Nathan Fletcher was always a member of the Republican Party, but he wasn’t really one of them.
By Andy Cohen
It’s the subject of much consternation and speculation. It was a move made out of pure political expediency, insist some in the local political sphere. An act of blatant opportunism, plain and simple. A cold, calculated move to set up for his next run for office. The GOP hates him, the ubiquitous “They” say about the former Republican State Assemblyman-turned-independent-turned Democrat. So now he’s trying to pull a con job on everyone else to convince them he’s “changed” and now he really is one of “you.”
That’s the narrative Nathan Fletcher’s political opponents would like you to believe. Fletcher’s switch to the Democratic Party was made simply because he could find no home elsewhere, but he doesn’t really mean it. He’s still a Republican in a blue suit, whether or not the GOP will lay claim to him.
The truth, as Fletcher tells it, is nowhere near as sinister, far more complicated, and was almost as surprising to him as it was to his critics, on both the left and the right. It was a move he was prodded, even courted into by prominent Democratic elected officials and Party representatives. It wasn’t something he sought to do, but rather something that was sought of him.
You’re a Democrat, Nathan. Might as well make it official.
These were strange words to hear for the lifelong Republican, and at first they didn’t make any sense. Gradually, though, he began to realize that just because you identify as a Republican doesn’t mean the label fits. Which was odd. And Confusing. And difficult to sort out.
Maybe I’m not a Republican.
More frequently, Fletcher found himself at odds with his GOP colleagues. Voting your conscience instead of the Party line will do that, particularly in a political party that demands conformity and disdains independence. But more and more often he would find himself at odds with the official Party position. On issues like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: “This is wrong” (and coming from a Marine who had served in combat, that’s significant). He would vote against insurance industry wishes (which of course became the Party’s stance). He worked with—GASP!—Governor Jerry Brown to create tax fairness for California based businesses, eliminating preferential treatment for out-of-state businesses.
After constructing a bill with the governor, Fletcher had a meeting with representatives from the tobacco companies. “They were pissed,” he said, because their state income taxes were about to go up. “I’m not picking on you because your product kills people,” he says he told them, “I’m picking on you because you don’t employ anyone here and it’s not my job to take care of you.” The bill—which would eventually be placed on the ballot as Prop 39—was opposed by Republicans because, you know, it was a tax increase (sort of—at least on out-of-state businesses). But it created fairness within the state, it created an additional $1 billion in revenue for the State of California, and it created (and protected) jobs in California.
Microsoft insisted to him that the initiative would increase the cost of their products in the state. “I’m like, I DON’T BELIEVE YOU.” Twenty-seven other states have similar laws, he told them, and it had no effect on product pricing. “I got crushed by the Republicans,” Fletcher said. Prop 39 passed with over 61% of the vote statewide.
Time after time, vote after vote, he found himself siding with the Democrats, without fully knowing it. Slowly he started coming around. “I realized that I was very consistently voting the Democratic Party line.” At the same time he found himself increasingly at odds with the Republicans, increasingly uncomfortable—and unpopular—within their ranks. “I stopped going to Party Caucus meetings because I was just out of line too much,” he said.
“I’d had such a long and tortured relationship with the GOP, and in particular with Tony Krvaric, and they constantly were saying ‘you’re not one of us, you don’t belong, you don’t share our values.”
Eventually, Democratic leaders started approaching him, needling him, telling him what he was only beginning to accept as the truth. “These are people I’ve worked with, Democratic leaders who’ve known me for years, and they’re like, ‘you know you’re one of us, right? You know you really belong on our side.’”
He was then approached by John Pérez, the State Assembly Speaker. He carried with him an analysis of Fletcher’s votes. “He had it charted out. He said you’re a Democrat. On equality issues you are solidly Democrat. On choice you’re solidly Democrat. He said on environment, you’re more Democratic than some of the Valley Democrats. And he said on economic issues you’re a little moderate, but you’re in the spectrum.”
“Juan Vargas took me to breakfast three or four times and said ‘you’re one of us.’ I ran into Chris Kehoe at the airport and she said we’d love to have you.”
After he left the Republicans, Fletcher says he was invited a number of times “very publicly” by the Democratic Party to switch sides. But he didn’t take the bait and chose to remain an Independent, despite coming to an acceptance that yes, he was indeed a Democrat. “I just didn’t want all the shit. I just didn’t want all the criticism that comes from it.” But a Marine buddy who he had served with in Iraq set him straight one night while discussing politics in general. “He said you’re kinda being a coward. Who cares what people say. If that’s where you believe you line up at, then he’s like ‘do it.’ So I did, and I didn’t make a big to-do out of it. I posted it on my Facebook and that was it.”
“And I got a tremendous, warm welcome and embrace.” The Democratic Party is a big tent. They welcome people in. Republicans? “Republicans drive ’em out.”
“I can’t tell you how many Democrats I’ve met who went through the same transition I went through. I just haven’t met anyone else who had to do it publicly. But that’s okay. I chose that.”
Still, the matter of his “groveling” before the San Diego GOP for their endorsement in the2012 mayoral race gets dragged around like an anchor, there at the ready for skeptics and critics to use against him. See, you’re not one of us after all.
“I wish I hadn’t done that,” he said. “It was a last gasp attempt to hang on in a Party where I was in such a bad place. I faced this situation where I had been so brutalized with the Republican Party on fact that I didn’t belong. There were so many issues where I wasn’t one of them. I think it was one last gasp effort to try and cling and hold on. It’s almost like a bad relationship where you both know it’s going down the tubes, and you make one effort at reconciliation, like a bad marriage that you’re trying to save. And then you wake up the next morning and go, ‘What was I thinking?’”
“I walked out of that room, and it was just awful. That’s not who I am; this isn’t where I belong. And when they endorsed DeMaio, it was a relief. It was just a crystallizing moment where I said I was never going to do that again.”
But, he adds, criticism stemming from that speech to the GOP is entirely fair. He said what he said, whether he regrets it or not. Can’t put the words back into his mouth now.
The trek from Republican to Democrat was a long and bumpy path, but Nathan Fletcher knows now he’s where he belongs. It’s comfortable. It’s home.
Part 2: Fletcher on policy issues