Measure G defeat energizes Fresno left; will it shift city politics?

The Fresno BeeJune 22, 2013 

The "Yes on Measure G" campaign lost by wide margins among voters who live south of Shaw Avenue in Fresno.

FRESNO BEE FILE PHOTO — Fresno Bee staff Buy Photo

The Measure G privatization vote failed, which means it's the status quo for Fresno's residential trash pickup. But can the same be said for the city's political landscape?

Unions and many Democrats feel emboldened by beating back a proposal by Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin to hand trash pickup for the city's 105,000 residential customers to Mid Valley Disposal, a private hauler.

In a citywide vote on June 4, the proposal was narrowly defeated, with 50.7% of voters saying "no," and 49.2% "yes."

"I believe that our people are waking up," said Marina Magdaleno, who is business representative for the city's blue-collar union, which serves many of the workers who would have been affected by outsourcing.

The No on G side was outspent 3-to-1, she said, and couldn't afford to run advertisements on radio or on Spanish-language television, while the Yes side saturated both mediums, as well as running ads on other Fresno television stations.

Still, the "No" side managed to pull out a victory.

Fresno often has been described as a city divided by Shaw Avenue.

To its north are the high-propensity voters, largely Republican, who decide citywide elections such as mayor. South of Shaw, Democrats are more numerous but also less inclined to participate in the election process.

In this election — as expected — Measure G won in the precincts north of Shaw Avenue. The win was substantial, but not overwhelming, according to political consultants who have seen precinct-by-precinct breakdowns. At the same time, those consultants said, the ballot measure lost by large margins south of Shaw — and the loss was enough that it overwhelmed the support to the north.

This is a change from citywide elections in the past.

Former Assembly Member Sarah Reyes said the results show one of two things: "Either the community organizers have gotten stronger and more focused on their work south of Shaw, or there was less engagement north of Shaw."

The exact breakdown of the numbers won't be known until early this week.

Measure G result boost for unions, political left

Whatever the case, the end result has the unions and Fresno's political left excited.

In the short term, they would love to oust Fresno City Council Member Clint Olivier. Looking further out, the Measure G outcome has given them hope that — after north Fresno largely elected Republicans Jim Patterson, Alan Autry and Swearengin as the city's first three "strong" mayors — the time might be coming for a Democrat in the top office who is more supportive of the working class.

"I certainly hope so," said Randy Ghan, executive secretary-treasurer of the Fresno-Madera-Tulare-Kings Central Labor Council.

At the same time, Ghan is a realist.

"This was a unique circumstance — a one-issue ballot, a special election," he said. "But the work that was done, the energy and passion that people felt for the cause, certainly I think at some point that could be brought to bear in other races and on other issues. But it depends on what the issue is and when it is."

Jeff Cummins, a Fresno State political science professor, said Measure G's loss was another blow to conventional political wisdom, which says that Republicans, who as a rule are more loyal voters, tend to turn out for special elections.

"Definitely, the city overall is tilting more toward the left," he said.

Lee Brand reflects on 2016 mayoral run

Still, he and others are skeptical that Measure G's loss says anything for the longer term. One of the skeptics is Fresno City Council Member Lee Brand, who will run for mayor in 2016 and could find himself in the cross hairs of the political left.

"It's more the candidate than the party," Brand said. "Democrats and labor unions will want to get a strong candidate. I have no control over who they pick. In my case, there's a track record people can clearly review and make a judgment on."

Brand said he was never an idealogue or someone who put his finger to the wind before making decisions. He said he voted the way he thought was best for the city — and he thinks voters of all parties will respect that.

Still, Brand was very much a public face in support of Measure G.

He wasn't its centerpiece. That was Swearengin's role. But he participated in debates, was one of five who signed a rebuttal to the No on G argument in sample ballots mailed to voters, and even donned a "Yes on G" apron while serving up pancakes to volunteers who were going to walk precincts. That was captured on Twitter.

Only time will tell, political watchers said, if any of that will hurt — or help — Brand in his mayoral run.

It's a question that not only will apply to Brand, but to other political hopefuls and even to unions and their stated sense of empowerment from Measure G's results.

But the consensus is Measure G won't have long-term political legs.

For comparison purposes, Cummins points to last November's Measure O. The Fresno County ballot measure — which would have expedited government privatization — failed, but Cummins said it's already faded from political memory, especially for voters.

"Voters tend to have pretty short memories," he said. "Unless it's a heavy, heavy issue, they usually forget about it."

Many political watchers also say too much shouldn't be read into the outcome because only 27% of the city's registered voters cast ballots.

Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea, who is considering a 2016 mayoral run that would pit him against Brand and, possibly, others, said the real test of Measure G's influence will be next year's City Council race.

Harnessing Measure G momentum for 2014?

Magdaleno said she already is looking to the 2014 election to build on the Measure G momentum.

The coalition that worked against the measure will, in the short term, "charge ahead and work like hell to beat Olivier" and put the same effort into replacing termed-out City Council Member Blong Xiong with another person who shares his political philosophy, she said.

The longer-term goal is the mayoral race, and to "work like heck to put somebody in there we are going to be happy with."

What Measure G did for that effort, Magdaleno said, is set up the blueprint.

"I'll tell you that in the Measure G campaign we ran a grassroots campaign — walk and knock," she said. "Our focus was to get people to the polls to vote on Election Day."

Olivier, for one, said he was ready for the challenge. He defended his work as a council member, and said his District 7 constituents are happy with his performance thus far.

"Defeating a nameless, faceless and convoluted ballot measure is one thing," he said. "Defeating a popular and effective council member is something else entirely, and they will have their work cut out for them. So I say bring it on. Hit me with your best shot."

Brand agreed Olivier's re-election bid will be "a key race." But he said Olivier has several advantages, including incumbency.

"Clint's a smart guy," Brand said. "I can tell you, Clint takes care of his district."

In addition to Olivier's and Xiong's seats, the seats held by Council Members Sal Quintero and Oliver Baines will be up for election. Both Baines and Quintero — who, like Xiong, opposed Measure G — can seek re-election.

Magdaleno, the Local 39 union's business representative, said she is confident the Measure G momentum will spill forward and lead to success in all the City Council races.

Ghan, the Central Labor Council leader, agreed.

"The old adage that you can't fight City Hall, I believe we disproved that," he said. "You can fight City Hall."

But local business owner Tal Cloud said Measure G's failure should be credited not to the unions, but to Republican voters who said no, either because they felt the trash contract was unfairly awarded or because they didn't like Swearengin.

Cloud, a Republican activist, was in the latter group, and even ran ads leading up to the election that criticized the mayor on several fronts.

"If Republicans would have stayed out of it, I think (Swearengin) would have been able to pass it," he said. "I don't think this has emboldened anybody."

It in fact marked the first significant defeat for Swearengin, who last November easily won election to a second term as mayor.

"Will it destroy Ashley?" Reyes asked rhetorically. "No. Will it make her limp a little bit? Yes. Will it build her character? Yes. A loss always builds character."

It also may encourage her political opponents and spark some push-back from City Council members opposed to all or part of her political agenda.

Reyes said the election's results will start the process of looking beyond Swearengin to what comes next, even though she has three more years on her mayoral term.

And Reyes said the results show that the unions worked hard to turn back Measure G.

Given that, she said, the ultimate election takeaway is unions have become more engaged "because they know where the voters are, and that will make them more powerful. They now know the secret sauce to turning out voters in parts of Fresno that have not traditionally turned out to vote."

Staff writer Kurtis Alexander contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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