California's independent assembly member Nathan Fletcher leaves Capitol

12:31 PM, Sep 8, 2012   |    comments
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It may be too much to call it a defining moment, but Nathan Fletcher's story about what happened last year when he joined Gov. Jerry Brown in an effort to raise some corporate tax rates is revealing.

It was September 8, 2011 that Brown announced that a supermajority of the Assembly supported his proposal to undo a 2009 tax break and use the money for what he thought would be job stimulus programs. Two Republicans had broken ranks and agreed to vote for what would be a tax increase -- one of them being Fletcher, who had himself voted for it two years earlier.

But the San Diego lawmaker came to realize, in his words at the time, that it was "an indefensible loophole." And apparently, so did other Republicans in the state Capitol.

"I had more folks come up to me and go, 'That's the right thing to do," Fletcher said in a recent interview in his Capitol office. "I'd say, 'Are you going to vote for it?' And they'd say, 'I can't do that. I can't let him look good. I can't let Governor Brown get a win and look good.'"

That kind of zero-sum politics - the notion that the only way to win is if the other person loses - is a reality that Fletcher, whose political career is now officially on hold, says is even more prevalent than it was when he arrived in Sacramento in December 2008.

And its impact on the Republican party, in particular, is what Fletcher says helped convince him in March to abandon the GOP. The 35-year old decorated veteran of the war in Iraq did so in the middle of a contentious and ultimately unsuccessful run for mayor of San Diego earlier this year. His decision to re-register as an independent was heralded by some, reviled as political opportunism by others.

"It was a frustration that built over time," says Fletcher, "with a party in California that isn't focused on solutions."

He returned to Sacramento after his mayoral defeat to serve out the remaining months on his Assembly term, which will officially end in November but effectively came to a close with the Legislature's adjournment on August 31. Fletcher says he's most proud of legislative victories built on pragmatic problem solving, and points in particular to the 2010 passage of a law that mandates a life sentence for some child sex offenses.

That law was the product of months of bipartisan negotiations, ensuring that it applied to the most heinous crimes but keeping it from being an expensive and overreaching reaction to a highly publicized crime. Fletcher credits, in particular, his relationship with the guy sitting next to him at freshman orientation for newly elected assemblymembers. The same guy whom he met while they were both candidates, with whom he "talked for more than an hour" on the phone after being introduced by a mutual friend.

That guy was a Los Angeles Democrat named John Pérez, who a few months later was elected speaker of the lower house.  Over their time in office, the two have collaborated both publicly and privately.

"There isn't enough of that that goes on," says Fletcher, "because folks are a little too focused on scoring the cheap political hit, or what they're running for next, or pandering to the extremes of the party."

Fletcher joined Pérez in the final hours of the legislative session to vote for another attempt to change corporate taxes, the Speaker's plan that would have earmarked much of the money for college scholarships. The proposal failed to get enough support in the state Senate in the final hours before adjournment.

"The easiest thing in politics," says Fletcher, "is to plant your flag at one end of the ideological extreme or the other, and say 'I'm going to stand right here, I'm never going to be part of a solution.'  Because saying no is easy."

Assemblyman Fletcher's status as an independent legislator will, for now, earn him some notoriety in the record books. The modern era of the California Legislature has almost never seen members who don't belong to either of the two major political parties (the last was Fresno's Juan Arambula, who left the Democratic Party in his final year in the Assembly in 2009).

But he hopes recent changes - the top two primary, loosening of legislative term limits - will change the political dynamic. If not more independent lawmakers, he says, at least independently thinking members of the two big parties.

"What I believe takes real strength and real courage in politics," says Fletcher, "is that willingness to go and tell those who are your base, 'Hey I disagree with you.' Or, 'I understand that's your interest, but I've got to think about the interests of the whole state.'"


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