Voters in Fresno will be deciding two seats on the Fresno City Council on the Nov. 8 ballot – including one that wasn’t supposed to be up for election for another two years.
That’s because Councilman Sal Quintero, who represents District 5 in southeast Fresno, was elected in June to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors for a four-year term that will begin in January. That created the need for an election to fill the remainder of his term, which runs through 2018.
That special election has attracted three candidates – Luis Chavez, Jose Leon Barraza and Tony Gastelum – each of whom has sought elected office before. If one of them receives an outright majority of votes cast next month, he will be the winner and take office in January. But if no one can muster at least 50 percent of the votes, the post would remain vacant until a runoff election next March.
The other council post is District 6 in northeast Fresno, where a runoff will decide who replaces Lee Brand on the City Council. Brand, who could not run again because of term limits, is running to become Fresno’s next mayor. The candidates are Garry Bredefeld, who was the top vote-getter in the June primary but fell short of an outright win, and Jeremy Pearce, who placed second among the four primary candidates.
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The District 5 seat is one with an unusual recent history. Quintero held the position for two terms from 1994 to 2002. After that, Mike Dages – who was Quintero’s council assistant – won an election to replace his boss and hired Quintero as his assistant. Quintero ran again and won in 2010 after Dages hit his two-term limit.
Now, Quintero’s current chief of staff, Chavez, is running to replace his boss. Chavez is near the end of a four-year term on the Fresno Unified School District board of trustees, currently serving as president of the contentious board.
Chavez and Barraza both ran for District 5 in 2010 but fell short of making it into a runoff with Quintero. Barraza – at the time the county’s economic development director – ran a distant fourth, while Chavez ran an even-more-distant seventh in the eight-candidate field. Chavez won his school board election in 2012, but in 2014 came up short in his effort to unseat incumbent state Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, in the 14th Senate District.
The third candidate, financial adviser Antonio “Tony” Gastelum, is no stranger to running, either. He ran in 1998 for the District 1 seat on the council, coming in fourth among seven candidates in an election that eventually was won by Tom Boyajian.
And just months ago, Gastelum ran for the Fresno County Board of Supervisors but came in third behind the outright primary winner Quintero and former Fresno City Councilman Dan Ronquillo.
VOTER GUIDE: Find out more about the candidates, along with other races on the Nov. 8 ballot
Chavez said that while he has worked for Quintero for six years, he represents a departure from 22 years of Quintero either on the council or on the staff.
“Yes, we work together, but we’re two very different people,” Chavez said. “I have a much different background than Sal.” Chavez described Quintero as being focused on constituent services, while Chavez said he would look forward to getting more involved in policymaking.
“I got to work on policy on the education side” as a school trustee, Chavez said. “I know I can make a difference on the city side with core services, public safety and economic development.”
Chavez said he considers economic development and job creation in southeast Fresno as his top priority, pointing to efforts he has undertaken with Quintero to help existing businesses expand, such as JD Foods building a second site in the area with 144 new jobs expected.
He also said he wants to find ways to help businesses fill in commercial vacancies along the Kings Canyon Road-Ventura Avenue corridor.
“It takes a council member with the ability to go have conversations with merchants and businesses,” he said. “It’s a matter of a merchant’s needs and identifying the available options. It takes a council member who is proactive rather than reactive.”
Two other priorities Chavez cites are ensuring that southeast Fresno receives its fair share of city investments in infrastructure, such as road repairs, curbs, gutters, sidewalks and streetlights that not only encourage business growth but contribute to a higher quality of life for residents; and making the most of a new high school campus being planned by Fresno Unified on South Peach Avenue.
That new school, he said, represents potential for the city to develop an educational corridor linked to Sunnyside High School and increases opportunities for the State Center Community College District to build a new college campus in the southeast.
Barraza says his three decades of experience with the county as a policy and budget analyst and time in economic development make him a viable candidate.
He identified public safety, economic development and additional parks and green space in southeast Fresno as the issues attracting his focus.
Barraza, who heads an effort to turn a former U.S. Department of Agriculture research station on South Peach Avenue into a regional soccer park, has chided city leaders for letting the 49-acre site languish for 10 years since the federal government donated it to Fresno for use as a park.
“Councilman Quintero and Mr. Chavez have done nothing to put that land to good use,” Barraza said. “The city should be part of the solution, but they don’t have a lot of ideas on how to get things done.” He also criticized the city for channeling a $1.3 million insurance settlement from a building that burned on the property to other uses.
Chavez said he supports parks and is willing to consider park uses for the former USDA site. But, he added, “the question is how you’re going to pay for it and pay for ongoing park maintenance” as the city continues to recover from recession-era budget and staffing cuts.
Chavez said he favors waiting for public input for a new parks master plan now being developed, “and once that’s complete in the spring, then we can figure out what amenities we want.”
Gastelum, who moved into District 5 in July to run for the post after losing the election for county supervisor, declared that “I am committed to running, every time there’s an opportunity to challenge the status quo in south Fresno” because problems facing the area don’t respect district boundaries.
Gastelum said his priorities include reducing the influence of the city’s public employee unions and their campaign contributions at Fresno City Hall by “running against a culture of mediocrity and complacency in city government.”
He added that he believes economic development in south Fresno is best driven by “private-sector, free-market solutions rather than heavy-handed social engineering … like the city’s general plan.”
Gastelum said a third key to his campaign is “to change the culture of City Hall to be more of a customer-service, pro-taxpayer, pro-customer philosophy” by streamlining planning and permitting processes for businesses and developers.
Barraza and Gastelum likely face a steep climb. Chavez reported raising nearly $89,000 in campaign donations through Oct. 5.
Most of the money that Barraza and Gastelum have for their campaigns has come from their own pockets in the form of loans: more than $8,600 for Barraza and $6,200 for Gastelum. Otherwise, Barraza has raised only $1,260 in cash donations, while $845 has been donated to Gastelum’s campaign.
In northeast Fresno, public safety and improved infrastructure have been a clarion call for both Bredefeld and Pearce as they court voters. Bredefeld nearly won the seat outright in the June primary, but Pearce managed to scratch together enough votes in the four-candidate field to force the November runoff.
Bredefeld, a clinical psychologist in Fresno since 1988, is seeking to return to the council post he held for one term from 1997 through 2000. He made an unsuccessful run for mayor in 2000 instead of seeking re-election to the council.
In his first stint on the council, Bredefeld said, “we hired 170 police officers and focused on cleaning up the city, wiping away graffiti, and we worked on getting a northeast police substation and building neighborhood parks.”
But he noted the recession’s effects on the city’s budgets, including cuts to the police and fire departments. Identifying money to continue rebuilding those services, he said, is a top priority not just in northeast Fresno, but citywide. He has proposed selling unused city property, including land in northeast and northwest Fresno, and auctioning naming rights for Fresno Convention Center venues to raise money for public safety and other services such as infrastructure maintenance across the entire city.
Pearce, a first-time candidate who once worked on the staff of Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, cited frustration with crime and an increase in vagrancy in northeast Fresno as his impetus to run.
“People are sick and tired of having their homes broken into multiple times, and it’s all over the district, “ he said. “You can’t get far enough north where it’s not a problem.”
His campaign signs declare a goal of 1,000 officers on the police force, and he said he pledges to go through the city’s budget with “a fine-tooth comb” looking for waste and savings to apply to other citywide needs, including public safety and infrastructure.
Entering October, Bredefeld held an advantage of more than 11-to-1 in cash available for the last month of the campaign. Pearce acknowledged that gap but said it represented a departure from Bredefeld’s first time on the council.
“When Garry ran for the council in the 1990s, a big part of his campaign was that he wouldn’t take developer money,” Pearce said last week. “Now he’s abandoned that position and taken tens of thousands of dollars in developer money. I think it’s interesting that he’s changed positions now.”
Bredefeld dismissed Pearce’s complaint as sour political grapes. Pearce “sought the same support that I did but he didn’t get it,” Bredefeld said.
In the mid- and late 1990s, Fresno was reeling politically from the Operation Rezone scandal involving some local developers and politicians. “I wanted people … to know their councilman was an honest person of integrity, so I didn’t take money from developers,” Bredefeld said about his 1996 campaign. “I held my pledge and followed through, and won with 62 percent of the vote.”
Bredefeld said he believed his first term demonstrated that integrity, “so I didn’t feel the need to make that pledge” for the 2016 campaign.
Fresno City Council District 5 candidates
Three candidates are running in a Nov. 8 special election to fill an unexpired two-year vacancy representing District 5 (southeast Fresno) on the Fresno City Council. They are (presented alphabetically)
Jose Leon Barraza
Occupation: General contractor; real estate broker; nonprofit CEO
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration, master’s in public administration, Fresno State
Family: Wife Elsa; three children; three grandchildren
Political experience: Ran for the District 5 seat on the Fresno City Council in 2010, finished fourth out of eight candidates
Occupation: Fresno City Council District 5 chief of staff
Education: Bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in public administration, Fresno State
Family: Single; two children
Political experience: Member of the Fresno Unified School District board of trustees, 2012-present, currently board president. Ran for the District 5 seat on the Fresno City Council in 2010, finished seventh out of eight candidates in the primary; ran as a Democrat for the 14th State Senate District in 2014, lost to incumbent Andy Vidak, R-Hanford.
Antonio ‘Tony’ Gastelum
Occupation: Senior financial planner, nonprofit chief operating officer
Education: Bachelor’s degree in planning and public policy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; graduate business classes, Stanford University and Cornell University
Family: Single; three grown children
Political experience: Ran for the District 1 seat on the Fresno City Council in 1998, finished fourth out of seven candidates in the primary; ran for the District 3 seat on the Fresno County Board of Supervisors in June, finished third out of three candidates