The battle to be Fresno’s next mayor kicked off at 8 a.m. Wednesday, when Lee Brand and H. Spees, two bleary-eyed former mayoral adversaries, met for breakfast at the DoubleTree Hotel.
Brand and Spees gathered to talk about a gentleman’s agreement they made in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s primary election: The loser between the two would support the winner. Spees finished third in the race, and Brand came in second. Spees also talked about issues important to him, to see if those issues also resonated with Brand, and how they might work together on them in the future.
In the meantime, first-place finisher Henry R. Perea began the day by issuing a news release with a headline calling himself mayor-elect, which isn’t true. Perea would need to win more than 63 percent of the approximately 26,500 outstanding absentee and provisional ballots left to count to cross the 50 percent plateau and win the mayor’s race outright, thus becoming mayor-elect. But Perea’s news release clearly sets up his starting point for November – to establish not only that he is the front-runner, but likely the air of inevitability that he will be the next mayor.
The actions of both sides make the skirmish line clear.
Perea is the front-runner. He got the most votes, so he goes into November with the most momentum. Brand, on the other hand, is on to something when he says he will pick up votes.
Fresno State political science professor Tom Holyoke
Late on election night, Perea said he was ready to debate Brand as soon as possible, and on Wednesday said he was “committed to building on this momentum” for November.
“We’re good to go tomorrow,” he said of debating.
Brand, in the meantime, is working on a narrative that he’s a Republican, and the vote total of the three Republicans in Tuesday’s race currently stands at 53.6 percent of the vote. Brand, Spees and fourth-place finisher Doug Vagim are all Republicans; Perea is a Democrat.
At the end of vote counting early Wednesday morning, Perea had 43.8 percent of the vote to Brand’s 31.9 percent. Spees had 18.1 percent, Vagim 3.7 percent and Richard Renteria 2.2 percent. Spees, Vagim and Renteria were eliminated from the race.
“Do the math,” Brand said a little after midnight on Wednesday. “Lee Brand 32 (percent). H. Spees at 18 (percent). That’s 50 percent right there. Then add Vagim.”
Both sides have some solid political ground to back their respective statements, said Fresno State political science professor Tom Holyoke.
“Perea is the front-runner,” Holyoke said. “He got the most votes, so he goes into November with the most momentum. Brand, on the other hand, is on to something when he says he will pick up votes.”
And so, on to November.
It could be a historic election that marks a turning point for Fresno.
In the two decades since Fresno mayors became strong chief executives, the three elected to the city’s top post have been Republicans from north Fresno. Of the 24 mayors who have led Fresno, none have been Latino.
If Perea wins, he would not only be the city’s first Latino mayor, but he would also break north Fresno’s strong mayor stranglehold. It is possible, given the growing number of both Democrats and Latinos in the city, that a Perea victory could be the start of a long-term trend as Fresno continues to trend bluer and more diverse.
In the near term, there is a lot at stake.
Brand, currently a city councilman, has been one of Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s staunchest allies. He’s supported her push for a new general plan that focused on infill development, and some policies he pushed helped Swearengin shepherd the city through the fallout of the Great Recession.
Perea, on the other hand, has given several indications that he would steer the city in a new direction in some areas. Among them, he has said city department heads other than police Chief Jerry Dyer and fire Chief Kerri Donis would have to buy into his vision or risk being replaced. They would all have to re-interview for their jobs. He also has hinted that he wouldn’t be totally committed to the new general plan.
It’s almost certain that voters will have a clear choice in November, and with just Perea and Brand running, there will be more opportunity for the electorate to make direct comparisons on their stances on important issues.
With Perea and Brand, voters will also have a politician for mayor after 16 straight years of political outsiders, starting with Alan Autry’s election in 2000, followed by Swearengin in 2008. Both were elected to second terms without any serious opposition. Both Brand, a Fresno city councilman, and Perea, a Fresno County supervisor, are currently elected officials.
Spees also is hoping to weigh in.
He said he agreed to support Brand – though he stressed the agreement was for support, not necessarily an endorsement. Still, Spees said after meeting Wednesday with Brand, he is “much more inclined to work together” with him.
“Lee and I are going to work together, unless there is some impasse we come to,” Spees said.
Spees also plans to meet with Perea.
“One of these guys is going to be mayor,” Spees said.
It is likely that the level of public activity from both Brand and Perea will drop considerably over the next few months. Both, however, will be busy, and much of that work will be raising money.
For the primary election, Brand raised more than $263,000, loaned his campaign the legal maximum $100,000, and carried over more than $143,000 from his council account. In total, he has more than $500,000. Perea has in total raised $307,299.
Brand is kicking that up a notch for the general election, saying his fundraising goal is an additional $700,000. He has around $60,000 left over from the primary election.
Perea wasn’t as specific, saying his campaign team will meet to develop a plan for November and then the budget will be built around that plan.
As Holyoke looks ahead, he thinks Perea might have one added advantage that is beyond Brand’s control.
Not only might presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump drive Latino turnout to oppose him after derogatory comments about Mexicans, but the GOP has a candidate problem in general.
Trump is at the top of the ticket, and there are two Democrats – Rep. Loretta Sanchez and state Attorney General Kamala Harris – running for U.S. Senate to replace retiring Barbara Boxer. It is a 1-2 punch that may not be helpful to Brand.
“I think Republicans may have a turnout problem in November,” Holyoke said. “Brand is the top of the ticket in Fresno, and mayoral candidates don’t drive turnout. Brand is going to have a mobilization problem, I think.”