Ashley Swearengin takes GOP center stage

For Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin to have a fighting chance at winning the state controller's race, she'll need the vote of just about every Republican in the state.

She'll probably need a huge chunk of independents and probably some Democrats, too. But the road to overcoming long odds and defeating her Democratic opponent, state Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, starts with her own party.

That quest kicked into high gear here Friday at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott, site of the California Republican Party's fall convention.

State GOP leaders gave Swearengin the Friday evening keynote speaking slot at a dinner that highlighted the party's female candidates and elected officials.

Swearengin responded not with political red meat that is often the hallmark of such speeches, but instead with a slightly wonkish talk that both served as an introduction to her and an outline of the fiscal work she's done as leader of the state's fifth-largest city. Besides Yee, the only Democrat she jabbed was Yee's one-time boss, former Gov. Gray Davis.

She also didn't mention the words "Republican" or "GOP" once in her speech. In remarks later to the media, she said the controller's job is independent and she looks forward to working with people "across the political spectrum."

Before the speech, Swearengin made the rounds, attending receptions and glad-handing rank-and-file delegates from around the state who will be the key to working phone banks and driving get-out-the-vote efforts in their home counties.

Republican delegates are largely conservative, but most who were interviewed Friday seemed to like what they heard from Swearengin -- though there remain concerns about some of her moderate positions, especially her support of the state's proposed high-speed rail project.

"Can somebody talk some sense into her?" asked San Diego delegate Lynette Williams.

But Williams, who is a member of the San Diego County Republican Central Committee, said she and her fellow county GOP leaders support Swearengin.

"I'm not going to vote for the other guy," she said, referring to Yee.

Still, some party conservatives remain skeptical. The influential Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association isn't endorsing her, and Williams said that if word of Swearengin's support for high-speed rail becomes common knowledge among average Republican voters, they may choose to leave their controller choice blank.

Topping things off, a recent Field Poll showed Swearengin -- touted as a rising Republican Party star -- down 14 points to Yee.

Jack Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College government professor, said Swearengin's job in Los Angeles is two-fold: to convince attendees -- many  not believing, Pitney suspects -- that she has a shot of winning, and also to burnish her GOP credentials.

"Swearengin's credibility is on the line," Pitney said. "She really needs a spectacular performance. The trouble is, her star is dimming."

During her evening speech, Swearengin started off by talking about growing up in Arkansas, and the advice she was given by her mother and grandmother. One bit from her mother: "A good name is better than gold."

At times, the speech was almost defensive, as Swearengin touted her budget-balancing work as mayor. She said three weeks after taking office, she received the first report of an operating shortfall that over her first five years in office grew to $120 million. The national financial press was questioning Fresno's solvency.

But Swearengin said Fresno's budget is now structurally balanced, internal city debt is paid -- a comment that drew applause from delegates -- and the city is on track for 10% budget reserves by 2019.

It's a narrative well known in Fresno, but not so much to Republicans from other parts of the state.

It's also clear the criticism of Fresno from rival Democrats and Yee herself didn't go unnoticed by Swearengin. She noted negative comments about Fresno from both Yee and state Democratic Party Chairman John Burton.

"Huh?" Swearengin asked. "Turning the city's finances around and now we're the fifth best job-creating city in the state? And, my legacy is soaring deficits and record unemployment? For a minute, I thought Betty (Yee) was referring to her former boss, Gray Davis."

It was her lone red meat comment of the evening, and it drew hearty laughter. It was also a defense of her leadership in Fresno.

Swearengin then went after Yee and her role as chief deputy in the state Department of Finance when Davis was governor. Tying Yee to Davis, Swearengin said during Yee's time in the Davis administration, the state's balanced budget ballooned to a $30 billion deficit.

It was then that Swearengin turned to why she's the better choice for state controller.

Skepticism clearly remains. For starters, Claremont McKenna's Pitney said Swearengin needs to address the lack of a Jarvis association endorsement.

"For a California Republican activist, that's a big deal," he said. "It's the equivalent to not getting an A (rating) in a restaurant. If you don't see that, you don't order."

And Swearengin still will not endorse fellow Republican Neel Kashkari, the Republican gubernatorial nominee -- or even say that she'll vote for him over incumbent Democrat Jerry Brown.

That could be chalked up to lingering bitterness over Kashkari's choice of Fresno to film a video of him homeless on the streets for a week. But Swearengin said she was still studying up on not just Kashkari, but all her fellow Republican statewide candidates, from treasurer to attorney general. She only gave her backing to Republican Secretary of State nominee Pete Peterson.

Despite her nonpartisan lean at a highly partisan event, several delegates still said they liked what they heard from Swearengin, either in her speech or talking with her earlier in the day.

One of those was Richard Oliphant, a delegate and former mayor of the wealthy town of Indian Wells.

"She reflects the kind of person we need and the attitude and ideas we need" for controller, he said.

Oliphant also said Swearengin should be supported by the Republican Party base, even if they may differ from her on some issues.

"Find a person I agree with 100% of the time, and you've found somebody who is a 'yes man,' " he said. "I like differences of opinion."

Fresno resident Marcelino Valdez, the state Republican Party's Central Valley Region vice chairman, also defended Swearengin.

"She's definitely the golden child of the party right now," he said. "She's a breath of fresh air."

She's also pragmatic, he said, which is why as Fresno's mayor she supports the high-speed rail project. It could bring short-term construction jobs and possibly a long-term job creator -- a train maintenance facility -- to the Fresno area.

But Valdez agreed that Swearengin likely will have to work to win over some skeptical delegates -- and then reach out to other voters since the statewide GOP voter registration total is less than 29%.

"Even with 100% of 29%, that's still not 51%," Valdez said, referring to the vote total needed to win. "We need to do a better job of reaching out to the general public who are not dyed-in-the-wool Republicans."

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