Sanctuary cities, ethnic diversity take center stage at first Fresno mayoral debate

Three candidates hoping to be Fresno’s next mayor squared off Saturday in the first public debate of their campaigns, each challenging their competitors’ ability to meet the needs of Fresno’s diverse communities.

Prosecutor Andrew Janz, former Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer and candidate Brian Jefferson made their case for the mayoral seat during the midday debate, held at the St. Paul Methodist Church and broadcast live on Hmong television stations and online.

Janz and Dyer went head-to-head over their records in government during the roughly 90-minute debate, largely leaving Jefferson out of their arguments.

Janz characterized former Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer as “the same type of folks that have dominated” city politics for years. Dyer, on the hand, defended himself as a law enforcement veteran who has extensive experience managing a large government agency.

Meanwhile, Jefferson, a self-described homeless advocate, stated his candidacy is mainly geared toward ensuring Dyer does not become mayor.

As Saturday’s event was sponsored by several Asian and Pacific Islander organizations, some of the questions posed to candidates dealt with issues of inclusion.

Janz got the audience’s loudest applause when he referred to the growing political divisions nationally under President Donald Trump.

He vowed to make Fresno more inclusive and progressive.

“I think that we really need a mayor that is going to stand to the divisive politics that is coming out of this White House. We need a mayor that is going to lead and be a strong, moral leader for our city,” Janz said.

Dyer, who said his commitment will be to public safety, repeatedly referenced efforts he has overseen as police chief that have increased the involvement of the Asian and Pacific Islander population.

That has included the promotion of the first Southeast Asian sergeant to the police force, the creation of Hmong Residents Academy and Dyer’s involvement in the Hmong New Year celebrations. Dyer also mentioned his efforts in investigating hate crimes against Sikhs in Fresno.

“In the future, I will continue to surround myself with a very diverse advisory board as well as employees,” Dyer said.

Candidates remain courteous, though differences show

The candidates, who shook hands more than once, kept the discussion primarily respectful.

Still, following Dyer’s comments on diversity, Janz interjected to say he doesn’t trust Dyer is truly committed in that regard — particularly considering the police department has faced numerous discrimination lawsuits under his leadership.

Janz also said he finds it concerning Terra Brusseau, Fresno Housing Authority commissioner, is involved in Dyer’s campaign. Brusseau earlier this year was criticized for comments she made about a Clovis housing project some viewed as racist and offensive.

Brusseau has since apologized and said her comments were misunderstood.

Dyer said Brusseau is serving his campaign in a fundraising capacity, saying she does not offer him advice. Dyer added he does not share her views.

The conversation eventually moved to the topic of sanctuary cities, and whether Fresno should become one.

Janz did not respond directly to the question of whether Fresno would become a sanctuary city under his leadership. He said he supports deporting the most violent criminals, but not all people who have committed low-level, non-violent offenses. He said he does not think using local police in those efforts is moral.

“As mayor, I won’t allow my police force to be taken over by the federal government to promote and enforce these, I think, unjust and unconstitutional policies,” Janz said.

Dyer, in contrast, directly answered that Fresno will not become a sanctuary city if he is elected.

“We have enough work to do with our officers in Fresno instead of going out and enforcing federal immigration laws,” Dyer said. “We are focused on criminals, but we are not going to have a sanctuary city, whatever that is. We are still going to be out there enforcing criminal law.”

Janz said while he will have a local focus as mayor, one cannot ignore what’s happening nationally.

“What we see in Washington D.C. is going to affect what happens here. It’s so important. Anybody who says the policies of Donald Trump have nothing to do with this campaign is dead wrong,” said Janz, who previously ran for Congress against Rep. Devin Nunes.

During the debate, Janz asked the moderator to question the candidates on whether they supported the President Trump’s policies.

The moderator, though, did not ask that question.

“The candidates in this race need to state very clearly where they stand in terms of Donald Trump and his presidency,” Janz said following the debate. “That is something that is on people’s minds and so I am going to continue talking about that.”

Dyer, however, said he will focus on continuing local efforts to merge the city’s Asian population into city affairs. Dyer said Janz’s attacks on his diversity record are not productive.

“I do believe in diversity and I think we need to embrace it as a city. I do also believe that we have the potential to become a very united city but we’ve got to quit attacking each other personally,” Dyer said.

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Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado is a journalist at The Fresno Bee. He covers the people and places experiencing economic and social inequity for The California Divide media collaboration. He grew up in the southern San Joaquin Valley and has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from Fresno State.