But while he pledges to follow through on a number of Ashley Swearengin’s major initiatives, it would be a mistake to expect Brand to be a carbon copy of the woman who has held the office for almost eight years.
“Everybody’s different in their leadership style,” said Brand, who will take office Jan. 3. “We may have the same goals, revitalizing downtown or implementing high-speed rail, but it’s about how we get there. I think I definitely have a different approach than Ashley does.”
Part of that approach will be his penchant for building consensus and coalitions, starting with the transition committee he will select to guide the hand-off of the reins at Fresno City Hall from Swearengin. H. Spees, an ordained pastor and community activist who came up short in the June primary for mayor and quickly endorsed Brand, will lead that group.
“Ashley is one of the most focused people who can take a project on, put on these blinders to look from here to there, and get there,” Brand said. “My path is more of a collaborative path. My skill set, which most people underestimated, is not just finding ideas for improving the city, but getting at least three or four other people to say, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea.’ Or getting involved in really complex deals where I had to be the person to bring two sides together.”
Brand plans to cast a wide net for his transition committee members, inviting representatives from business, the city’s ethnic and cultural communities, faith-based and nonprofit organizations, the building industry and the city’s labor unions. “This committee is going to be a reflection, a mirror image, of what Fresno is,” he said two days after the election. “It’s going to represent the diversity of Fresno.”
My skill set, which most people underestimated, is not just finding ideas for improving the city, but getting at least three or four other people to say, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea.’
Lee Brand, Fresno’s mayor-elect
While Fresno’s employee unions largely backed Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea, Brand said he expects to have at least two union representatives on his transition committee, including the Fresno Police Officers Association.
Brand recalled the post-election fallout from 2008, when Swearengin won her first four-year term as mayor after a campaign in which many of the city’s unions had backed her opponent, Henry T. Perea – son of the candidate Brand defeated Tuesday.
“When Ashley came in in 2008, it was after a very acrimonious campaign with the unions,” Brand said. “I think what hurt Ashley’s first year was all the acrimony. I just don’t believe in that. When I start, the slate is clean. … The statement I want to make is, we’re all together now. This is not labor versus management. This is the city of Fresno moving forward.”
Building his administration
Brand also will need to quickly begin building his mayoral staff for the nuts and bolts of governing. Two of his current City Council District 6 staffers, Ginger Barrett and Kathy Wilson, will both move with him to the mayor’s office.
But he will have to select a new chief of staff, since Georgeanne White, who served in that role for both Swearengin and Mayor Alan Autry, transferred earlier this year to the Public Utilities Department, where she serves as an assistant director dealing with state and federal water policy and government affairs.
“I’ve got some people in mind for (chief of staff), but I’ve not made a decision,” Brand said. “I will probably make that decision in the next three or four weeks; I’ll have it done in plenty of time.”
Brand will be weighing whether to keep people on board or make changes in positions including public affairs, press secretary and others.
“There’s about eight or nine positions in the mayor’s office,” he said. “Everybody’s submitting résumés. I don’t want to publicly say, but there are certain people where I’ll say they’re doing a great job and I’m going to keep them; there are others where I’ll probably make some changes, but I’m not certain.”
He also may be confronted with selecting a new city manager. Bruce Rudd, 60, has worked for the city for 40 years and as the city manager since 2013, but he had discussed the prospect of retiring depending on the election results. The position is crucial in the city’s hierarchy, because each of the city’s department heads reports to the city manager, who in turn reports to the mayor.
“In our charter, the mayor is the CEO through the city manager, so technically, if (Police Chief) Jerry Dyer leaves, the city manager hires, but realistically it’s going to go through the mayor,” Brand said.
“Now it’s no longer Lee Brand, the city councilman, the legislator,” Brand added. “Now it’s Lee Brand, the chief executive.”
And Brand acknowledged that shift includes his own evolution as a communicator in preparation to become the public face of California’s fifth-largest city, following in the footsteps of what he described as the “aw shucks” demeanor of Autry, who served from 2001 through 2008, or the telegenic and charismatic Swearengin.
“It was the same thing in the primary,” Brand said. “H. (Spees) is a very charismatic guy, and Henry Perea is a well-spoken, polished politician. People asked, ‘How can Lee compete with that?’ ”
“But I had people who challenged me, and I was receptive; I can always get better. I went from the intellectual, professorial guy to, in the end, the guy who could compete in any debate with anybody, who could confine answers to 30 or 60 seconds, who could communicate a vision that could resonate.”
“I’ve come a long way, but will I ever be as charming as Ashley? No; I don’t have the hair, for one thing,” he joked. “But we made me a better Lee Brand. I’m a better communicator now, because I’m more concise and less into the weeds.”
Stepping out the door
Swearengin said she and her staff will do everything possible to help Brand be ready in January.
“The good news is we have a mayor-elect who is very committed to moving Fresno forward in a similar manner,” Swearengin said Thursday. “For my team, we’re still doing the day-to-day work as if we would be in position months or years from now, so we don’t have to stop and wrap everything up with a bow so that a new administration can start clean.”
“We have to keep running, and it’s going to be like a baton hand-off with a runner finishing her leg and handing off while in motion to the next runner,” she added.
Brand, 67, has spent years running his real estate and property management company – check off executive experience on his résumé. But over the past eight years on the City Council, he has been a legislator, not an executive.
The differences, Swearengin said, are immense. “What isn’t obvious from the platform of a council member is there’s a lot of stuff that’s happening or has to be developed before it ever turns into a council action item,” she said. “There are a lot of those things he doesn’t know about yet, or maybe knows a little bit about, because he’s not had to consider it yet as a council member.”
The good news is we have a mayor-elect who is very committed to moving Fresno forward in a similar manner. My team (won’t) have to stop and wrap everything up with a bow so that a new administration can start clean.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin
“That means bringing Lee up to speed on a lot of projects that are underway, and starting to invite him into those meetings so we’re not making decisions or choices that are things he would not want in January,” Swearengin said.
Swearengin said she expected Brand to fill his crucial staff positions within a week or two. “As we’re starting to pull him into things, it’s going to be ideal for him to have key staff people figured out so they can start folding in as well,” she said.
Some of the not-yet-public pieces that Brand can expect to learn more about in the coming weeks are what Swearengin called “a significant number of economic development projects that are still confidential, but are to the point where they’re talking to us about locations and those sorts of things” but have not yet been presented to the City Council.
“We’ve literally got thousands of jobs in the pipeline,” she said. “Obviously not all of those will stick, but he’s got a chance to land some pretty significant job generators early next year” if they don’t materialize before the end of 2016.
Carrying the torch
Brand said he is prepared to carry on many of Swearengin’s hallmark endeavors, from downtown and neighborhood revitalization to implementing a new city General Plan that focuses on infill development rather than continuing urban or suburban sprawl on Fresno’s fringes; from beefed-up code enforcement against substandard housing to pushing development of a passenger station for California’s planned high-speed train project and a home for a major high-speed rail maintenance facility to service the statewide train network; and from coming up with a master plan for future citywide park construction and maintenance to implementing a smoother, faster approval process for new commercial, residential and industrial development projects.
“I want to finish what she started,” he said.
“Every administration has said, ‘I’m going to make Fresno more business-friendly, to streamline permitting, plan checks and processing.’ But they’ve made incremental progress; they’ve never finished the job,” Brand added. “I want to finish the job; I want to put the exclamation point on it.”
But Brand also has some of his own ideas to pursue, including putting into motion elements of the Economic Expansion Act that he wrote as a councilman earlier this year and adopting a public safety plan that includes bringing community-based policing to a Fresno Police Department that he hopes to eventually build to 1,000 officers.
Regardless of the issue – economic development, land use and zoning, public safety, homelessness, code enforcement, neighborhood revitalization, park improvement or maintaining streets, sidewalks or streetlights – Brand said the key will be prioritizing the city’s finite resources while not letting well-laid plans languish from inaction.
“I’ve seen too many reports and commission plans – there’s probably a warehouse somewhere down there at City Hall with reports gathering dust over the last 50 years,” he said, only half-joking.
“This has got to be about implementation, moving the needle forward. This is about changing the direction of the Titanic to get around the iceberg.”