Democrats seeking an open seat on the county Board of Supervisors began to bare their teeth even before Republican Bonnie Dumanis threw her hat in the ring Tuesday.
And their jaws were wide open for former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, whose endorsement by the county Democratic Party on Sept. 19 is considered certain.
“The same people that got Bob Filner as their choice for mayor are pushing to get Nathan to be the choice for supervisor,” said candidate Lori Saldaña, also an ex-member of the Assembly. “They’re pushing this through like you wouldn’t believe. It’s like high-speed rail over there in the county party. They’ve been working on this for the past year.”
Saldaña, 58, said the party she rejoined in April doesn’t want to acknowledge Fletcher’s “very poor track record as a candidate in San Diego,” referring to his failed runs for mayor in 2012 and 2014.
Though she herself lost a bid for Congress in 2012 and San Diego mayor in 2016, Saldaña says Democratic leaders are “panicking” in reaction to private GOP polls that find Fletcher a weak candidate. (Top Democrats say they aren’t aware of this polling.)
A week ago Monday, one of four local Democratic area committees voted to recommend Fletcher for an unusual pre-primary endorsement. He won 46 of 51 votes cast by the Central Area Committee chaired by Taisha Brown, according to a party source.
How rare is it for local Democrats to anoint a favorite before a contested June primary?
“Pretty rare unless they are endorsing a sitting incumbent running for re-election,” said Carl Luna, the veteran local politics observer and San Diego Mesa College political science professor.
The Fourth District supervisor race — GOP incumbent Ron Roberts is being termed out — officially is nonpartisan. But Luna said party primaries were intended to remove the “party elite/bosses from the candidate selection process. So this is a bit unusual.”
County Democratic Party Chair Jessica Hayes defended the early pick in a statement Tuesday to Times of San Diego.
“Early endorsement is a political tool to focus voters on races that are close in time, such as these county races, or where there is strong opposition — in some races, both,” Hayes said via email.
“These candidates did not suddenly appear to the voting members on August 28th,” Hayes said. “The members knew who they were and what they offered as candidates. The candidates had done their work and the members were knowledgeable.”
She called the endorsement process “open, transparent and fair.” Committee areas stage a thorough multimonth process of considering candidates, “which includes debate, discussion and open voting.”
All Democratic candidates are invited to answer questionnaires, speak at forums and meet with voting members, Hayes said, and “our bylaws and procedures are posted on our website. We even provide a list, with contact information, of all our voting members to … all Democratic candidates.”
First-time candidates Passons and Malbrough also were critical of the early endorsement.
Attorney Passons, a North Park resident active in the San Diego Workforce Partnership, said via email: “The leadership of the local San Diego Democratic Party voted to fast-track an early endorsement without giving all candidates an opportunity to be heard and make their case throughout the Fourth District.”
Passons, 42, said candidates weren’t notified that the usual process — waiting until after a June election — would be “canceled.”
“The early endorsement is not … merely about opening up additional donations,” Passons said. “It is very specifically about allowing donations of any size made to the local Democratic Party by corporations, large organizations or wealthy individuals to be used by the party to support a candidate preferred by a small group, while the rest of the candidates are limited to $800 donation caps from individuals only.”
For a party that “screams for campaign finance reform,” he said, “this insider dealing and lack of transparency is exactly what is wrong with our system and why so many people are disgusted with politics.”
Candidate Malbrough, 62, of the O’Farrell neighborhood is a San Diego native and 31-year firefighter who retired in 2012. He said early endorsement “really hurts people that are just trying to get involved.”
“I was really taken aback,” he said. “I don’t feel I had a very good chance … to show people who I am. … I have to raise a lot of money. So when you early endorse, the candidate that gets that early endorsement gets the overall [financial] benefits that I won’t get.”
Malbrough, a leader in the Encanto Community Planning Group, also noted concerns about Fletcher having the “distinct advantage” of having a powerful wife — Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher.
“She’s a very successful politician. She gets a lot done,” he said. “That’s her husband, and she loves him. … I’m sure it would be helpful. … As long as it’s aboveboard, it’s OK to do that. Anything below the belt, I would be a little concerned (about).”
Saldaña said: “Lorena is pushing very hard for Nathan to get this endorsement. [But she] represents a district that is very different from this county supervisor’s district. Her voters are lower-propensity-turnout working class.”
Nathan Fletcher’s reaction to all this?
“Anyone can see their complaints for what they are – sour grapes after failing to win Democratic Party support,” the 40-year-old Marine combat veteran said Tuesday via email.
He said it was unfortunate that “flailing candidates who don’t have Democratic support are now trying to reverse the result of a fair, thorough and transparent endorsement process” they all took part in.
Fletcher said his rivals are “trafficking in rumors and innuendo” to attack the integrity of the party’s grassroots leaders.
“Republicans are hoping to keep Democrats divided so they can elect Bonnie Dumanis and maintain the GOP stranglehold in county government,” he said. “But the overwhelming support for our campaign clearly shows Democrats are united like never before to take on the status quo in county government, unite behind the strongest candidate and bring progressive change to the Board of Supervisors.”
Fletcher can claim endorsements by several high-profile Democrats, including former San Diego Councilwoman Donna Frye, Councilman Chris Ward, and former county party chairs Jess Durfee and Francine Busby.
Mesa College’s Luna noted the Fourth District has a more than 2-to-1 Democratic registration advantage, which gives a candidate like Fletcher with name recognition a really good shot at winning the seat.
“The fly in the ointment is the possible run of Bonnie Dumanis, who can attract independents and the GOP higher-propensity voters,” he said before Dumanis filed paperwork to run. “The question now is how much does the San Diego GOP want to hold onto the seat and how much they are willing to back Dumanis up with money and support.”
Luna said new chair Hayes replaced Francine Busby “precisely because Busby presided over a series of major party losses — including failing to rally around the likely more electable Fletcher in favor or David Alvarez in the 2013 mayoral special election.”
He said if Hayes can claim credit for winning Roberts’ seat, it “will solidify her hold on the county party and help set up the party for the 2020 San Diego mayoral race.”
How much influence did wife Lorena have in making the Fletcher endorsement happen?
“Not inconsequential,” Luna said. “Nathan Fletcher’s journey from Republican to Independent to Democrat has had its own bumps, with many Democrats not accepting him as a ‘true blue.’ His political wedding to the party has no doubt been consolidated with his marriage to Gonzalez, which brings her substantial support of party backers, especially the labor unions.”
Fletcher might still have been the standout Democrat to run in the Fourth without his connection to Gonzalez, but having her in his corner helped move him ahead of the pack, Luna said.
“This could help him come out second in the primary and possibly win the 2018 runoff,” he said.
But Luna warned that the GOP would paint him as a “turncoat carpetbagger insider Democrat tight with the unions and the local liberal elite.”
Other downsides on making an early endorsement?
Luna said grassroots activists might resent party leadership “putting its thumb on the scale in favorite of a more moderate/centrist Democrat than the activists would have liked.”
“If that leads to said grass roots failing to mobilize their neighborhood organizations behind Fletcher, it could cost them the election in June,” he said. “Indeed, in picking Fletcher as their candidate, the party Central Committee may well have put a target on his back.”
As the presumed Democratic front-runner, Fletcher will be attacked “hard and early” not only by the GOP but also by his disgruntled Democratic rivals, Luna said.
The political scientist recalled how former Union-Tribune publisher and real-estate developer “Papa” Doug Manchester helped clear the way for Councilman Kevin Faulconer to win mayor in the post-Filner special election by getting potential GOP rivals to rally around Faulconer.
“It might have been better,” he said, “if the Democrats could have pulled off [the same trick] and gotten the other Democratic candidates to drop out and rally around Fletcher for the good of the party.”