Phil Larson, the plain-spoken Kerman farmer who was a staunch defender of agriculture and the Valley's rural west side during three terms as a Fresno County supervisor, announced Thursday he won't seek re-election next year.
Larson had promised to make his plans known on his 80th birthday. That day was Thursday. But Larson — who landed in the hospital last month after a health scare — said he'd been thinking about it for a year, and it was his wife and two children who had a major amount of input, telling him: "You need to reconsider what your priorities are."
As Larson steps aside, he is already working to pave the way for his chosen successor — Kerman dairyman Brian Pacheco.
In a letter to supporters, Larson wrote that not only was he endorsing Pacheco, so were fellow supervisors Judy Case and Debbie Poochigian, as well as Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims and the Nisei Farmers League.
A second candidate is already stepping up to run — Fresno City Council Member Blong Xiong.
"We thought long and hard about this, about taking the experience and skills gained at the City Council level, and take it to the county level," Xiong said in an interview. "There's definitely broad community support, and people who are definitely supportive of this decision, so we're going to make that run. I'm looking forward to a very competitive and high-spirited campaign."
Pacheco, 45, has already filed official documents with the Fresno County Clerk's Office that start the process to raise money and campaign for the District 1 seat serving much of the county's west side as well as a good portion of west Fresno. Xiong, 43, has yet to file any papers or make any official announcement.
In a written statement, Pacheco confirmed he will run and acknowledged his early endorsements. But he added that "today is Supervisor Larson's day. And we all salute him for his years of public service in our community."
Larson's decision means that two of the five supervisorial seats will be open next year because Case has also said she won't seek re-election.
Having two seats open in the same election is rare.
The outcome could also change the political lean of the board, which has four conservative members. Both Larson and Case are viewed as conservatives.
Larson will likely be remembered as a champion of agriculture and rural Fresno County. Before being elected to the board, he worked as a pesticide consultant for farm chemical company Wilbur-Ellis from 1963 to 2000, dealing largely with west-side farmers.
One agriculture topic that has been a constant presence during his time on the board is the Williamson Act, which gives farmers a break on their property taxes in exchange for not developing their land.
In early 2003, just a month after Larson joined the board, he found himself battling a proposal by then-Gov. Gray Davis to gut the program in an attempt to erase a $35 billion state budget deficit.
And a month ago, Larson led an effort that ended with supervisors — for the third straight year — rejecting a proposal that would have cut Williamson Act tax breaks by 10% in exchange for reducing, by 10%, the length of time landowners must preserve their property. It would have netted Fresno County an additional $2 million in property tax revenue.
But when asked Thursday what stood out to him during his time as a supervisor, Larson first cited the West Fresno Regional Center, a one-stop shop that offers a multitude of services in economically disadvantaged west Fresno.
"I am so proud of that," Larson said, noting that it took seven years to come to fruition.
Larson — who was unchallenged for re-election in 2006 and beat back two challengers in 2010 — also noted a Mendota vocational training center that opened in 2007, and libraries in Mendota, Tranquillity and Biola as other highlights.
He also found himself — along with his four other board colleagues — facing a long parade of budget challenges as the nation worked through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
As Larson steps down, the battle to replace him already has the feel of 2002, when he was first elected.
That year, the rural-based Larson — backed by agriculture — faced off against then-Fresno City Council Member Dan Ronquillo, an urban resident.
Like Larson, Pacheco is a Kerman-area resident and former Fresno County Farm Bureau president.
Like Ronquillo, Xiong is a longtime Fresno City Council member.
More candidates could enter this race.
In Larson's initial run, five people sought to replace longtime Supervisor Deran Koligian, who had died in office. Larson and Ronquillo advanced to a runoff.
As for Larson, he may be retiring from public office, but that doesn't mean he is going away, he said.
"I will commit to nothing, but be ready for anything," he said. "Sure, I'll be doing something — if asked."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, firstname.lastname@example.org or @johnellis24 on Twitter. Larson will likely be remembered as a champion of agriculture and rural Fresno County.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, email@example.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.