In the past few weeks, they’ve been sitting on stools in front of one Fresno interest group or another in what seems like an endless line of campaign forums and debates. They’ve shared their thoughts and opinions with the Downtown Rotary Club, Fresno State students and organizations supporting downtown, west Fresno, bicycles and parks.
The questions – and answers – aren’t changing: slumlords and substandard housing, homelessness, crime, downtown revitalization, economic development, urban sprawl.
Given that, the battle to replace termed-out Ashley Swearengin and take her place as mayor of the state’s fifth-largest city won’t be won talking to interest groups.
The contest will almost certainly be won or lost on the streets, working to win over what appears to be a small number of undecided voters – there are indications it is below 20 percent, and possibly as low as 12 to 14 percent – and then making sure supporters and likely supporters actually cast their ballots.
I think it’s going to be very close. I don’t think anybody has an edge on anybody right now.
Fresno Police Officers Association President Jacky Parks
“I think it’s going to be very close,” says Fresno Police Officers Association President Jacky Parks, who is supporting Perea. “I don’t think anybody has an edge on anybody right now.”
Polls done by independent groups all have a common thread: no matter who’s ahead, the gap between the candidates is within the margin of error, an indication the race is a toss-up.
That means that walking precincts, manning phone banks and working to identify and win over the small pool of undecided voters is critical as the race enters its final month.
VOTER GUIDE: Find out more about the candidates, along with other races on the Nov. 8 ballot
The camps will spend much of their time trying to identify likely voters. Will controversial Republican nominee Donald Trump, who has disparaged Latinos, drive up Latino turnout? Will Proposition 64, which would legalize the recreational use of marijuana, attract young people to the polls? Will Proposition 57, which would revamp state prison parole rules and which is widely disliked by Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer and Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, bring out more conservatives who are fearful that crime is on the rise?
Fresno businessman Michael Der Manouel Jr., a Brand supporter and chairman of the Lincoln Club of Fresno County, says that if either Brand or Perea is ahead by 3.5 percentage points or more just before Election Day on Nov. 8, that person will win.
Der Manouel says an increasingly smaller number of voters are casting their ballots on Election Day, but those who do, coupled with mail ballots cast late in the cycle, will probably break more Democratic and favor Perea. Still, Der Manouel said those late votes won’t be enough to close a 3.5 percent gap, should Brand be ahead. Conversely, if Perea is ahead in advance balloting, he’ll likely increase that lead on Election Day and after.
Others weigh in
Already, the first independent expenditure has started.
One Putt Broadcasting, which is run by businessman John Ostlund and owns several Fresno radio stations, has spent close to $16,000 to produce and air radio ads supporting Brand and featuring Sal Quintero. Brand, a Republican, and Quintero, a Democrat, are Fresno City Council colleagues, and Quintero has endorsed Brand.
There’s talk of more independent campaigns to come. Certainly, voters should expect to hear from the Fresno Police Officers Association along with Fresno Firefighters in support of Perea, and the Fresno Chamber of Commerce backing Brand.
Brand and Perea will almost certainly air television and radio ads, as well as send mail to voters – especially regular voters – that either touts their candidacy or attacks their opponent. There will also be teams of supporters walking precincts on weekends and working phone banks. Neither candidate is supposed to coordinate their campaign with any group running an independent campaign.
The Fresno that Perea and Brand are facing as candidates is different from 2008, the last time the city had a competitive mayoral election. That year, Swearengin beat Perea’s son, Henry T. Perea, who was a city councilman. She easily won re-election in 2012.
For instance, the city leans more Democratic. In 2008, Fresno was 43 percent Democrat and 39 percent Republican. In raw numbers, there were 8,052 more Democrats than Republicans just ahead of the November 2008 election. Swearengin, a north Fresno Republican, won 54.3 percent of the vote to Henry T. Perea’s 45.4 percent.
In the most recent report this year, a snapshot taken on Sept. 9, it was 43.5 percent Democrat to 31.4 percent Republican. The Democratic Party edge has now grown to close to 27,000 voters.
The registration numbers would seem to favor Perea, even though the mayor’s race is officially nonpartisan and it is clear that some residents will not vote their political party.
But some things do remain the same, supporters of Perea and Brand agree. Tops on that list is the city’s mythical dividing line of Shaw Avenue, with wealthier people who vote more often living to its north, and less wealthy and less regular voters living south of the street.
In 2008, Democratic Party turnout was 61 percent north of Shaw and 47 percent south of Shaw. Among Republicans, it was 67.5 percent north of Shaw and 48.9 percent south of Shaw.
For that reason, Perea and Brand must work Fresno’s northwest and northeast. To Brand’s advantage, his council district represents the city’s northeast, and even Perea’s supporters say one of their candidate’s major challenges is trying to peel votes away from Brand in the city’s northern reaches.
“The northeast and northwest will carry the votes,” Parks says, “so you’ve got to make an impact. Henry is the underdog in those areas.”
Perea in particular has tried to make a campaign issue out of the discolored water some northeast residents have experienced. During the summer, he put bottled water on doorsteps with a message about Brand’s inaction on the issue. Brand has since fought back, saying he’s offering concrete solutions while Perea is playing politics with the issue.
Parks says the key to winning – and winning over north Fresno voters – comes down to which candidate one can convince voters they will move Fresno forward, create jobs and build up public safety.
“There’s votes to be stolen” by Perea in north Fresno, Parks says.
At the same time, those northern areas represent only around a third of the city’s voters. Two-thirds of Fresno is south of Shaw. In fact, there’s more registered Republicans south of Shaw than north of the street. The southern parts of the city are considered to be Perea’s core. He lives near Fresno High School.
“I do think the way (to victory) is between Shaw and Shields, from the east all the way to the west.
Fresno businessman Michael Der Manouel Jr.
Der Manouel says the way to victory is between Shaw and Shields Avenue, “from the east all the way to the west.” If Brand holds his strong areas north of Shaw, Der Manouel says, then he must win votes in the two miles south of Shaw – a true middle class mixing area of the city.
Not surprisingly, Perea has been walking lots of precincts north of Shaw and Brand has spent considerable time walking those north of Shields and south of Shaw.
Perea says he believes a new poll commissioned by Granville Homes that shows him with a small lead that is within the margin of error (and assumes higher-than-usual Latino and millennial turnout) is correct, and may even underestimate his lead.
“The undecided factor is much lower,” Perea says, citing the Granville poll’s 15 percent undecided number. “We will continue our outreach and will soon add a new (get out the vote) program that will complement our current ground operation.”
But other polls have shown Brand with an equally small lead, and his supporters point out that the Granville poll also includes a second set of data that took out the projected higher Latino and millennial turnout. When that happens, Brand takes a small lead.
“This race is up for grabs,” Brand says. “I have the best campaign team in central California and I’m confident we will have the winning strategy.”
Tom Holyoke, a Fresno State political science professor, says the higher Latino turnout may materialize, but he’s skeptical about an increased millennial turnout.
“Young people don’t tend to vote,” Holyoke says. “By all accounts, this is likely to be an election that, across the board, does not motivate the young.”
Another factor, experts say: That rapidly growing Latino population may lean Democratic, but it is not a monolithic voting bloc that will be all in for Perea. As Perea may be able to steal away some of Brand’s north Fresno support, Brand can win over Latinos who are pro-business conservatives.
All these various constituencies – from the young to minorities, from liberal to conservative, from north Fresno to the city’s southern reaches – will likely be courted with increasing vigor as the campaign now enters the home stretch.
“Significant things will be happening starting next week, and it’s going to be interesting,” Der Manouel says, “but I can’t predict a damn thing. It’s just one of those years.”