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What might have been in San Diego

Sandman's Musing | Monday, December 9, 2013

In national commentary on the subject and in more than one personal conversation I have had, the sentiment among many Americans remains the same: if ever the time was right for an Independent political movement in the United States, it is now.
Given the frustration many have with the hyper-partisanship and gridlock in our political system, with a sound strategy, broad-based support and enough funding, who knows how far the right candidate might go as an Independent.
The question is – what would that candidate look like?
Three years ago, Nathan Fletcher was a California state assemblyman and a rising star in the Republican Party.
He was a young, well-spoken legislator with a decorated military background in the U.S. Marine Corps. A fiscal conservative and social moderate, Fletcher helped get a remarkable 21 pieces of legislation passed in his first term in the California legislature. He appeared destined for higher office.
In 2012, Fletcher ran for mayor of San Diego. Weeks after he failed to win the endorsement of the San Diego County Republican Party, Fletcher surprised many and announced he was leaving the party and running as an Independent. Despite an initial bump in the polls, Fletcher finished third in the election.
In the spring of 2013, while working in the private sector and with no immediate election in sight, Fletcher announced he was registering as a Democrat. It was a switch, Fletcher said, that came about as the result of a variety of factors, personal and ideological.
When then San Diego mayor Bob Filner resigned in August amid revelations of harassment and misconduct, Fletcher was the first candidate to file his paperwork to run in the special election to replace him. Early polls showed Fletcher leading the race.
The special election was held on Nov. 19, with the top two finishers scheduled to compete in a runoff election early next year to determine who would be the next San Diego mayor.
Fletcher finished third.
“This election marks the end of my time in politics,” Fletcher said the day after the election.
The man who three years ago seemed set in the fast lane to higher office is now walking away from the public spotlight. 
But while many (including myself) were disappointed to see Fletcher leave the GOP, it’s even more curious to wonder what would have happened if Fletcher, a down-to-earth, decent man with working relationships on both sides of the aisle, had remained an Independent.
What if he successfully fielded criticisms from the left (he’s a conservative in sheep’s clothing!) and the right (he’s a liberal phony!) and played them to his advantage, branding himself as the “new breed” candidate above the fray of partisanship, beholden only to the citizens?
Though Fletcher voiced a version of this message throughout his recent campaign, how much more convincing would it have been coming from an Independent?
What if that message of responsibility, leadership and responsiveness to the citizens turned out to be a winner?
Seventy-one-year-old Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s Independent mayor, is about to hand the keys to the Big Apple over to his liberal successor, and presumably, leave politics for good. What if a 37 year-old West Coast mayor took over the title of “highest profile Independent in America?”
While it might be easy to wonder why these hypotheticals matter to anyone but political junkies anxious to see them play out, the truth is, what happened in America’s eighth largest city would have had implications for others running for higher office around the United States.
What if Fletcher was the right candidate, if not to run for president, to start that conversation?
What if, what if…
Maybe it is impossible for a centrist to win major office when competing against well-funded attack machines on the left and right. Or maybe the right candidate still hasn’t come along.
Maybe the case of San Diego was the opportunity for Independent leadership that slipped through America’s fingers. Or maybe that opportunity was never meant to be.
We can only wonder what might have been in San Diego.
John Sandberg lives in Fisher Hall and is a senior studying political science. He can be reached at jsandbe1@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.