Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin conceded the race for state controller on Wednesday morning when she called her opponent, Bay Area Democrat Betty Yee, and congratulated her.
But don’t think that, beyond the remaining two years of her final mayoral term, this is the end of the line for Swearengin’s political career. In fact, there are strong indications that this is just her first step forward on California’s statewide stage.
“The one sure bet is that Ashley Swearengin will be on the statewide ballot in 2018,” said her political consultant, Tim Clark.
Swearengin herself isn’t quite as definitive, but certainly sounds like she has future political plans.
“I will tell you, I really enjoy working in the public sector,” she said. “Starting off in the private sector, I’ve always loved the strategy of business and am inspired when businesses compete and win in an honorable way. But what I like about the public sector is that it is so challenging and such important work. Someone has to do it and do it well. I do enjoy it.”
When you get right down to it, Swearengin said, there’s a better than 50-50 chance that she’ll run for another office after leaving City Hall in 2016.
Just what office she might seek is unknown. Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones will reach their term limits. Rumors continue to swirl that Sen. Barbara Boxer won’t seek re-election in 2016. Clark says Swearengin has no desire to be a senator — or a legislator of any sort, for that matter: “They’ve asked,” Clark says. “Ashley always said she’s not interested in a legislative seat.”
A prominent Democrat, however, could win Boxer’s seat, which could further shake up the state’s political landscape.
For Swearengin, the bottom line is experts say she performed admirably in her state controller run. She was underfunded and largely unknown around the state. By contrast, Yee had a strong registration advantage from the dominant Democratic Party and received outside financial help. Despite that, Swearengin was less than six percentage points behind Yee.
Overall, California’s Republicans last Tuesday again took a beating in statewide contests. But Swearengin, with 47.1% of the vote so far, and Secretary of State candidate Pete Peterson with 47.4%, outperformed the other Republicans seeking statewide office, including GOP gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari. And this was done after the state Republican leadership made a strategic decision to push legislative candidates instead of the statewide candidates like Swearengin, said Tony Quinn, a longtime political analyst in California and former Republican legislative aide.
“They spent what money they had on state legislative candidates and starved their statewide candidates, and I think that was a mistake,” Quinn says. “Either Ashley or Peterson could have won.”
Clark feels that a $1 million cash infusion — half to Swearengin, half to GOP get-out-the-vote efforts — might have been enough to give her the win. He said the state Republican Party polled in the controller’s race about three weeks before the election, and based on that state GOP Chairman Jim Brulte wanted to fund an independent expenditure to help Swearengin. Party attorneys nixed the idea because Brulte and Clark had talked so much about her they feared it would be seen as a violation of state election law, which prohibits any coordination between the candidate and whoever is funding the independent expenditure. So Swearengin got nothing.
“We ran a helluva race on a little bit of money,” Clark says.
Given that performance, it seems Swearengin and Peterson could use their showing to take a leading role in the party for 2016 and headed into 2018. It won’t be easy, as Swearengin roiled rank-and-file Republicans at the party’s fall convention when she refused to endorse Kashkari or anyone else at the top of the ticket, save for Peterson. That streak, both independent and moderate, upset the faithful and several leaders from the more conservative wing of the party.
But it has been enough even to catch the eye of rival Democrats.
“I get recruited all the time to switch parties,” Swearengin said. “It is a pretty steady stream of people who ask me to consider it. I have never considered that. As an elected official in a nonpartisan office, I have never been terribly fixated on one party or the other. I am where most Californians are, which is I am very, very concerned about the one-party rule in Sacramento. It’s not healthy at all.”
She said a balanced political system is critical. “That requires the GOP to be relevant and a strong contender in the public arena. That is a consideration for me. Also, I was in middle school and high school when Ronald Reagan was president. In my formative years, I knew a Republican party that was pragmatic and business-minded and was invaluable in solving very serious challenges in the public sector. That’s what I believe our party’s agenda should be.”
Not only that, but Clark says Brulte is a Swearengin fan.
“Brulte said Ashley is a fantastic candidate,” Clark says.
And, as several pundits have already said, Swearengin is attractive, articulate and moderate. They think that kind of face can help the party drag itself out of the basement of California politics.
“I’m not really sure that’s mine to determine,” Swearengin said of being one of the new faces of the Republican Party. “I am encouraged by the positive direction of our party. If I can be helpful in re-establishing a pragmatic, business-minded Republican party, then I’m very happy to help with that effort.”
Swearengin said she hasn’t been formally asked to help top GOP officials retool the party, which is an answer just vague enough to suggest she expects to be a player in strategy talks.
“There were a lot of good Republican candidates that ran for office in this cycle,” Swearengin said. “Pete Peterson obviously is a great candidate. And we worked very hard for our office. It’s the beginning of a new era in California for the Republican Party.”
Clark says Swearengin could help Brulte build the state GOP’s infrastructure. She could meet with donors and take an active role in future conventions. It all would lead up to her own 2018 campaign, he says.
If that is the plan, Quinn says, Swearengin needs to start work now, and accelerate it the day she leaves Fresno’s mayor’s office in January 2016 — if not before.
She needs to campaign up and down state, getting herself well known and gaining an understanding of the state’s main issues as she decides what to do ahead of the 2018 election. With Republicans showing some signs of life in this month’s election, in four years the party’s rebirth could reach a point where major successes are possible, he says.
But Quinn says that what Swearengin “needs is a four-year plan. She needs to spend four years at it. And somebody has to starting doing some Republican (voter) registration. They can’t keep hoping Democrats will not turn out to vote.”
Whether is is 2018 or later, it seems very possible that Swearengin in the next quarter-century will ask regular Californians from Crescent City to San Diego for their support — because she wants a job where a candidate’s flesh-and-blood, not her intellectual dexterity, counts big in the polling booth.
Swearengin said she’s someone who is moved in her soul by the struggles of people.
“I see their challenges,” she says. “I am inspired by them because I know they can be fixed. I want to be in a position to have a positive impact on changing those negative conditions and helping people. I know things can be better. I know our government can work better. I love trying to find the path to make that happen. Number one, I enjoy it. Number two, I’m very good at it.”
There is something else, some other spur, at work.
“I think it’s a response to knowing what it’s like to be a kid and come home from school and finding out that your dad lost his job that day,” she says. “It happened a couple of times in my family. I know how traumatic that is. Everything worked out OK for me. But I know that has happened to a lot of people in our community. That has me very motivated.”