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Fletcher’s downfall another chapter in a history of San Diego sex scandals

San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher is the latest in a line of local Democrats to fall from grace amid sexual misconduct claims. In fact, KPBS’s Amita Sharma says Democratic sex scandals have been a feature of San Diego politics for decades.

Nathan Fletcher’s abrupt resignation from the San Diego County Board of Supervisors last week puts him in a notorious pantheon of local Democratic politicians.

Their commonality?

Once promising political careers scuttled by sexual misconduct allegations or matters related to sex.


“There tends to be this view that San Diego is this little Iowa on the Pacific Ocean,” said Mesa College political science professor Carl Luna. “It’s just a nice little quiet place. But we have a ridiculously large number of scandals and that’s a sign that people are not holding politicians accountable.”

The list is not only long, it spans decades.

In 2005, Michael Zucchet and Ralph Inzunza — two up-and-coming Democrats on the San Diego City Council — were convicted of taking illegal campaign cash from a strip club owner who wanted the city to lift a ban on touching between nude dancers and patrons. Inzunza went to prison. Zucchet’s conviction was overturned.

Former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner in court in San Diego, Dec. 9, 2013.
Associated Press
Former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner in court in San Diego, Dec. 9, 2013.

Ten years ago, Democrat Bob Filner’s nine-month tenure as San Diego’s mayor was sunk after 13 women accused him of making unwanted sexual advances.

In 2016, Supervisor Dave Roberts, who was the lone Democrat on the board, lost his re-election bid following a slew of allegations that included an inappropriate relationship with an office aide.


Last year, a man accused Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, the then head of the San Diego County Democratic Party, of sexual assault.

Then, two Sundays ago, the 46-year-old Fletcher shocked the local political world by announcing he was dropping out of a state senate race in which he was the prohibitive favorite and seeking help for PTSD, trauma and alcohol abuse.

But that was just the first shoe to drop. Three days later, a former Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) spokesperson filed a lawsuit alleging that Fletcher sexually harassed and assaulted her. A day after that came the announcement that he was resigning his seat on the Board of Supervisors, effective May 15.

These scandals have not only been personally ruinous for those involved, they have short-circuited eras when Democrats seem poised to dominate local politics.

When the so-called Strippergate scandal hit during the aughts, Democrats had control of the San Diego City Council and Zucchet was deputy mayor.

A Democrat succeeded Inzunza, after he was forced to step down following his conviction, but Republican Kevin Faulconer won Zucchet’s seat. And Faulconer won the special mayoral election held after Filner resigned, ushering in a seven-year GOP reign in the mayor’s office.

Fletcher’s downfall comes less than three years after Democrats gained a majority on the Board of Supervisors for the first time in decades. As chair of the board from 2021 to earlier this year, Fletcher established a progressive record — pushing through new policies on mental health, affordable housing and climate action.

Now there is no majority on the board and any momentum Democrats may have had will likely stall at least until a special election is held to replace Fletcher, which might not happen until 2024. And that’s assuming a Democrat wins his seat.

'Men who have power'

To be sure, Republicans are responsible for what are arguably the two most high-profile scandals in recent San Diego history. In 2005, U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham went to prison after pleading guilty to bribery charges. And in 2019, U.S. Rep. Duncan D. Hunter resigned his seat after pleading guilty to stealing campaign funds. Former President Trump pardoned both men in 2021.

But sex scandals have been far more prevalent among local Democrats. Yet, even some adversaries of Democrats say they should be looked at individually rather than as a fatal flaw of the party.

“As somebody who has worked against the Democratic party for 40 years or so, if I had an opportunity to make some kind of sweeping generalization, I'd be happy to do so,” said longtime Republican strategist John Kern. “It's not there. It just isn't.”

Kern says it mostly has to do with the law of averages, especially in recent decades as the region has become increasingly blue.

“It’s a Democratic county,” Kern said. “There are more Democrats in office than there are Republicans. So the fact that they happen to be Democrats, again, I understand the coincidence, but it has nothing to do with party.”

The other part is as old as time, he said.

“It’s the people,” Kern said. “I had two rules of behavior for all people in politics. Keep your fly zipped and your hand out of the till.”

Mix in the trappings of elected office and you’ve got the potential makings of a sex scandal, said former Los Angeles Times reporter Tony Perry, who covered many of the falls from grace.

“It’s about men who have power and with power came a sense of entitlement,” Perry said.

Luna is not as charitable when it comes to the party’s culpability. He argues that party leaders are to blame for looking the other way when one of theirs does something wrong.

He believes an “inward groupthink” takes over with the sole goal of preventing the accused politician from being removed from power.

“The San Diego Democratic Party, while it has had great political success, tends to have a conveyor belt system of how you move up,” Luna said. “You start at the city council. You move up to the board of supervisors, assembly. And if you’re on that train, the people above you and below you need you to stay there so there is a tendency to not want to hold people accountable even though it always comes out in the end.”

Luna said people knew of Filner’s misconduct with women for years.

“People knew Nathan Fletcher had a problem,” Luna said. “If Nathan Fletcher is brought down by something like this, then there are a whole bunch of people around him who should really not be in politics right now because they encouraged it to happen.”

He said the entire Democratic power structure in the county should be overhauled and those who are left should candidly introspect about what went wrong and how to prevent another political scandal.

“San Diego Democrats are in such an assured position to win that they can start to be choosier about who they are going to put into office,” Luna said. “Find people who are working in the nonprofits, working in the communities, who really aren’t in it for the power and start elevating them, as opposed to those who see it as a stepping stone to their next elected office.”

Corrected: June 1, 2023 at 6:00 PM PDT
The name of former San Diego City Councilman Ralph Inzunza was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.