Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin plans bid for state controller

The Fresno BeeMarch 5, 2014 

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, considered by some to be an up-and-coming Republican Party star, is testing that theory by running for state controller.

Swearengin -- who still has almost three years left in her second and final mayoral term -- filed paperwork and paid $2,783.78 in fees Tuesday afternoon at the Fresno County Elections Office, said Tim Clark, her campaign consultant.

"I am very serious about getting into this race," Swearengin said Wednesday. "I love the role of public service, and frankly I'm ready for the next challenge."

Swearengin, 41, was first elected mayor in 2008, and easily won re-election in 2012. She was CEO of the Regional Jobs Initiative prior to being elected mayor.

She said running for state controller was the next logical step. It is a position, she said, that has the biggest influence over California's business climate and economic development. Those areas were her focus, she said, both as mayor and at the Regional Jobs Initiative.

Controller, Swearengin said, "is sometimes an overlooked function of state government, but one that has a tremendous impact on the business climate in the state."

There are still additional steps Swearengin must take to finalize her candidacy for the statewide run. These technical steps must be done by Friday to get on the ballot, and she said any run won't be set in stone until then.

But Clark, her consultant, said that's a formality.

"This is official," he said.

Winning the post, however, will be a much greater challenge because this is a blue state in which Democrats enjoy a 15-percentage-point voter-registration advantage over Republicans.

"I think she'd have a really tough time winning statewide office," said Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at Menlo College, located in the Bay Area city of Atherton. "The (voter) registration numbers are against her."

Swearengin will likely face Assembly Speaker John Pérez and Board of Equalization member Betty Yee in the June primary, and possibly others. Under state primary election rules, only the top two will move on to the November general election.

But Clark predicted that Swearengin will be the only Republican on the ballot, which should move her through to the November general election. Both Perez and Yee are Democrats.

Democrat John Chiang, the current controller, is termed out this year and is running for state treasurer.

"It's a great time to be on the ballot in California," said Clark, Swearengin's consultant.

He predicted a heavy Republican turnout this year. GOP voters, he said, have "pent up angst" over the national regulatory environment and the federal healthcare law.

But Michelson said Pérez has a lot of momentum heading into the race. He is Hispanic, and while Hispanic voter turnout lags non-Hispanic turnout, she said, "it is still a powerful motivator" for Hispanics to cast ballots. In addition, he is Assembly speaker, a position that brings a level of name recognition that can't be matched by being mayor of the central San Joaquin Valley's largest city.

Clark said Swearengin has work do to get her name known among the state's voters. But, he said, she's already well known among the state's business leaders and the Republican donor base.

"The excitement for Ashley is off the charts statewide," he said. "Everybody in Fresno knows when you talk to Ashley, you know you have a special individual."

Clark said Swearengin sent in her paperwork to form a campaign fundraising account. The goals, he said, are $5 million to $10 million.

Tony Quinn, a longtime political analyst in California and former Republican legislative aide, said Swearengin is "virtually assured to be in the runoff."

Headed into the November general election, he said she'll need some luck.

She'll have to win a good chunk of the state's independent voters, Quinn said. Another intangible is the Republican gubernatorial candidate. If former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari heads the Republican ticket, it could help Swearengin. If it is Assembly Member Tim Donnelly, it could hurt, he said.

"She will need some breaks because (Republicans) have not had luck down ballot in a long time," Quinn said.

But there was broad agreement that putting a telegenic, well-spoken Republican such as Swearengin up for statewide office could only help the GOP's cause. And, likely, Swearengin's -- whether she wins or loses.

Swearengin said she was recruited by state Republican Party chairman Jim Brulte. He declined to comment on her pending candidacy.

Michelson said the office of controller still is subject to gender stereotypes, which could hurt any woman seeking the office. She contrasted that with Secretary of State, currently held by a woman, Democrat Debra Bowen.

But even if Swearengin loses, it could boost her name identification for a future run.

"And goodness knows the Republican Party needs winning candidates," Michelson said.

Bill Jones is a Fresno Republican who knows how to win a statewide race. He twice won the Secretary of State post before losing a 2002 gubernatorial run to Gray Davis.

"Registration obviously is the biggest challenge," he said, "but I think that can be overcome. California is still an issues and candidate-driven state."

But Jones said Swearengin will have to raise enough money to run an effective campaign in a huge state. It is, he said, expensive. And in a down-ticket race like controller, fundraising won't be easy.

"The biggest challenge is how to get name recognition sufficient to overcome people not knowing who you are," Jones said.

A key first step will come at the state Republican Party's spring convention in Burlingame March 14-16. Swearengin will attend the Friday and Saturday sessions, and hopes to host a reception for delegates.

After that, Swearengin will hit the campaign trail. She said much of her campaign work will be done out of Fresno. Clark -- her consultant -- said the plan is to spend just enough resources to get through the primary, and then concentrate on the November general election.

"I can juggle both (mayor and campaign duties)," Swearengin said. "I'm used to juggling a lot of things."

Clark said he'll run radio advertisements in Fresno, Sacramento, Bakersfield and San Diego, and on a more limited basis in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, ahead of the June primary.

If Swearengin does win in November, she would likely leave some interesting political issues hanging in Fresno. Top of them: her successor.

Swearengin would assume office on Jan. 5, leaving the city without a mayor. The following day, the council would meet on the issue, said Council Member Lee Brand.

If tradition holds, it would first select a council president. A recent unofficial agreement has rotated that job. Next up is Council Member Oliver Baines -- if he wins reelection this year.

Brand said that, under the Fresno City Charter, the council president would then be selected as the mayor pro tem, which is the person the charter also says would become mayor until a special election is held to replace Swearengin.

Council members, however, could throw the honor system out the window and ditch the presidential rotation. In that case, the council member who could win four votes would become president, then mayor pro tem, then interim mayor.

But what if Swearengin resigns early to prepare to be controller? In that case, current President Steve Brandau would then become mayor pro tem.

"I would hope it would be a smooth transition and that we would respect each other," Brand said.

Whoever did become mayor wouldn't be able to get too comfortable in the seat. The council would have to call a special election within 30 days. That election would likely be in April, Brand said, with a May runoff among the top two vote-getters if necessary.

At most, the interim mayor would serve four-plus months.

Brand has made no secret of his intention to run for mayor, and on Wednesday said he would run in the special election if Swearengin became controller.

"If she wins in November, it's full speed ahead," he said. "I was planning to run, anyway."

Another name mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate is Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea. And he wasn't even entertaining the thought of having to mount a mayoral campaign in 2015.

By Friday -- the final day for Swearengin to commit to a controller campaign -- he predicted she would decide against the run.

Bee staff writer Carmen George contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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