re not allowed to say you got new information and I just think that’s not honest,” he says.
On losing his Republican allies, Fletcher says they never fully embraced him as a Republican to begin with.
He shows some remorse over losing the support of former Governor Pete Wilson who in 2011 wrote Fletcher a glowing letter of endorsement.
“It’s part of life….I respect whatever decision he makes.”
There is agreement among Fletcher’s adversaries and allies that he may have aspirations beyond local and state politics.
“I think when Nathan Fletcher is practicing his gravelly voice in the mirror he sees a president of the United States,” Jason Roe says.
At age 36, Fletcher isn’t ruling out running for future office, but he says right now he just wants to be mayor.
“I’m comfortable as a Democrat. It’s where I belong and where I’ll stay,” Fletcher says.
“But I’ll always be someone who’s willing to do what I think is right and not toe a line just because it s a party line,” he says.
Jason Roe, once a friend and Republican Party comrade, now watches Fletcher from a distance.
Fletcher’s maneuvers are all about what’s best for “Nathan Fletcher,” Roe says.
How do you know that?
”Well, because I know Nathan.”
inewsource investigative researcher Emily Burns contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Oct. 18 to correct Fletcher’s age from 37 to 36.