Elections

Fresno Mayor Swearengin lost to Yee in state controller race

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s effort to capture the state controller’s job fell short Tuesday.

As she addressed supporters Tuesday evening, Swearengin, a Republican, was behind San Francisco Democrat Betty Yee 52.1% to 47.9% with 76% of the statewide precincts reporting.

By Wednesday morning, with 100% of the early returns statewide, the margin was about the same: Yee 52.8%, Swearengin 47.2%. Each polled more than 2 million votes.

Swearengin was campaigning to replace termed-out state Controller John Chiang. Yee, a state Board of Equalization member, edged out former Assembly Speaker John Pérez for the runoff.

At an election party surrounded by a small group of supporters Tuesday night, Swearengin appeared at ease as she mingled with a glass of red wine in one hand. Cheers erupted shortly after 8:30 p.m. when Swearengin, initially falling short, gained on Yee as more ballots were counted. The two candidates flip-flopped a few times before Yee began to steadily take the lead around 11 p.m. Shortly after, reporters at the party were asked to leave.

Swearengin said it was still too close to tell who would win. But she acknowledged the challenge of being a statewide candidate, mayor, mother and wife.

If elected, Swearengin said California’s financial health, as well as the economic and business climate would be her biggest priorities. If not, she’ll move forward with Fresno duties, including adopting a new general plan, which the city hasn’t done since 2002.

“Either way, November and December will be very busy, whether continuing to serve as mayor or preparing to assume office as the state controller,” she said. “I’m really just anxious to get back to work. Campaigning is a little bit like pressing pause.”

At 9:30 p.m., Swearengin addressed her supporters. She stood, heels off, on a small white stool, and cracked jokes throughout. While thanking her parents, she laughed, “It literally all started here. It was the Immaculate Conception, part two.”

But in all seriousness, Swearengin said she wouldn’t have taken a break to run for statewide office if Fresno wasn’t “in really good shape.”

“I couldn’t have done it in 2013,” she said. “Our city was not in a position for me to take my hands off the wheel. But in 2014, thanks to incredible work from a lot of people, we were in a position that I knew I had the right team in place and I could trust the day-to-day operations in the city to some key people.”

Toward the end of Swearengin’s speech, her phone rang. She took it out of her pocket and looked: “It’s not Betty,” she said, smiling.

The crowd erupted in laughter.

Swearengin was the leading vote-getter among six candidates in the June primary, but Yee had an advantage heading into Tuesday’s election: Being a Democrat in a highly Democratic state. Swearengin has been called a rising star in the Republican Party for charisma and moderate views. But just 28% of registered voters in California are Republican, while 43% are Democrats.

Experts said prior to the election that Swearengin faced an uphill battle and needed to win over almost all Republicans, many independent voters and some crossover Democrats, including those willing to “split” their ballot and vote for her while supporting Gov. Jerry Brown’s re-election. Voting trends show people often follow the lead of their gubernatorial choice on down-ticket races such as treasurer or controller.

Some Republicans, however, remained concerned about some of Swearengin’s moderate positions, namely her support of the state’s proposed high-speed rail project, which critics labeled a boondoggle but which would create short- and long-term jobs. And she refused to endorse Republican gubernatorial nominee Neel Kashkari after he featured Fresno in a campaign ad to argue that California’s economy was suffering.

During her campaign, Swearengin also changed her position on same-sex marriage, telling a Republican group in Orange County last month that she supports marriage equality. In 2008, when she first ran for mayor, she said in a candidate forum that marriage was between a man and a woman and declared her support for Proposition 8, a ballot measure to amend the state constitution and ban same-sex marriage. She later acknowledged during the mayoral campaign that she had changed her position on the proposition, but said “my position (on marriage) has always been clear.”

Swearengin’s campaign fell millions of dollars behind her fundraising goal of $5 million to $10 million as the GOP focused its limited resources to keeping Democrats from holding onto the two-thirds supermajorities in the state Legislature.

Before Yee joined the Board of Equalization, the agency in charge of tax administration and appeals, she was chief deputy for budget at the state Department of Finance. Prior to that, she held staff positions on several fiscal and policy committees in the state Assembly and Senate. She has a master’s degree in public administration.

Swearengin was elected as Fresno’s leader in 2008 and re-elected in 2012. She was chief executive officer of the Regional Jobs Initiative before that and holds a master’s in business administration.

Gearing up for the general election, both candidates ran their campaigns similar to the primary. Swearengin told voters around California about how she led Fresno through the nation’s worst economic decline since the Great Depression and into what she calls a period of fiscal health and job creation — the city’s internal debt is paid and Fresno could have 10% budget reserves by 2019. Yee, by the same token, focused on voter engagement and outreach, in particular to the state’s business community.

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