Inspired by mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher, a group of San Diego business executives announced Wednesday they were dropping their party affiliation and forming a group based on political moderation.
The announcement inspired an afternoon of partisan squabbling.
It also sparked speculation from other mayoral candidates and representatives of both local political parties that the self-described grassroots organization was actually an extension of Fletcher’s mayoral campaign.
The group, Movement to the Middle, has 39 listed supporters who have endorsed its official pledge, “The Declaration of Independents.” The document ends, “I am not a Democrat. I am not a Republican. I am an American.” It was written by Ted Waitt, chairman of the Waitt Foundation and former CEO of Gateway Inc.
At a press conference announcing the new coalition, Scott Dickey, CEO of Competitor Group Inc., along with 13 other executives, said the group hoped to give voice to the silent moderate majority while supporting leaders who were more committed to problem-solving than partisan rhetoric and party dogma.
In comments that followed, multiple executives cited Fletcher’s decision to leave the Republican Party last month to run as an independent as the genesis of the group. They later collectively agreed that Fletcher would be the first candidate the group would choose to endorse.
Fletcher’s political opponents, from the other mayoral candidates to the chairs of the county Republican and Democratic parties, called the event an orchestrated tactic by the state assemblyman’s campaign to keep his name in the news for dropping his party.
Before the press conference, which he did not attend, Fletcher said he had heard from a couple of the leaders who said they were working on the new coalition.
“I support anyone who wants to make a commitment to end game-playing and partisan politics,” he said. “Business leaders understand making decisions, negotiating in good faith and the principles of compromise.”
Movement to the Middle hired Public Policy Strategies Inc. to handle the communications surrounding the announcement. Public Policy Strategies lists Tom Shepard, Fletcher’s chief strategist, as a strategic adviser.
Of the new political coalition’s 39 founding supporters, six have donated either individually or through their company to Fletcher’s independent expenditure committee, San Diegans for Nathan Fletcher.
The $105,000 in donations included $10,000 each from Enlightened Hospitality Group, Ace Parking Management and Life Technologies (Nasdaq: LIFE). Ron Fowler, CEO of Liquid Investments, donated $25,000 to the committee, as did both Jeff and Hal Jacobs, both private investors.
Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) executive Paul Jacobs, not listed as a Movement to the Middle supporter, also donated $25,000 to Fletcher’s IE committee. The company’s senior VP of global marketing, Bill Davidson, and Executive Vice President Peggy Johnson, however, both attended the press conference.
Dickey said the group came about entirely in the last 10 days, motivated by Fletcher’s decision.
Primarily, the group plans to fill a symbolic role.
But Dickey called increasing voter turnout in the June primary a reasonable short-term goal for the young coalition. Its website, movementtothemiddle.org, launched Wednesday, accompanied by a social media campaign.
“We haven’t decided if this is a 501(c)3, is it a PAC, is it just a social push,” he said. “We haven’t decided what form the organization is going to take, but the message, how it’s resonating thus far, we’re going to move pretty quickly here.”
The group includes both former Democrats and Republicans. They said they’d continue to support the candidates who aligned with their philosophical preferences, but were disillusioned with the idea of party loyalty.
Dan Shea, president and CEO of Donovan’s, said he might continue to support Republicans, but would never again support the Republican Party of San Diego County.
“They’re using our money to hire private investigators to track people down; we’re endorsing candidates before a primary, which was not what was supposed to happen; the party leadership has just gotten too extreme for me,” Shea said.
In early March, the local Republican establishment gave its endorsement in the mayoral race to Councilman Carl DeMaio over Fletcher and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. Just before the party’s vote, Fletcher gave an impassioned plea for the endorsement in which he bragged of his lifelong affiliation and loyalty.
Eighteen days later, he announced he was leaving the party, fed up with the divisiveness he saw in Sacramento that kept legislators from solving problems.
“This is a cheap political stunt by supporters of Nathan Fletcher participating in his political press strategy, nothing more,” said Tony Krvaric, chair of the county Republican Party.
On the other side of the county’s partisan divide, Jess Durfee, chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party, echoed Krvaric’s sentiments.
He said it has become trendy to call oneself a moderate, but the average voter continues to support candidates based on philosophical preferences that are represented by the two main political parties.
“No, this is a Nathan Fletcher political maneuver, I’m sure orchestrated by his campaign to get attention,” Durfee said. “His campaign has turned into 'how do I get attention, get people to pay attention to me.' People talk about partisan rhetoric, but this is political rhetoric all its own.”
DeMaio and Dumanis reacted to the news in kind. Both called it a cynical ploy to garner attention.
Dumanis released a statement claiming that Fletcher has injected more partisanship into the race than any other candidate.
“This is the latest scene in his contrived political soap opera after losing the Republican Party’s endorsement,” the statement read.
DeMaio wrote it off as a set of millionaires and downtown insiders joining their hand-picked mayor in an election-year stunt.
“Voters are smart; they’ll see if something is genuine and authentic,” he said. “Will Democratic voters be fooled by someone who when pandering for an endorsement proudly said he voted for an all-cuts budget that eliminated welfare?”
DeMaio said his reform agenda — marked by the Proposition B ballot initiative he championed, signatures for which were split in thirds among Democrats, Republicans and decline-to-state voters -- demonstrated the truly moderate option in the race.
Bob Filner, the only Democrat in the race, didn’t respond to an opportunity to comment.
Two married business leaders present at the press conference, Camille Sobrian-Saltman, president of Connect, and David Saltman, chairman and CEO of Malama Composites, were Democrats who already had supported Fletcher’s candidacy.
Chris Veum, president of AVRP Studios, said he was a lifetime Republican, and his wife was a lifetime Democrat, before they both made the independent switch last week after being motivated by Fletcher’s campaign.
“It’s not about political affiliation as much as getting things done,” Veum said. “A lot of us have our support for Nathan, but this coalition is more about getting things done.”