Fresno's District 1 council race: When will voters take notice?

The only Fresno City Hall race on the Nov. 4 ballot features two District 1 candidates who are promising to love the voter more than their opponent.

"I'm going to be pragmatic," says lawyer and policy adviser Esmeralda Soria. "I will definitely represent what my constituents want and what they deserve."

Business-owner Cary Catalano says, "One thing that will never be taken from me is my passion and commitment to moving our city forward."

There's no reason to doubt their sincerity. But events so far have conspired to turn the race into little more than a housekeeping chore to see who replaces the termed-out Blong Xiong. The district includes part of the Tower District, the Fresno High School area and neighborhoods west of Highway 99.

The electioneering sizzle just isn't there yet.

LEARN MORE:Read up on candidates and ballot measures in The Bee's online voter guide.

The two were by far the biggest vote-getters in the June primary. Catalano finished first in the seven-candidate field with 33.9% of the vote. Soria was second with 33.5%.

The vote count was almost a tie -- 2,569 for Catalano, 2,539 for Soria. Rama Dawar finished a distant third with 812.

City Hall in early June was full of stress. The proposed budget was a work in progress. Union contracts had nerves on edge. Water rates seemed headed toward a binding referendum.

Those were issues destined to separate election opponents, giving voters a stark choice.

Then all the controversy collapsed.

Budget hearings were a snoozer as Fresno's finances showed a long-sought uptick. The powerful police union agreed to a new contract through mid-2017, largely guaranteeing labor peace. The council took the hint from former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim and repealed the water-rate hikes, setting in motion what will soon be two months of public debate on the city's liquid gold.

A surefire controversy producer for council races in the past was handicapping potential power blocs on the dais. Would election returns prove favorable or unfavorable for a mayor always searching for four votes?

No such luck this time. Council Members Oliver Baines, Sal Quintero and Clint Olivier won second terms in June, guaranteeing that the six-sevenths of the council in January will look the same.

Baines, Quintero and Xiong in past years often saw things differently than Mayor Ashley Swearengin. But for some reason -- perhaps Swearengin's run for state controller, maybe the simmering ambitions of second-term council members, possibly the cussed nature of Fresno politics -- council members across the board now relish their independence.

That doesn't leave many issues for Soria and Catalano to mine with any degree of freshness.

There's money, of course.

According to City Clerk records, Soria had received nearly $111,000 in cash contributions and loans in the first half of 2014 and had spent most of it.

Since then, according to city records, Soria has received more than $30,000. For example, the Fresno Police Officers Association's political action committee gave $7,000 and the Fresno firefighters' PAC gave $5,000.

Signalling another source of Soria's strength, the Fresno County Democratic Women's Club's PAC gave $1,000.

Catalano had received nearly $88,400 in cash contributions and loans in the first half of 2014. He, too, spent most of it.

Since then, according to city records, Catalano has received $8,000 in additional cash contributions. For example, developers Richard Gunner and Tutelian & Company gave $1,000 each.

Union money vs. developer money -- that's as old as dirt in Fresno.

Soria and Catalano are desperate to turn the race into something other than a coin flip in the polling booth.

Soria emphasizes that she, unlike Catalano, opposed Measure G, the June 2013 election on whether to privatize the city's residential trash service. Voters narrowly rejected privatization.

"I'm working class, and I was someone who stood with working families," Soria says.

But it's unclear if a special one-topic election more than a year in the rearview mirror holds any import with undecided voters. It would be hard to find a more obscure player in the Measure G drama than Catalano. The unions vowed to crush Olivier's re-election bid for his high-profile support of privatization. Olivier cruised to victory.

Catalano, the owner of a marketing company, says he can go one step better than Soria in the competition for wage and salary workers.

"I'm for working families -- I've got five employees," Catalano says.

Catalano takes the offensive by pointing with pride to his detailed blueprint for what he calls "governing." It's been a fixture on the campaign trail for eight months, and has been distilled into an eight-page booklet for night-time reading in District 1 homes.

Firefighting response times, public safety employee levels, crime-fighting data crunches, business-expansion incentives -- this and much more are in there.

"You need to have an action plan and know how to get there," Catalano says. "I'm going to get things done."

Here, too, it's unclear if claims of technocratic expertise carry much weight with Fresnans about to mull over their ballots.

The race is for one council seat among seven at a city hall whose daily operation is dominated by the mayor in a different branch of the government. The limits of governing this puts on council members was made obvious several years ago when Olivier tried to be the Lone Ranger on animal-control policy, only to need rescue by the City Manager's Office.

Soria dismisses Catalano's claims of wonkish greatness.

"The best policy happens when people are able to look beyond partisanship and come together," she says. "That's one of the strengths of my personality."

The District 1 race may pivot on something that never goes away -- identity.

Soria says she will represent all district residents. In the next breath, she emphasizes that she's a woman and a Hispanic.

There's currently no woman on the council, she says. Fresno's growing Hispanic population is steadily flexing its political muscle, she says.

"We can't keep doing the same old, same old," Soria says. "It's not working. It hasn't worked. We need something different. That's why I feel I'm the stronger candidate."

Catalano says he will represent all district residents. In the next breath, he emphasizes that he is a lifelong Fresno County resident and has been a city of Fresno resident for the past 15 years (Soria grew up in Lindsay).

The council needs someone with first-hand knowledge of Fresno's problems and possibilities, Catalano says.

"I want the residents of District 1 and the entire city to know that I plan to serve them well," Catalano says. "I will put a lot of thought into the decisions I need to make as we move our city forward."



Age: 41

Occupation: Business owner

Education: Bachelor's degree, public administration, Fresno State

Family: Partner for 15 years

Web: cary@caryforcouncil.com

Twitter: None

Facebook: CaryforCouncil


Age: 32

Occupation: Attorney; adjunct professor; policy adviser

Education: Bachelor's degree, political science and Chicano studies, University of California at Berkeley; Juris Doctorate, University of California at Davis.

Family: Single

Web: www.esmeraldasoria.com

Twitter: Esmeralda_Soria

Facebook: Esmeralda for Fresno City Council-District 1



Oct. 6: Vote-by-mail ballots and sample ballots mailed to voters

Oct. 20: Last day to register to vote

Oct. 28: Last day to request a vote-by-mail ballot by mail

Nov. 4: General Election Day


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