State controller: Fresno Mayor Swearengin makes runoff, but who will oppose her?

The Fresno BeeJune 3, 2014 

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin is headed to a runoff in the race for state controller, but that's about the only thing Tuesday's election settled.

With all precincts reporting by early Wednesday, three contenders for the second spot in the runoff are within 0.2 percentage points of each other.

Swearengin, a Republican, has 24.4% of votes counted. Democrat John Perez, a former Assembly speaker, has 21.7%. Another top contender, Democrat and State Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, has 21.5%. Sitting between Perez and Yee at 21.6% is David Evans, a Republican wild card former mayor of the high-desert community California City.

All of 5,643 votes separate Perez, Evans and Yee, out of more than 2.3 million votes cast for the office.

It may be several days until an outcome is known since vote-by-mail ballots turned in Tuesday are still to be counted. Provisional ballots -- those that were damaged or otherwise need inspection -- also have to be tallied.

Most observers expected the runoff opponents under the new top-two format for statewide races would emerge from the trio of Swearengin, Perez and Yee. The strong showing by Evans, who lists his occupation as chief financial officer, tossed a wrench into those predictions.

"I think it would shock everyone if two Republicans made it through this primary," Swearengin said earlier Tuesday night, when the results had all four in a tight race. "Obviously I'm still cautiously optimistic and looking forward to getting the final vote count. Things are certainly trending in the right direction."

Swearengin's campaign manager, Tim Clark, said he expected her to lock in her general election spot after more votes rolled in from the "big three" counties -- San Diego, Los Angeles and Orange -- where she did well after early returns.

Swearengin said that if she made it to November, she planned to announce her campaign chairs within the next two weeks, then spend the next few months barnstorming the state to meet with community groups and potential donors.

Locking down voters in the central San Joaquin Valley will be her first priority.

Elsewhere, she has her work cut out for her, especially in a state where less than 30% of residents are registered as Republicans. There's the name recognition issue, too: It's her first go at a statewide office and despite leading California's fifth-largest city, Swearengin would need to work fast to win over voters in rural and urban pockets.

Reaching out to far-flung parts of California would quickly fill the mayor's summer weekend calendar, Clark said. Because she jumped into the race months after her top two opponents -- Yee and Perez -- Clark said Swearengin will need to jam- pack her schedule until November to make up the difference.

"We're running full steam ahead," he said. "Truly, the mayor can have Fourth of July off."

That's not to say she hasn't caught some significant attention already: In a Field Poll released in April, Swearengin led both better known Democratic candidates with 28% of the vote. She also got a big nod when the state's largest newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, endorsed her.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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