Fletcher ready for tough choices

There’s a scene in Bull Durham when aging minor league vet Kevin Costner schools rising star Tim Robbins on how to handle the media in the major leagues. Costner’s character, Crash Davis, fills Robbins with clichés that comprise the path of least resistance in the ongoing sparring session between the media and their subjects, and increase one’s chances of survival.

While Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, R-San Diego, can seem at times like a graduate of the Crash Davis School of Media Relations, there is no doubting his sincerity in his answers, or the political animal that lurks just below the surface.  It’s hard to quantify what makes someone a rising star. But since before his election to the Assembly in November, the tag was already hung on Nathan Fletcher.

And while he may play it safe in an interview, Fletcher says he’s under no illusions about the hard choices ahead. While he stopped short of saying he would support a budget package with tax increases, Fletcher did talk about making “touch choices” in finding a budget compromise.

And in a party that was just badly beaten in statewide and district elections, Fletcher is one of the California GOP’s shining lights. Fletcher is only 32-years old. He’s young and affable and has an impressive background.  As a member of the Marines, he served tours in Iraq and Eastern Africa – and comes from a political household. His wife, Mindy Tucker Fletcher, is a Bush and Schwarzenegger Administration veteran who now works as a consultant for Ogilvy Public Relations.

Fletcher has had a busy year. Not only was he elected to the Assembly, but he and his wife also adopted a baby boy, Zach, and he completed the Ironman Triathalon. It is perhaps the perfect metaphor for Fletcher’s new job – needing both the patience of a new parent and incredible endurance to survive the legislative slog.

Capitol Weekly talked to Fletcher about his new role as Assemblyman, father, and vice-chairman of the Assembly Health Committee. And went after the hard truth about rumors of a musical duet including himself and fellow freshman Isadore Hall, D-Compton.

Did you grow up in San Diego?
No, Nevada. Carson City. I remember when I was a little guy seeing guys walking around town with six-shooters on their hips. It was the Wild West. And then I went to high school in Arkansas. My mom is still there. And then I went to San Diego for boot camp as a teenager. I deployed out of Pendleton when I went to Iraq and Camp Lejeune when I went to Africa.

I saw you were named vice-chair of Assembly Health. Was that something you were expecting?
I asked for it. When you look at the problems we face in California, everybody right now is focused, as they should be, on the budget. But right over the budget horizon, we have major problems in the area of water, we have major problems with out health care system, we have major problems in job creation and development, and we have major problems with effective oversight of our government.
I asked for committees that reflect those things. I asked for Health. I asked for Water, Parks and Wildlife, I asked for the Accountability and Oversight Committee.

With crisis comes opportunity, and if that applies to the budget, that has to apply to these other areas as well.

What is the one policy change you would make in health policy if you could?

It’s hard to mention one specific one, but I think there are a lot of areas we should be focused. One is the health IT problem. 40,000 people die from errors every year in a country that put a man on the moon 40 years ago. We’ve got to be able to find a way to move a prescription from Point A to Point B and make sure that it gets done right.

I’m also interested in how we help folks hold on to their health care.  Our generation doesn’t go to work in one place for 40 years and retire. With a lot of traditional modes of health care being employer-based, I see it as more of an individual opportunity.
I think portability is part of it. But I also think there’s some creative things we can do, particularly for kids.

What are your thoughts on the plan to use the First Five money to expand healthy families?
I’m looking at that.

Of course, your caucus has a claim on that money as well for the overall budget problem.

Everybody has a claim on it. But there has got to be a way. We want to tackle the problem of the uninsured as a whole, but I think the goal has to be a system in California where every Californian has access to an affordable health care plan. But we should start with kids.

I think with the First Five funds that are for early childhood development, putting a focus on health, on preventative care and healthy lifestyles is important as well.

So, none of your bills have been formally introduced yet. What kind of bill package are you looking at?
We’re still working on it, but there are lots of other problems that need addressing that do not necessarily require legislation.
And the prospects for Republican bills aren’t all that good, with the budget situation and the partisan make-up of the Assembly.
Well, I always say I’m a dumb Marine, but I can count to 41. I think the key is finding ideas that have some bipartisan resonance. I’d like to start out with a partner on the other side when possible.

What has it been like to finally be elected to office, only to have this budget situation overwhelm everything?
I’m the eternal optimist. Or maybe the naïve freshman. But I’ve actually been encouraged, particularly by the freshman class. I think we come in and we want to work together, we want to try to get things done.

The problems are very, very hard and there are real differences there in the approaches, but there’s been a willingness to talk and work through some of these things. We’ve got a long way to go, but I’m encouraged.

Have there been any formal, bipartisan freshman class meetings?
Well, we’ve gone through all the new member orientation together. We got to spend a lot of time with each other there. And one of the things I think is important is for members to spend time with each other socially, outside of the confines of this formal structure, to get to know one another. To build those personal friendships so that even when there are differences of opinion, we can respectfully disagree. I think that’s important.

Are there people in the freshman class you’re particularly close with?
Yeah, I’m really close with Isadore (Hall). We met at freshman orientation and we really hit it off. We’re from the same generation. We share a commitment to try to get things done. And I think he’s a lot of fun to hang out with too.

I’ve heard rumors that you guys do a mean version of Wonder and McCartney’s Ebony and Ivory?
(Laughing) No comment.

Could you ever vote for a tax increase?
I think a lot of folks from both sides are committed to making tough decisions and solve what is an historic problem. We’re facing a budget deficit that’s on a scale California has never seen. I think the most important part is not to miss the opportunity to have historic reform. We can’t miss the chance to structurally change how the state operates.

Does that just mean a larger rainy-day fund?
It’s finding a way to stabilize our revenues, so that we fund schools consistently, so that we don’t have these boom and bust years. When I talk to teachers in my district, they want stable funding, th
ey want to be able to plan and build a budget. So taking the instability out of the cycle. And I think that’s the kind of reform we’re pushing.

And the jobs thing, too. People are really hurting right now. My neighbor lost his job, and every weekend when I go home he asks me, ‘What are you going to do to create jobs in California?’ A lot of the focus has to be on good jobs. I mean emerging technology, green technology, bio-technology. And I have a lot of those in my district.

There’s a diversity of employment across those sectors, where they have the high-end research jobs, but they also have the blue-collar manufacturing jobs. There are vocational ed jobs, so you can come out of high school and learning a skill, and making good money and have health insurance and a retirement plan.

And other states are after what we have, courting those industries. I know the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, is in San Diego what seems like every month courting our jobs. I see him when he’s out here. I say, ‘Governor, what are you doing?’ He calls me ‘Fletch.’ He says, ‘Oh, Fletch, you know I just like your weather.’

And I tell him, we both know that’s not true. He’s courting our high-tech and bio-tech. So, other states see the same opportunities that we do, and we really have to seize the intellectual might that we have in California.

It’s competitive, so we have to be competitive. And I think that is one of the big questions for the Legislature is how do we create a long-term plan to make California competitive, and how do we keep it at the forefront. Doing it in the middle of a budget crisis is tough.

Any big surprises so far?
Nothing starts on time. I joke some times that Paul Cook and me, the two Marines, are the only ones who are on time. It seems that sometimes things don’t have to happen until they have to happen.

So, you’ve been tagged as a rising star in the caucus.
We’re losing the expectations game.

Does that make things easier or more difficult?
I don’t get too wrapped up in that. There’s going to be good days and bad days. I do believe public office is public service. It’s a great honor. Coming from a service background where my mom was a social worker, my dad was a factory worker who became a cop. I try not to just focus on today.

Any early thoughts on the Obama Administration?
The president won on the pledge to bring people together to find big solutions to strike bipartisan accords, and I take him at his word.

But you’re not counting on the federal government bailing us out of this budget mess?
I don’t know that it’s the federal government’s job to bail out our state. Don’t get me wrong, we’ll take their money, but I don’t think we should count on it. I think we should count on making some really tough decisions to structurally fix our problem, and not miss the opportunity to fix it now.

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