Ashley Swearengin's state controller campaign to focus on jobs, common sense

The Fresno BeeJune 4, 2014 

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At left Mayor Ashley Swearengin and state controller candidate, greets DA candidate Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp during an election night party at the Limelight restaurant on June 3, 2014.

MARK CROSSE — THE FRESNO BEE Buy Photo

Jobs, common sense and independence will be Ashley Swearengin's themes over the next five months as she pursues the state controller's job.

The second-term Fresno mayor advanced to the November runoff with an impressive showing in Tuesday's primary.

Swearengin, a Republican, was in Southern California on Wednesday, talking to supporters and major donors. But the polls had been open for only an hour on Tuesday when she cast her eyes on the fall campaign.

"We'll have our work cut out for us, getting our message throughout the state," Swearengin said. "That message is clear: independent from the traditional political system in Sacramento, fiscally conservative, someone who knows what it takes to create jobs in California."

California Republican Party chairman Jim Brulte said the Democrats will retain strong majorities in both houses of the Legislature. That's where Swearengin comes in, he said.

"What I think voters in general will like about Ashley is she's independent from Sacramento," Brulte said. "She will be an independent auditor of the Legislature's activity. You have to have a check and balance."

Brulte said the state Republican party will invest heavily in Swearengin's campaign.

"Helping her will be one of our highest priorities," he said.

With all 22,353 precincts reporting, Swearengin was first in the six-person race with 24.4% of the vote. That's no small feat for a Republican in a state with a strong Democratic tilt.

There's still some question about just who she will face. Former Assembly speaker John Perez is second with 21.7% of the vote, followed closely by Republican darkhorse David Evans (21.6%) and Democrat State Board of Equalization member Betty Yee (21.5%).

Some absentee ballots and provisional votes (a catch-all category that ensures no one's franchise is denied) remain to be counted. But Swearengin merely needs to be in the top two to advance to the general election. With nearly 720,000 votes as of Wednesday, she had a lead of more than 80,000 on the other three contenders. The odds are long that she'll fall to No. 3.

That means Fresno and the state are in for an interesting five months.

There's a day job that will keep Swearengin busy. The mayor of California's fifth biggest city has a nearly $1 billion proposed budget to get through the City Council by June 30. Budget hearings begin Thursday.

City Hall, as does the rest of the state, gets the slows in the hot months of July and August. Labor Day is the traditional kickoff for fall political campaigns. But Swearengin almost certainly will have a busy City Hall schedule, with Fulton Mall, water rates and the 2035 general plan update only a few of the tough issues.

Campaign consultant Tim Clark on Wednesday said he expects Swearengin to carry her message to all corners of the state. That's some 800 miles from Crescent City in the north to San Diego in the south. Whether the message will be delivered personally or electronically to California's lonely outback remains to be seen.

Clark said the Swearengin campaign likely will kick into high gear before September.

California's controller is the chief fiscal officer in a state with the world's ninth largest economy. At the heart of the job is the scrutiny of more than $100 billion in annual transactions. All involve the people's money.

Swearengin said she'll build her campaign message on her performance in five-plus years as mayor. The Great Recession hit just as she took office in January 2009. General fund revenues plummeted. Hundreds of jobs were lost through attrition or layoffs. Services were cut but civic order didn't break. Bankruptcy loomed but was avoided.

"It takes people by surprise when they hear about the story of Fresno, about how difficult it's been and how bankruptcy was sidestepped," Swearengin said.

It's unclear whether the controller's campaign will dig deep into each candidate's résumé.

Swearengin is proud of her fiscal sustainability policy, a detailed blueprint for Fresno's financial health. Whether that connects with voters in, say, Long Beach, is uncertain.

Swearengin has had some political bumps. The millions of dollars in negative fund balances are both a positive (she is aggressively fixing the problem) and a negative (she didn't get to them until 18 months into her first term).

But negative fund balances have raised hardly a ripple in Fresno. It's hard to see how it'll cause waves in, say, Santa Rosa.

The mayor's job in Fresno is non-partisan. But the party affiliation of the city's chief executive has never been a secret, to local voters or the big shots further up the political food chain.

Swearengin has moved often and effectively within the orbits of Gov. Jerry Brown and President Barack Obama. She's counting on that knack for bipartisan cooperation to be a plus on the campaign trail.

"I'm not trying to win points for one side or the other," Swearengin said. "I'm just trying to solve problems."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at fresnobee.com/city-beat.

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