- Photo by David Rolland
State Assemblymember Nathan Fletcher claims to have collected upwards of $300,000 in contributions during June for his campaign to be San Diego’s next mayor, which blew the minds of many local politics junkies and enhanced Fletcher’s presence in the early horse-race chatter.
So, who is this guy? We sat down with him on the patio of Point Loma’s Pizza Nova and talked for an hour. What follows is a longer version of the interview that was published in our print version this week.
CityBeat: How long were you in Iraq, what was your role and how has that experience impacted you?
Nathan Fletcher: I was there in 2004. I left in February and came back at the end, November 2004. I started in a region just south of Baghdad. That was a volatile region because it was literally split between Sunni and Shia. We had a lot of Sunni-Shia violence. Then we moved up after the Blackwater guys had the incident on the bridge in Fallujah. So, the bulk of my time was spent just on the western side of Fallujah. I had from the Fallujah border over towards Ramadi, right in the heart of the Sunni Triangle. And it was rough. It was a really difficult year.
I get asked, “Have you seen this movie or that movie,” and I haven’t seen a war movie since I came back. It wasn’t a conscious decision. There’s just nothing glamorous or glorious about it. It’s awful. You’re terrified. You’re worried about everyone around you. I stopped—the second half of my deployment—I didn’t write letters to my wife. Letters would take six to seven weeks to get home, and if you died, it would take, like, a week. And I was terrified I was going to die and my body was going to get sent home, I would be buried and then she’d get a letter. That’s what kept me up at night—not what would happen to me; I was OK. I worried about the impact on my wife.
I was a human intelligence, counter-intelligence specialist, so my job was to work with local populations and gather information. We would try to track down the exact location of potential terrorists, and then we would go grab them. And part of my job, I was an interrogator.
There’s a negative effect that comes out of it, which is a tremendous survivor’s guilt. When you go through those things and you live and other people don’t, you just feel bad. It’s a random-chance thing; it’s not like I was a better Marine. Out of that comes something good, which is a real sense that your life is precious, and there’s a lot of young men and women that didn’t get a chance to live the rest of theirs, and you shouldn’t waste it; you should make it count for something.
No signs of PTSD?
I’ve been really lucky. I sleep fine. Having gone through that, a lot of the stuff that causes great stress in our normal life doesn’t really cause me that great of stress. Because I’m, like, Hey, I’ve got all my limbs. I made it to the end of the day. Does my wife love me, or is she at least alright with me? And are my boys healthy. If that’s it, it’s a good day; I sleep soundly. You know, I react a little bit to sounds, but that’s gradually fading.
I think probably the most pronounced reaction is if I meet a family who lost a son or daughter; it’s just really, really hard. You feel really bad then.
On the whole, I take away a lot of positives from my time. It gives you good perspectives. You definitely learn a lot about leadership. That’s not a cliché or a campaign thing, but [you learn a lot] about making difficult decisions. I could bore you with a lot of very specific, life-or-death-type situations where you had to make a call.
My second deployment I was in Africa and the Near East. I was leading small counter-intelligence teams hundreds, thousand of miles away from any American bases, and that was a different type of thing because you had to avoid problems because you didn’t have any backup or help. That deployment was really hard, too, maybe in a little bit different way from Iraq. It was still violent; there were still people dying. There were still people shooting. I was literally living with the local population, and you’re seeing the suffering up close. You carry that with you.
My last thought on this: I like the thought of having a combat veteran as commander-in-chief—not just someone who served, but someone who actually was on the ground and saw it. Because that will be the last person who will go [to war]. And if you have to go to war… you absolutely go with overwhelming force, and you do it and get out. Because there’s nothing worse than seeing what you see there.
Does that mean you’re running for president?
No! I’m not saying that, either! I’m just making the broad statement that people who have actually been through combat are the most reluctant ones to send someone else.
Let’s move on to Sacramento. You’ve told me that one of the reasons you want to be mayor is because you’d like to get out of the hyper-partisan environment in Sacramento.
Sacramento… gets very, very partisan. There’s a recommendation from both parties on every bill, regardless of the topic. You have a caucus situation where you go to separate rooms. And I understand it, and maybe it works in a legislative setting, but I actually like having the ability to bring a group of people together and try to focus on a solution without necessarily having [partisanship] be the primary concern. The primary concern is, how do we get it fixed, how do we address the problem, as opposed to the primary concern being, how do I ensure that the base of one [party] or the other is happy. I think mayor, in some ways, is a better natural fit for me.
I worked on a tax-reform proposal last year. I mean, our tax code’s broken. I could bore you for hours about the tax code on and bore you with statistics on why it doesn’t work, in terms of economic growth, incentivizing entrepreneurship and really being aligned with today’s world. But one of the things that we were talking about doing—there were actually three pieces of thing that we were bandied about—one of them was going to lower the income tax, which is very controversial with one party. It’s just kind of a philosophical thing, and I get it; I understand. But when we talk about being a place that attracts venture capital… there’s some moderately solid economic data that would suggest that’s a good way to do it.
The second piece was, we really want to embrace the small businesses—not only in the service economy, but on the innovative side. So, we were kicking around ideas to basically have no business tax at all for small businesses and then phase it in as you went larger, and it would be the most small-business-friendly place in the world.
Now, how do pay for those? Because you can’t print money. And so we were taking a look at the sales tax, which Republicans will say is the highest in the nation—and then we stop talking. We don’t acknowledge that we tax the fewest categories of things. You can actually come in and cut the sales tax, which is the most regressive and hits the poor the hardest. You can cut it, but let’s have a conversation about broadening it. We used to be a manufacturing-based economy, but we’re not; we’re more of a service-based economy. So why don’t you pay when you get your hair cut, or when you play golf?
That whole package, we could have done it revenue-neutral—which is tax reform, not a tax increase. I kind of thought there was something for everyone. I threw that idea out, I mean, it lasted, like, six seconds. Because Democrats are, like, “Never, no how. Doesn’t matter. We’re not going to talk about it.” And Republicans were, like, “No, we’re not going to ever talk about taxing something we don’t currently tax.” And it just kind of ended up dying on the vine. It’s a good idea and I think it should be brought back, and I think Jerry Brown’s the type of guy that can do it.
Do you have a particular philosophy on the role of government?
Where it needs to be involved, I want it to be efficient and open and transparent, but I want it to be robust enough to meet the need. I mean, we all kind of come into this social contract and we agree to sacrifice some individual liberties for the collective good. I would have been a federalist. I think there’s a lot of instances where government is picking up the slack for other institutions—you know, failures of the family—in terms of who should be taking care of the need. That’s not a criticism.
If other institutions fail, if not the government, then who?
That’s what I mean. I voted for the restoration of Healthy Families, which is health insurance for poor kids. I’m particularly sensitive to kids, because kids are made to pay for mistakes of adults. I’ve voted for a number of foster care [bills]. Both of my boys are adopted.
Can you think of any ways you would be similar to or different from Jerry Sanders?
I’ve said this a number of times: I think history will look back very kindly on the term of Jerry Sanders, and I think he has done a good job of restoring a sense of order. He’s made the transition to strong mayor, they’ve finished audits, they’re really close to having the structural budget deficit done and I think he will be seen as having been the right mayor at the right time. I think the next mayor is a different role. I think the next mayor needs to come in and say, “OK, we’ve got a foundation; now let’s talk about where we want to go. What type of city do we want to be in the next 40 or 50 years.”
I was going to ask you about how you reconcile the city’s budget problems with moving the city forward in other areas.
You’ve got to deal with the deficit. But I want to put it into a little context. When I got elected to the Assembly, we had a $42-billion deficit on a $100-billion budget. That’s 42 percent in deficit—that’s mind-boggling. The city of San Diego, the next fiscal year, will probably have a $30-million deficit on a $2.75-billion budget. That’s less than 2 percent. Now, part of that’s general fund and part of it’s enterprise funds, but you get the point I’m making, and I take Jerry at his word that he’s going to eliminate the structural budget deficit by the time he leaves office. If he does, then the next mayor will be starting at an even or pretty close to even point, and then the conversation really is where do you go from there and how do you rebuild. If he doesn’t, then you’ll have a tough deficit, but I don’t think the budget deficit is necessarily going to be the No. 1 issue the next mayor tackles.
But until about 2029 or something like that, the [annual payment due to the retirement system] is insane.
It’s 2025. And that goes to the second big issue that may be [handled] before the next mayor; if not, the next mayor will have to deal with it: How do you flatten that payment…. And that number still creeps until 2025 and then it drops pretty dramatically because of the second and third tiers that have been put in place. And if you don’t figure out a way to flatten that payment, you’re going to face some real difficulties or you’re going to have to hope the economy comes back. And the real downside with that is that can use up all of the economic recovery not rebuilding the city but just paying that [pension bill].
So that’s why I’m taking a hard look at this pension issue that’s been proposed [Editor’s note: Four days after this interview, Fletcher announced his support for a pension-reform ballot measure that will replace traditional pensions for most new city employees with a 401(k)-style plan.]. By their calculations and estimates, it basically flattens that payment where it is now. The other savings you have is the recent retiree healthcare deal, which helps flatten what was the escalating healthcare [deficit]. And then the third area… is deferred maintenance. We have this $800-million number that’s thrown out. We’re going to have some ideas in the campaign for how to catch that up.
Do you support collective bargaining?
I do. There’s a natural tendency in politics, particularly in San Diego, where there’s this quick tendency to blame this group or blame that group, and I think what gets lost a lot of times is the obligation elected officials have for what they advocate for and the obligation individual entities have for what they advocate for, and somehow they’re put on this even par. And they’re not. If you’re the head of the labor union, your obligation is to do what is in the best interest of your members—not what’s in the best interest of the city. My job as an elected official is to process that and do what’s in the best interest of the city as a whole. And so a business group will ask for what’s in the best interest of that business group, and the labor group will ask for—and neither one of them should get what they want; they should get what they need. Not to quote Mick Jagger. [Laughs.]
So, I don’t view the collective-bargaining process as the failure. I view politicians making poor fiscal decisions as the failure. Retroactive pension benefits is really bad policy. And if you want to give retroactive benefits, then both the city and the employee need to make up however many years of contributions to make it whole. So, I think we’re a little quick to assign blame to places other than where it’s due, which, ultimately, is on the people who voted for it.
After that secret redevelopment bill you passed in Sacramento, how will you convince voters that you can be trusted?
First, I’m going to challenge the notion that it was a secret deal. I did not tell you. So, you didn’t know, and I’m sorry. I talked to the Republican leader in the Assembly and the Republican leader in the Senate. I talked to the speaker of the Assembly, the president pro-tem of the Senate. I talked to the governor. I talked to pretty much every member of the San Diego delegation in the days leading up to that. I could have buried it in the broader budget bill, and I said, that’s not fair to my colleagues; that’s not right.
I held that bill until everyone had a chance—it was only one page; it wasn’t a long bill—had a chance to know the bill, get an analysis, to know what was in it. You had a full debate on the floor of the Assembly, in open session, where all the members knew what they were doing. There was a debate back and forth. There was a discussion, and then knowing exactly what they were doing, two-thirds of the democratically elected members of the California Assembly voted to do it. And then it walked its way over to the Senate, and hours later, two-thirds of the Senate did the exact same thing. And then a few days later, the governor, knowing exactly what he was doing, signed it into law.
If I had, in a bill, who got what money, that would have been wrong. But in my eyes, I was ensuring that San Diego money would stay in San Diego, and there was a full process to go through before one dime of that money gets spent. It takes a full vote of the council to spend one penny of that money—I don’t know about one penny, but on any major project.
I asked that question before: How does that work? I want to make sure that that is being protected. And when you looked at the aftermath, when you looked at the study, when the CCDC study came out that said it was a net positive to the city’s general fund of almost $300 million; when I talked to the San Diego Unified Schools and it’s a net positive to the schools because they get their back-fill and the pass-through [payments] on top of it… I believe it was the right thing to do, and I stand by it.
Now, where there’s a disagreement is, someone said, “Where was the public input before you did that?” And I said, “When I got elected.” Because I believe the public elects you to make those types of decisions. And then you go and you make the case for why you make them and the public has input again when you stand for election. And if they don’t like the decisions you made, they can vote for somebody else, and that’s OK. I saw an opportunity to do the right thing for San Diego schools, for the San Diego city general fund, for San Diegans that need work and to ensure that the projects would only go through a public process and be voted on—yeah, I’ll do that every single day.
This notion that not everything has to go to a vote of the public, you’re making me think of the proposal to build a new city hall.
Yeah. I don’t think it needs to go to a vote of the public. Now, I’m not saying that we need to build it. Because you saw the grand jury report that said the numbers were bad; the mayor’s report says the numbers are good. I think the next mayor needs to come and take a fresh look at the numbers, not with any desire to build a building just to build a building, but look at the numbers and say, “Does it truly save money?” And if it does, then do it. If it’s a savings of taxpayer money, legitimately and honestly, then do it. If it doesn’t save money, then renovate the building you’re in. A lot of times, they just go to vote of the public because people don’t want to make the decisions.
You’ve said that you voted against Proposition 8. Looking at your voting record in the Assembly on LGBT issues, you didn’t show up for a resolution to oppose Prop. 8; you voted no on a bill to recognize out-of-state, same-sex marriage; you voted no on a resolution recognizing Harvey Milk Day.
When I got elected, I thought Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell didn’t make sense. When that opportunity came up, I [spoke] out on that one. I voted against Proposition 8 because I think people should be able to marry who they want and it’s not the role of government to say you can and you can’t. I didn’t choose to be straight; I just am. And I don’t think you necessarily choose to be gay; you just are, and if you didn’t choose it, then we shouldn't discriminate against you on the basis of it.
Proposition 8 is one… that caused great consternation because I voted against it, but it passed, and it’s the law. I’ll never forget sitting in a meeting and watching Jerry Brown say, “I’ve been opposed to the death penalty my entire life, but I’m the attorney general and I enforce the law.” And I think in a lot of ways, the same thing has to happen, and until the courts rule it unconstitutional, or until the voters change their mind, I don’t think you should be passing laws that are somehow inconsistent with the expressed vote on a constitutional amendment taken by the people. People think that’s nuanced, but I’d say I’ve been pretty consistent with that. And if I’m mayor, there are things that are passed that I don’t agree with, I’ll implement them. I mean, that’s the obligation. That’s part of our rule of law and our system of government.
Harvey Milk I voted against, and I remember that day—we were working on a couple of big projects and I was genuinely frustrated about, we’re doing another “day” and we’re trying to get some major things done and I was frustrated. I mean, yeah, I regret that one. I wish I had that one back. That was one I thought we should have put more thought into. But, you know, it is my record. It’s a fair criticism.
What’s this education kick you’ve been on with Tony Young?
What I don’t know is what role a mayor can play, or should play. There’s a lot of things a mayor can do. You’re not going to see me, potentially as a mayor, doing a takeover of the school district; I’m not interested in that. So, on a scale of Jerry-Brown-opens-two-charter-schools to [an Antonio] Villaraigosa takeover, I’m somewhere in between. I think every elected official at ever level should be talking about [education]. Because there is what you do with your position in terms of statutory authority, and then there’s what you use in terms of the power of the position to build coalitions and do things. And I do know that early next year… I’m going to need to clarify this—you know, exactly what does it mean and what are you going to do?
How will you distinguish yourself from Bonnie Dumanis and Carl DeMaio in this election?
You know, Liam [Dillon] had a line in one of his stories in the voice[ofsandiego.org] that I think all three candidates would probably agree with. He said Bonnie’s running as the system. That’s not a criticism. She says, “There’s not much difference between Jerry [Sanders] and myself.” That makes her formidable. [Dillon] says “Carl’s running against the system.” And he says, “Nathan’s trying to run past the system.” And I think that’s a pretty fair characterization for all three. We’re trying to bring a lot of new people in, and we’ve got a lot of people that are supporting us, that are raising money, that are helping in different ways, that haven’t been involved. It’s a new generation of leadership, a new approach, but one focused on coalition building and getting things done.
I’m not sure I understand what “running past the system” means.
I’ll give you an example: On fund-raising, everyone said there’s only 1,000 people that contribute in a mayor’s race, and you’ll never raise more than $100,000 in a month. I said, no, I think there’s a lot more people out there that we can bring in. Everyone says that the innovative sector will never get involved in the race; the heads of all those companies will never get involved in a city race. But they are. You can go down the line and executive after executive will say, “Hey, we’re ready for a new mayor who understands the competitive world.” So, I don’t know if it’s running past as [much] as it is just stretching the field…. There’s a new group coming in that want to be a part of what’s going on in the city.
That sounds like you’re running along with the upper crust of society. What about working families?
No, everyone. Again, I’m not just saying this segment or that segment. I think you’ll see when we start rolling out coalitions, and we’re going to start organizing in every community in San Diego. Where you see the greatest need—which is why we’re taking the next few education events—you’ve got to go where the greatest needs [are]. In schools, where I live, they can be better, but they’re doing OK. I was down in City Heights yesterday, meeting about what are their needs, how do you help the areas that are impacted most. So, you do end up focusing the majority of resources, time and attention to the areas that need the most help. We are trying to run a citywide campaign.
Is there anything else that I didn’t ask that you want to throw in there?
Philip Rivers 5K—second place in my division.