Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, the Republican candidate for California controller, said Tuesday she would bring an independent voice to the state's top fiscal office, and later backed that up by refusing to commit to her party's candidate for governor, Neel Kashkari.
Swearengin's lunchtime address to the Sacramento Press Club marked the capital debut of the Republican statewide candidate some see as most likely to overcome the California GOP's sub-29% voter registration. Swearengin easily finished first in the June primary, but her November opponent was unknown for weeks as vote counting dragged on between Democrats John A. Pérez and the eventual second-place finisher, Board of Equalization member Betty Yee.
Swearengin repeatedly pointed to her record as Fresno mayor, highlighting what she said has been its steady turnaround from a near-collapse of its finances shortly after her election in 2008. If elected controller, Swearengin said, she would fashion the office as an independent watchdog of state government.
While never mentioning Yee by name, Swearengin said the controller's job "requires independence, free from one political party, the major political party here in Sacramento."
"I think we need an outsider. And that's exactly the type of perspective I bring to this campaign and this office," she said, highlighting her experience as "direct elected executive experience" compared to "a government staffer, a quasi-legislative function" -- a reference to Yee's past jobs in the Legislature and Department of Finance.
Yee consultant Parker Skelton said Swearengin is minimizing Fresno's ongoing fiscal problems.
"I would suggest that she manage the budget of Fresno before she thinks she can manage the budget of California," Skelton said. "Betty is a policy expert, dedicating her life to understanding the intricacies of state budgets."
While taking veiled shots at Yee, Swearengin took a more direct jab at Kashkari, a fellow Republican making his first run for elective office. Kashkari annoyed many Fresno leaders last month when he released a video showing him living on the city's streets looking for a job. Kashkari also has been a vocal critic of what he calls the state's "crazy train," the high-speed rail project, which Swearengin supports.
"I wish I could have known because I could have shown him some great SRO (single-room-occupancy) housing we've built in Fresno," Swearengin said of Kashkari's visit, adding that "we were a little taken back" when she learned of the video shortly before its release.
Swearengin said she "appreciated" the point Kashkari was trying to make about the "very long path we have in many parts of the state" to rebound from the recession. But asked if she would vote for her party's top of the ticket in November, Swearengin was noncommittal.
"Am I going to vote for him? You know, I'm still evaluating the candidates," she answered.
When he released his homeless video, Kashkari said Gov. Jerry Brown and Sacramento lawmakers were to blame for the problems he highlighted, not Swearengin or other Fresno officials. Kashkari also has invited Swearengin and other GOP candidates to appear on radio shows he has hosted.
Tuesday, the Kashkari campaign did not directly respond to Swearengin's Press Club remarks. "Neel enthusiastically supports Mayor Swearengin and looks forward to voting for her and the entire Republican ticket," spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner said.
Besides suggesting some hard feelings between top GOP candidates, Swearengin's comments Tuesday could be seen as tactical. The most recent public polls show Brown leading Kashkari by about 20 percentage points, and Swearengin will need the support of some Brown voters if she is to defeat Yee.
"I really think voters are looking for an independent voice," Swearengin told reporters afterward. "Even since 2010, there is growing frustration and cynicism with the traditional political power. It's up to us to tap into that vein."