Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher of San Diego last week changed his party affiliation… (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated…)
SACRAMENTO — Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher coulda been a contender, to borrow the classic Marlon Brando line from "On the Waterfront."
He could've been somebody.
He still could, conceivably — somebody who wins the prize of high public office, a senator, a governor — but it apparently won't be while wearing the Republican colors. He tossed them.
We'll never know, but many believed the San Diego legislator — young, photogenic, articulate, an Iraq combat vet — had the potential to help lead the California GOP out of the darkness, out of its deep funk.
But last week he bolted and became a no-party independent, fed up, he said, with partisan pettiness in the state Capitol.
It may be possible to read too much into this, but I don't think so. The signs have been unmistakable for a long time. This marker is only the latest along a trail to self-destruction for the California GOP.
That said, Fletcher's timing certainly was suspect. It came only 17 days after he had lost the San Diego County GOP endorsement for mayor in the June 5 primary.
The party endorsed City Councilman Carl DeMaio, an orthodox conservative. Fletcher — a fiscal conservative but a moderate on the environment, gay rights and immigration — is running a distant third behind DeMaio and Democratic Rep. Bob Filner. The underdog assemblyman needed to shake things up and attract independent voters.
I won't wade into the San Diego mayoral race — except to note that, for unchallenged credibility, Fletcher should have fled the party earlier.
He could have pointed out that local elections in California are supposed to be nonpartisan anyway. Maybe the parties shouldn't even be messing in them.
A legislator abandoning his party is not unprecedented. I can recall a handful over the decades. I just can't remember anyone jumping overboard with such potential to captain the ship.
Fletcher, 35, handsome, athletic, substantive, was a Marine intelligence officer who earned combat decorations in Iraq. In fact, he's the first combat veteran of the war on terror to serve in the California Legislature.
He was elected in 2008 and is married to the former Mindy Tucker, a one-time spokeswoman for President George W. Bush. She joined him in bolting the GOP to become an independent.
Fletcher's surprise move says at least two things: 1, an up-and-coming politician believes he's better off not burdened by the Republican label; 2, he really can't stomach the GOP or party partisanship.
On the first point, the political landscape has changed dramatically since Fletcher's mentor, former Gov. Pete Wilson, was San Diego mayor. Wilson has endorsed Fletcher, a fellow Marine, and was unhappy that he deserted the party. But the ground has shifted and the state GOP has been engulfed. Numbers don't lie.
Forty years ago when Wilson was mayor, San Diego's voter registration was closely divided: 49% Democrat, 44% Republican and only 7% independent. Today it's 40% Democrat and just 28% Republican, while independents have soared to 27%.
Statewide 40 years ago, Democrats dominated 56% to 37%, with independents at only 5%. But much more important, Republicans held every partisan statewide office except one. Democrat Jerry Brown was secretary of state. Today in registration, it's 44%-30%-21%. But Republicans hold no statewide office and are in a hopeless legislative minority.
Tell me why any California politician with statewide ambition would want to be tagged a Republican!
On the second point: While many see Fletcher as a rising star, he hasn't been able to take off. The Capitol these days is too stifling for an independent-thinking, pragmatic politician — the kind most voters say they want. That's particularly true for Republicans, who hunker in an anti-tax crouch.
Fletcher says his frustration is aggravated by the war experience.
"Any combat veteran wrestles with a sense of survivor's guilt," he told me. "I wasn't any better a Marine than those who didn't survive. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. That gives me a real sense of obligation.
"You shouldn't waste your life. It is a gift, and you ought to do something of meaning…. I just have a lower threshold for some of the pettiness and silliness that goes on. If the [Democratic] speaker of the Assembly has a good idea, we shouldn't oppose it just because somebody says he's the enemy.
"I know what an enemy is. I've watched people die. I've been to car bombing scenes and seen little sandals where children were killed. I don't see the other side [in politics] as the enemy just because we disagree."
Also, he continues, "in the Marine Corps, if you have a mission, you just have to get it done. When I came into elected office, I had that same sense of obligation. I feel that's missing in the current environment. It's good to have some on the ideological extreme. But we need more people who want to be pragmatic and figure how to make it work."
The tipping point for Fletcher came last fall when he negotiated with Gov. Brown to eliminate a corporate tax break that rewarded companies for not building facilities and creating jobs in California. The $1-billion savings would have provided tax breaks for small businesses, buyers of manufacturing equipment and income tax payers who don't itemize. Republicans blocked the bill.
GOP colleagues told Fletcher, he says, that "'it may be the right thing to do, but we can't let Jerry Brown get a win,' which is just dumb."
In "On the Waterfront," the Brando character, an ex-boxer, bemoans that "I coulda had class."
Fletcher had it and still does. But the GOP has lost a contender.