San Diego is a city in transition.
After years of being known as one of southern California’s more conservative towns with deep military and Republican roots, San Diego began to shift leftward, going for Obama in the 2008 presidential election and choosing Democratic Congressman Bob Filner as its mayor last year, the first Democrat elected to the post in almost two decades.
Filner resigned amid scandal in late August, leaving the city under Interim Mayor Todd Gloria at a crucial junction in its political history.
Whether the leftward shift continues may become clearer on Tuesday, when voters will pick from a field of 12 contenders for Filner’s former job.
“San Diego is an evolving place right now. There are twice as many Democrats as there are Republicans in the City of San Diego registered voters,” said Chair of the county’s Democratic Party Francine Busby. “In fact there are more independent voters than there are Republicans…I can’t really say where the electorate is right now.”
That fluidity in the city’s electorate may be behind the apparent popularity of several major contenders. Those include former Assemblymember Nathan Fletcher, a Republican-turned-independent-turned Democrat with a resume that includes serving in the Legislature and a glittering combat record.
Like the city, Fletcher was once seen as a conservative, serving most of his four years in the Legislature as a Republican. But last year, in the same mayoral race where San Diegans deserted their right-leaning tendencies — and so did Fletcher. Republicans weren’t pleased and they have spent heavily against him, distrusting him since he changed his party.
“I’m not the only one who was driven out,” he said of his departure from the Republican Party in March 2012. “As we go through life we learn and grow and evolve and get new information and we talk to new folks, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Fletcher, 36, remained an independent until May of this year, when he became a Democrat. Political pros give him a shot at getting into a runoff election. City Councilman Kevin Faulconer, also a candidate, may be the strongest contender in the bunch, but still unlikely to avoid a runoff. Another top candidate is Councilman David Alvarez, a Democrat.
Among the top contenders, Faulconer is the sole Republican.
Fletcher said the change, which gained national media attention, was a natural shift, given his experience in the Capitol.
“I was never a very good Republican,” he said. “[The leadership of the Republican Party] told me so often when I was Republican that I didn’t belong, I didn’t share their values, and they were right.”
Though he has not received the local Democratic Party’s endorsement, he has received the support of Gov. Jerry Brown, Attorney General Kamala Harris, Lieutenant Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Speaker John Pérez, among other liberal California leaders.
But veteran political strategist Andrew Acosta says the difference that those statewide endorsements are likely to make in San Diego’s mayoral race is precisely “none.”
That’s the kicker about Fletcher’s reputation as a centrist and a pragmatist at the state level: Those ideological affiliations are less important when you’re running a city.
“Party registration means less in the mayor’s race than in the campaign for legislature or congress,” said Dan Schnur, a political consultant and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “But the bases of both parties tend to turn out in disproportionate numbers. Fletcher has to figure out a way to motivate the middle.”
Beyond appealing to the city’s independent tendencies, however, Fletcher has an even more important political image to paint: the image that he’s not trying to paint one. Many see the timing of Fletcher’s political changes as a calculated appeal to the changing party dynamics of the city.
“San Diego has in the past supported people who are pretty independent,” Acosta said “So there is a history, but I don’t know if the way he has done it lends itself to a story. It makes it look almost too political.”
Whether or not he’s been successful in warding off that criticism, it’s clear he’s got a thick skin about it. Fletcher seems at ease fielding questions about the changes and the criticism. The comments on his party shifting, the attack ads about his attendance in the Legislature, Fletcher is able to brush it off. The legislative sessions he missed were check-in sessions where no votes were cast, and the Democratic Party is “where I belong and where I’ll stay,” he said.
It’s not surprising that Fletcher is stoic in the face of criticism, given his rough beginnings from a working class family and time serving in the Marine Corps. He says that the survivor’s guilt every veteran faces is what pushes him to stay true to his values, perhaps offering him the confidence to address the attacks on his character changing parties has spurred.
But while his thick skin might help him survive the election season, it might not help him win.
“Voters are usually willing to accept a candidates who change their positions on issues, as long as they can explain why they changed their position,” Schnur said. “My guess is that San Diegans are much less worried about Fletcher’s party change but do want to hear him explain why he did.”
On whether or not the city found Fletcher’s explanation satisfactory, Schnur said, “Could I tell you the day after the election?”
Acosta was more pessimistic.
“You [change parties] in the middle of a campaign context, it’s really hard to say that it’s not political,” he said.
The timing of Fletcher’s departure from the right — just days after he lost the Republican endorsement to Carl DeMaio in the 2012 Mayor’s race — did spark some accusations of opportunism. But those who know the history of Fletcher’s political record said he’s always been a centrist.
“There’s an old saying in politics, ‘There’s no such thing as a raging moderate,’” Schnur said. “Fletcher’s challenge is to prove that wrong.”
Fletcher agrees that independence doesn’t communicate strong opinions — which is why he said after so many months as an independent, he made the move to the Democratic Party.
But Fletcher’s limited time in the Democratic Party has made it difficult for him to scoop up liberal support in San Diego.
“People hadn’t really had the chance to get to know Nathan because he hasn’t been a Democrat for very long,” Busby said, regarding the reasons the local party chose David Alvarez over Fletcher for the endorsement.
“I see him as more of a centrist than a liberal,” she added. “But I do believe him when he says that he is now in the right place in the right time and that he’s come to become a Democrat because he embraces the values that the Democratic Party does.”
While some liberals are less trusting than Busby of the legitimacy of his more liberal identification, some simply feel he is not far enough left.
Despite his moderate reputation, however, there are indications that there is someone more liberal lying beneath Fletcher’s polished surface and pragmatic plans for the city. He identifies as pro-choice, pro-labor, and expresses concern over the disparities faced by minorities, and the vocabulary he uses to describe his positions is idealistic: “You should try to do everything you can to make the world a little freer and fairer and more equitable and peaceful place,” Fletcher said of the influence his military service had over his political career.
Fletcher may not get the chance this time around for San Diegans to see him in his full glory as a Democratic leader; polls suggest that Kevin Faulconer may take the race.
Perhaps the Filner scandal is too fresh for the party to bounce back or voters don’t feel they know enough about Fletcher.
Perhaps Fletcher, like San Diego, is in transition.
“What’s happened in California reflects my experience itself,” Fletcher said. “I saw a party drifting away from me, while at the same time I changed.”