Fresno City Council set to be mostly Latino for first time in over a decade

Nelson Esparza thankful for community effort in taking the Fresno City Council District 7 seat

Nelson Esparza prepared to hit the ground running and fight to bring resources to Fresno's District 7.
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Nelson Esparza prepared to hit the ground running and fight to bring resources to Fresno's District 7.

For the first time in more than a decade, the Fresno City Council is poised to be composed of a majority of Latino council members.

The likely addition of Miguel Arias in the District 3 seat and Nelson Esparza in the District 7 seat will make four Latinos on the seven-member council. Arias and Esparza will join Council President Esmeralda Soria, who represents District 1, and District 5 Councilman Luis Chavez, who easily fended off his challenger for re-election this week. All four are fluent in Spanish.

The new additions to the council also will mean a Democrat majority. Arias, Chavez, Esparza and Soria all are Democrats. District 4 Councilman Paul Caprioglio also is a Democrat.

“A super Latino Democratic majority for the city of Fresno reflects the great diversity our city has,” Soria said. “My colleagues and I will continue to move policy issues that give every resident a better quality of life, improve public safety and bring a diverse lens to our city.”

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It will be the first time in more than a decade that the Fresno City Council has seen a Latino majority. About 15 years ago, four Latinos served on the council: Dan Ronquillo in District 3; Brad Castillo in District 4; Sal Quintero in District 5; and Henry R. Perea in District 7.

“It’s important we have a city council that looks like our city,” said Michael Evans, chair of the Fresno Democratic Party.

Nearly half the city is Latino or Hispanic, according to U.S. Census Bureau numbers.

The new wins will take the city in a positive direction on issues such as homelessness and affordable housing, Evans added.

The Latino wins were a result of grassroots efforts to groom candidates, said Perea, a longtime Fresno Democrat who lost his run for mayor in 2016. “For several years after I left the council and that group left ... there wasn’t a bench,” he said. “That’s not the case anymore. Over time, you’re going to see more and more Latinos in elected positions, like school boards and smaller boards that will catapult them into higher-profile races.

“Our group were the trailblazers back in the day. There weren’t a lot of us,” he said. “Now the bench is full. (Tuesday’s election) was a great example of that.”

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Arias noted that the Latino bench on the council share similar backgrounds, coming from first-generation, working-class American families. They also all were first-generation college graduates.

Even though the Latino majority more closely reflects the city’s diversity, Arias said each council member has the responsibility to serve all constituents in the district. He noted voters of many descents, including white, Hmong, African American and Punjabi, cast votes for him.

“We have the obligation and a responsibility to serve everyone,” he said. “This city is far too diverse and has far too many needs to leave anyone behind.”

The Latino and Democrat blocs also could put the council at odds with Republican Mayor Lee Brand, but all expressed hopes of collaboration. It takes five council votes to override a mayoral veto.

“The hallmark of my years of public service, as councilmember and mayor, has been collaboration and I’ve proven that we work better when we work together,” Brand said. “I look forward to welcoming the newest members of the city council, and I’ve already reached out to them so we can sit down and start talking about how we can work together to find solutions to the many issues that are facing our great city.”

Miguel Arias is confident with his lead in the early results for Fresno city council, District 3.

Arias in particular criticized the city’s Amazon and Ulta deals, saying small businesses that make up the backbone of the city don’t receive comparable tax breaks. Arias also voiced concern over the city’s draft cannabis regulations. He hopes the revenue the cannabis industry generates while located in District 3 will be reinvested into the community.

Still, he thinks the new council majority will find common ground with the mayor on issues such as proposed utility rate hikes.

“I respect the mayor for taking forward the responsibility of leading the city,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure he understands the needs of our neighborhoods.”

While Perea was on the council with the last Latino majority, Republican Alan Autry was mayor. The two sides didn’t really butt heads, he said, and instead came together to set priorities for city spending.

Perea projects the new Latino majority will tackle quality-of-life issues in their districts. “This council will have to really sit down, take a step back and say what are their priorities and what are hills are they willing to die on,” he said. “Then they’ll have to sit down with the mayor, and instead of fighting with him, have an honest conversation about ‘What do we want to accomplish together?’”