Fresno City Council campaign cool — for now

The Fresno BeeJanuary 11, 2014 

Election 2014 at Fresno City Hall is supposed to be a battle as ferocious as last year's Measure G cage fight over garbage privatization.

District 7 Council Member Clint Olivier is to be crushed in his re-election bid by city unions vowing revenge for his part in the trash wars.

The council's ideological bent, perceived by some as unduly cautious with the public purse, is to be recast.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin is to get a comeuppance in her last two years in office from an unfriendly council majority.

At the least, these were the expectations of those hoping to change the status quo.

Instead, with June's primary fewer than five months away, the campaigns for four City Council seats seem bereft of passion.

Did City Hall suddenly become kumbaya central? Or is it still the home of political long knives, merely held in temporary abeyance?

Many at City Hall claim it's the former. The truth is almost certainly the latter.

Swearengin said she is "a little surprised" at the lack of campaign heat, especially in the District 7 race.

But, she adds, "I think it reflects the fact that our political environment in the city of Fresno has calmed down quite a bit. I think it's due to the work of the current council members and my administration. We have worked really hard to work through our differences."

Council Member Oliver Baines, who is running for a second term in District 3, said the council has its share of sharp disagreements, but they're seldom ideological in nature.

"You will get bloc voting, but you can never predict the bloc," Baines said. "That forces a dialogue with everyone. That's great for Fresno."

But the smiles could fade as election day nears.

Four seats are up for grabs in the June 3 primary. In addition to Olivier and Baines, District 5 Council Member Sal Quintero is running for re-election. Incumbent Blong Xiong is termed out next January, so his seat is also up.

According to the City Clerk's Office, no one as of mid-Friday afternoon had filed a candidate intention statement to oppose the three incumbents. Swearengin said she thinks all three will be easily re-elected.

Mike Wells, a former official with the nonprofit Fresno Metro Ministry, said he will challenge Olivier.

In Xiong's District 1, six people had filed candidate intention statements by mid-Friday afternoon: Lawrence Cano, Mark Castro, Cary Catalano, Rama Kant Dawar, Rebeca Rangel and Esmeralda Soria.

City Clerk Yvonne Spence said the deadline to file the candidate statements is 5 p.m. March 7.

The terms of Council Members Steve Brandau (District 2), Paul Caprioglio (District 4) and Lee Brand (District 6) go until January 2017. They see many issues in the same light as Swearengin.

Have the people upset with Swearengin and the council majority over trash given up on using the ballot box to change City Hall's political direction?

No, said Marina Magdaleno, business representative for the city's blue-collar union and a privatization opponent.

Magdaleno said she constantly reminds her members that elections have consequences.

"They get it now," she said. "Measure G is a reason for that."

Shared views key to power

The "Ronquillo Rule" — named after former City Council Member Dan Ronquillo — explains why elections are important.

"If we get five votes," he once said from the dais, "we can do anything we want."

Five means veto-proof. But five on a consistent basis isn't possible without a shared ideology to bind.

Fresno government was home to bloc voting for some 40 years. That was the era of council-manager government. No city manager could be hired unless four council members agreed philosophically on the city's direction.

It also sometimes was described as the era of "seven mini-mayors" as a dais full of strong egos fought to emerge as ideological top dog. Spurred by good-government reformers, voters opted for a council-strong mayor government. It went live in January 1997.

A nonpartisan mayor would propose, a nonpartisan council would dispose. With power separated, each issue would be considered solely on its merits.

The ideal didn't survive reality.

Political definitions without party labels are squishy at best. But the downtown baseball stadium debate in the late 1990s set the template for what has become City Hall's ideological divide.

Mayor Jim Patterson and two council members thought the deal too risky. Five council members, including Ronquillo, thought the deal a worthy gamble. The bloc of five won.

Taxpayer money — spend cautiously or aggressively to advance the common good? This has emerged as City Hall's basic philosophical question. It often has been reduced to North vs. South, Republican vs. Democrat, conservative vs. progressive. For the most part, this conventional wisdom holds.

Measure G was merely the latest example.

Politics full of surprises

The trash wars of yore could still be the key to the 2014 races.

"We are still looking for someone" to run against Olivier in District 7, Magdaleno said. "If a good person comes out, then we'll see."

Yet, Magdaleno seems to have mellowed a bit. She said her union and Olivier might get along for another four years.

But "he would have to really do a lot to prove himself to us," she said.

Olivier is confident, saying his focus on constituent concerns is his trump card. He points to City Hall's decision on Thursday to build Martin Ray Reilly Park, the district's first new greenspace in years, as proof.

The trash conflict "is dead and gone," Olivier said. "It's time to move on. I enjoyed labor support four years ago. I will enjoy labor support this time."

Baines said he wants another term to finish his agenda for District 3.

Quintero may scare off all but vanity candidacies. He twice won District 5 elections in the 1990s, served as chief of staff to District 5 Council Member Mike Dages for two terms, then won the seat a third time in 2010.

If trash is the measure of all things in this election, then the District 1 race seems unlikely to change the council's ideology. Xiong, after all, was a strong privatization opponent.

Dawar (former member of the Fresno Planning Commission), Soria (former policy adviser to Assembly Member Henry T. Perea) and Catalano (former District 3 council candidate) are no strangers to the public.

The standard fare of running for political office in Fresno holds the spotlight: Jobs, public safety, strong neighborhoods, collaboration with diverse stakeholders.

No source of philosophical division there. But there is a good chance the ideological divide on the council that is seated in January 2015 will be found far from Measure G.

Five big issues facing City Hall this year are Bus Rapid Transit, Fulton Mall, the 2035 general plan update, labor contracts (blue-collar, in particular, and possibly police) and reserves.

Swearengin supports Bus Rapid Transit, a more efficient public transportation system. She favors the return of cars to Fulton Mall. She is pushing hard for a general plan update that champions inner-city revitalization. She wants labor concessions to improve the city's bottom line. She says it's time to rebuild nearly empty reserve accounts.

All five will come before the council in 2014. Swearengin has council opponents on each.

They say Bus Rapid Transit is dangerously expensive idealism. They say Fulton Mall is a treasure to be preserved. They say the inner-city focus harms other parts of the city. They say labor isn't the cause of Fresno's money woes. They say rich reserves come at the expense of poor people.

It's too early to say how the votes on each issue will shake out. But the effects of these votes almost certainly will continue into 2015, especially if Swearengin loses some or all and tries again a year later.

That's why, for all the talk about peace and reconciliation at City Hall, the election of 2014 probably will heat up real soon.

With some breaks, said Fresno State political science professor Tom Holyoke, the unions and the Democrats "could change the balance of power."

Adds Council Member Brand: "Some of those issues could break down to 4-3 votes."

The reporters can be reached at (559) 441-6330, ghostetter@fresnobee.com or jellis@fresnobee.com.

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