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Political analysts divided on effect of Nathan Fletcher's party switches

San Diego’s Nov. 19 special election to replace disgraced Mayor Bob Filner is less than a month out, with the 10 remaining candidates prepared for a gloves-off fight to win a spot in a runoff, the mostly likely outcome.

The race seems to have narrowed itself to three leading contenders: City Councilman David Alvarez, a Democrat; City Councilman Kevin Faulconer, a Republican; and Qualcomm executive Nathan Fletcher, a Republican who turned Independent and then Democrat.

While Alvarez and Faulconer are campaigning hard within their established base, Fletcher continues to fight allegations that his newly blue political alignment is less about party affiliation and more about doing whatever is needed to win the Mayor’s Office.

On Sept. 11, Fletcher was photographed with a group of southeast San Diego pastors during a news conference to announce their support. Among the pastors was San Diego bishop George D. McKinney, a conservative Evangelical with longstanding ties to the anti-gay hate group, National Organization for Marriage, or NOM. McKinney had also campaigned for the passage of Proposition 8, the 2010 ballot measure that amended the California Constitution to define marriage as being between one man and one woman. Prop 8 was later declared unconstitutional and in June 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling.

Less than two weeks after that news conference, Fletcher addressed the San Diego Democrats for Equality at a meeting in Hillcrest in hopes of gaining the LGBT group’s endorsement. That effort failed, as Alvarez picked up the required 60% margin needed for backing.

Other recent history also seems to indicate the candidate is walking the line.

Taking money from gay-baiting IMG and man fined by city's Ethics Commission

Fletcher’s most recent campaign finance disclosure shows two $1,000 donations from Innovation Media Group (IMG): one from their Office of Administration and a second from the group’s founder Jesus Cardenas.

Just last week it was uncovered that IMG and Cardenas are tied to the now defunct political action committee “Conservatives for Gay Rights Supporting Carl DeMaio for Mayor 2012.” During that campaign, the PAC initiated direct mail and robocall campaigns aimed at highlighting DeMaio’s sexual orientation as a means of gay-baiting voters.

The San Diego Ethics Commission has since fined the PAC’s principal officers, including Cardinas, $7,500 for failing to provide a street address, failing to properly maintain records supporting the committee’s expenditures, and failing to disclose the names of all of the players behind their proverbial curtain.

Some voters have begun to wonder if they should be concerned if a candidate seems to be courting both sides of the coin. How significant is the Cardenas donation, and should it raise an eyebrow?

Nathan Walker, a Democratic political consultant and co-owner of Austin-based Blue Roots Strategies, said he does not see a need for Fletcher to return the money. Instead, Walker said he sees this as an opportunity for Fletcher to incite positive change.

“Some consultants believe in returning money from organizations whose agendas conflict with their own. I, on the other hand, believe in accepting most questionable contributions and using them to make positive change,” Walker said. “If I were Mr. Fletcher's consultant, I would advise him to accept the money and give it to Equality California or another good cause. That would let the voters know where he stands.”

Others believe that voters will concentrate less who candidates are courting and will be more interested in their past performance in office.

Party-switching gets mixed reaction

Alex Patton, owner of the Florida-based Republican political consulting firm Ozean Media, said that Fletcher’s name recognition is likely to resonate more strongly than his switch from red to blue.

“Voters traditionally have very short memories and in the South we see a lot of party switching. In the long run it’s not a factor,” Patton said. “Above all voters will consider whether Mr. Fletcher handled himself with competence while he was in office, and my guess is that the voters are looking for a competent steward who can settle the city down, especially in the wake of a major scandal. Voters may be more concerned about that then they are about authenticity.”

This is not to say the candidate’s road to the likely runoff will not be without bumps; Fletcher’s swift transformation may still prove to be his most challenging hurdle.

Trebor Worthen, an Oklahoma-based political consultant and Majority Designs partner, said he has a hard time believing that voters will respond favorably.

“Voters affiliate themselves with their parties. They identify with their reputations, their values and their philosophies,” Worthen said. “It’s hard to know the true values and beliefs of a candidate that aligns themselves with three different parties in such a short period of time. Switching should be about ideology; leave one, change affiliation and stay there. It’s very rare to go from one to the next to the next.”

California-based Republican political consultants Kevin Spillane and Max Rexroad, who have known Fletcher since 2001 when he worked as the deputy political director of the California Republican Party, say they have a hard time believing his political beliefs have changed.

“I’ve known him for a long time and was a donor to him in the past, in both his Assembly campaigns and even in the last mayoral race,” Rexroad said. “He was a gung-ho Republican, not just an employee, but a high-ranking, high-paid member of the Republican Party. For him his registration was not just a casual ‘R’ or ‘D’ after his name. He woke up every day to get Republican officials elected to the legislature and to Congress and that’s what he did.”

Rexroad said he believes the Democratic registration is more about Fletcher doing whatever is needed to win the race.

“The really funny thing is that if he were still registered as a Republican, he would be walking into office right now,” Rexroad said. “There’s almost some sort of justice, that he switched parties because he thinks that happened to coincide with what would be most beneficial to his political career, and now he’s fighting like crazy to be elected.”

Splaine seems to feel a bit more strongly.

In addition to feeling Fletcher’s fundamental switch in his ideology is too hard a pill for him to swallow, he is urging caution when it comes to drinking the candidate’s political Kool-Aid.

Fletcher “is nothing more than a power-seeking opportunist,” Splaine said. “If he were running in Arkansas, he would be a pro-life, anti-gay, pro-gun fundamentalist Republican; if he were running in NYC, he would be an ultra-liberal Democrat who is pro-choice and pro-gay marriage. He's good at cultivating relationships with people who can help him achieve his personal ambitions.

“I think what we know from the Filner debacle is that individuals who do anything to get elected and gain power are more likely to abuse it. Character is important in something like this, and his opportunism in the last 14 months raises a lot of fundamental questions. Nathan will do what is best for Nathan - I'm not sure what he will do, or for, the people of San Diego."