SAN DIEGO — The question was a common one asked of all mayoral candidates here: How will you build a football stadium to keep the Chargers from leaving town, without spending public money?
It brought an uncommon answer, amid one of the most uncommon political strategies in city history.
“I interrogated Al Qaeda,” Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher told the KPBS studio audience. “I’m going to be tough enough to negotiate a stadium deal.”
In the beginning, the Fletcher campaign had a conventional script: Former Marine and two-term anti-crime stalwart in the state Assembly returns to his adopted home to run for mayor. Substitute Yale and UC Berkeley law school for Fletcher’s degree from Cal Baptist and you had former Gov. Pete Wilson’s resume when he became San Diego’s mayor in 1971.
Voters listened but were not moved in large numbers.
Early polling suggested Fletcher languished behind the front-runners: energetic Councilman Carl DeMaio, a fellow Republican and budget hawk; and Rep. Bob Filner, a Democrat, staunch liberal and longtime favorite of labor unions and blue-collar neighborhoods.
The election seemed to be cruising toward a collision between the fervor of the anti-tax movement and the power of public employee unions, a fight that recently gripped states including Wisconsin and Ohio but has vexed San Diego for more than a decade.
In the rhetorical bickering between DeMaio and Filner, Fletcher seemed destined to be a tinny “me too” behind his fellow Republican, who is backing a pension initiative that he says will save the city from its perpetual struggle with debt and that Filner equates to “throwing city workers under the bus.”
Then on March 28, the 35-year-old Fletcher did something dramatic.
He posted a video on YouTube announcing that he had dumped the GOP and re-registered as an independent. He denounced partisan politics and said he wanted no more of the gridlock between Republicans and Democrats.
His wife, Mindy, who spent a decade as a Republican operative with the Republican National Committee, the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, followed his lead and re-registered.
Rival campaigns immediately accused Fletcher of hypocrisy and political opportunism. Just three weeks earlier Fletcher had sought the endorsement of the local Republican Party, which went to DeMaio.
A friend arranged an interview with New York Times columnist David Brooks. Fletcher took a red-eye flight to Washington. An incandescent column followed, in which Brooks praised Fletcher as a moderate open to finding bipartisan solutions.
The Fletcher surge had begun: a novel strategy aimed at winning by quitting.
Fletcher suddenly had enough donations to become the first of the candidates to launch a television campaign.
He re-branded himself as “right in the middle like you.” He stressed his Marine experience, including a tour in Iraq as a staff sergeant with a unit assigned to capture and interrogate “high value” enemy targets.
Some polling now suggests a dead heat between DeMaio, Fletcher and Filner. Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis, a Republican, lags despite endorsements from termed-out Mayor Jerry Sanders and all five county supervisors.
Carl Luna, a political science instructor San Diego Mesa College, said Fletcher’s moderate approach to campaign rhetoric could serve him well if he can get into a runoff with either DeMaio or Filner.
“San Diegans like mushy moderates: Sanders, (Dick) Murphy, (Susan) Golding, all the way back to Pete Wilson,” said Luna, mentioning four of the city’s Republican mayors.
San Diego voters have also not shown much appetite for hard-edged talk from mayoral candidates. Wilson, elected to three terms, exulted in being seen as bland, a “pair of brown shoes in a tuxedo world.”
In debates and interviews, Fletcher tries to position himself between DeMaio and Filner, both known for sharp tongues.
“We don’t have to treat people poorly,” Fletcher said in an interview. “I’ve seen an enemy. We don’t have an enemy here, just people we disagree with.”
In one debate, Fletcher said that all San Diegans have to share the difficulties of the city’s financial situation.
DeMaio, who has led a drive at City Hall to end pensions for new employees and to outsource as many city jobs as possible, dismisses Fletcher’s “Let’s reason together” approach as naive. He is proud of being the bete noire of labor unions.
“You can’t just sing ‘Kumbaya’ and bring people together,” DeMaio said.
Dumanis called the Fletcher strategy a “contrived soap opera” fashioned after he lost the party endorsement.
DeMaio and Filner have taken notice that Fletcher is gaining on them. The Fletcher campaign is girding for attacks funded by the California Republican Party.
DeMaio asked on television if Fletcher is under investigation for an ethics code violation. (He’s not.) Filner hit at Fletcher for attending a debate at a for-profit school that has been accused of cheating veterans.
The attacks have played directly into Fletcher’s campaign as the moderate middle between two extremes. “I’ve been attacked by the far right and the far left,” he said in a television commercial.
Now that the initial novelty has worn off and polls show Fletcher gaining, critics have began accusing him of political sleight-of-hand, creating a political fiction that San Diego’s well-publicized financial problems are the result of a left-right gridlock akin to that in Sacramento and Washington. Recent events suggest that partisan gridlock is not San Diego’s problem.
When Sanders, a Republican, held a news conference recently to tout progress getting the city budget out of hock, he was backed by two Democrats and a Republican, all members of the City Council.
Rather than blaming partisan gridlock, many longtime political observers suggest that elected officials are caught between a public that is stubbornly unwilling to pay higher taxes and public employee unions reluctant to accept additional reductions in their salaries, benefits and pensions.
If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, the top two will advance to a November runoff. With recent polls showing the three top candidates each with about a quarter of the vote, a runoff seems assured.
Last week, about 35 local business executives announced that they were following Fletcher’s lead and dropping out of partisan participation, re-registering as independents. The Fletcher campaign has called the trend a “movement to the middle.”
For all its conservative image, San Diego has more registered Democrats than Republicans; and centrist candidates, particularly for mayor, often do well.
Still, keeping the Fletcher buzz going through election day may not be easy.
Chris Crotty, a political consultant unaligned with any candidate, predicted that the Fletcher surge will stall, even though his defection from the GOP has provided a modicum of excitement in a campaign season that has been long and boring.
“Carl has no personality except when he’s upset,” Crotty said. “Bonnie is more boring than Carl and even has a boring message: She’s a good administrator. Bob is running a stealth campaign for Democrats only.”
Much of the early campaigning was focused on gathering and announcing endorsements. Fletcher has one of the biggest “gets”: Wilson, the most successful politician in San Diego history.
Wilson endorsed his fellow Marine, although he later was not pleased with Fletcher’s decision to bolt the Republican Party.