Lee Brand lives in a tidy neighborhood of spacious single-family homes near Mountain View Elementary School that is like the thousands of homes in the dozens of subdivisions spread across northeast Fresno.
Brand’s home is big, but doesn’t compare with those on the bluffs overlooking the San Joaquin River, on the Van Ness Extension or even inside a gated subdivision in far north Fresno populated with McMansions.
Instead, Brand has lived in the same home he bought new in 1989, even though with his business success he could certainly afford more spectacular digs that show off his wealth.
Brand doesn’t want to talk about such riches, but does allow that it can be measured in the millions.
It’s a life far removed from Brand’s humble beginnings, growing up as an underachieving juvenile delinquent in a two-bedroom, one-bath house in the working-class neighborhoods near Roosevelt High School.
Brand, now 67, was the middle child who was constantly surrounded by his mother and her extended Italian family. But he also struggled in the shadow of his older brother, was tossed into juvenile hall in ninth grade, and long fought bitterness after tragically losing his father a few months later in what he calls “the worst year of my life.”
All that preceded an indescribable epiphany that turned him around and jump-started an obsessive march to business success in the real estate world.
Now, after turning his attention to politics and serving two terms on the Fresno City Council, the lifelong Republican is looking to a final step in a remarkable life – serving as mayor of the state’s fifth-largest city. He is facing Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea in the battle to replace Ashley Swearengin, who has been the city’s top elected official since 2008. Brand finished second to Perea in the five-person June primary. As the top two finishers, Perea and Brand moved on to a November runoff.
To make it this far, Brand overcame derisive comments – sometimes even privately from supporters – that he was too much of a policy wonk, lacked the dynamic personality needed to be mayor and was, frankly, boring. Perea has mocked Brand’s signature accomplishments as a council member – authoring 19 legislative acts covering subjects from financial security to council residency – saying they’re mere words on paper that aren’t real action plans to move the city forward.
Standing at the podium in front of City Hall a few weeks ago was an emotional moment for me, reflecting on the physical and spiritual journey I have traveled over the years.
Fresno mayoral candidate Lee Brand
Brand’s command of business knowledge and a steady focus on conservative principles, preached even to more Democratic and left-leaning south Fresno audiences, led him to a second place finish in the June mayoral primary.
It’s a journey that isn’t lost on Brand, who reflected on it late last month when Swearengin endorsed him at a news conference in front of Fresno’s City Hall.
“Standing at the podium in front of City Hall a few weeks ago was an emotional moment for me, reflecting on the physical and spiritual journey I have traveled over the years,” Brand says. “I have had a blessed and wonderful life.”
Brand was born April 5, 1949 in The Dalles, a small Oregon town along the Columbia River about 80 miles east of Portland. The Brands actually lived about 25 miles farther east, in a tiny “one-room shack,” Brand says, with an outhouse near where his paternal grandfather, Archie Brand, operated a small gas station.
As the unofficial family historian, Brand has traced one line of his father’s family to 1629, when Thomas Brand was an indentured servant in New England after crossing the Atlantic Ocean from the English town of Hershire.
His family line eventually migrated south, fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War and then moved slowly westward.
Brand’s father ran away from home at age 16, joined the U.S. Army and ended up in San Francisco. It was there he met Florence Trosi, the black sheep of an Italian-Catholic family from Fresno. She had left home to make her way in the city.
The Trosi family was pure Italian. Brand’s maternal grandfather Ralph immigrated from a village near Naples and ended up in Fresno, where a cousin already lived. After an Army stint he settled down and sent for a mail-order bride from Italy.
They initially lived on a farm west of town, but lost it during the Great Depression. In 1932, they moved to 4030 E. McKenzie Ave.
A little more than two decades later, Brand’s parents would come to Fresno from Oregon. After a life of struggles, Brand’s grandfather Archie had started a small zoo with snakes, badgers and an alligator. Archie Brand eventually got a seal and he discovered he had a talent for training animals.
Soon he toured with the seal, and they became a popular act, even appearing on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” With that, Brand’s parents came to Fresno, and Brand started kindergarten at Jackson Elementary School.
Brand initially lived in a small, two-bedroom, one-bath home on an alley near his grandparents, though they later bought an equally small house on McKenzie. An aunt and uncle never married and lived with Brand’s grandparents, and another uncle married and lived next door.
So there were Trosis all around to watch over Brand, and his grandmother made every meal for the extended family. His grandfather produced wine from grapes grown in their backyard. There also was an extensive garden, as well as pigeon and chicken coops.
His family, Brand says, was poor.
“I was embarrassed to bring kids home to my house,” Brand says.
His father did odd jobs and his mom stayed at home. He and his older brother shared a single bed for years before his parents bought a second one. He walked everywhere until he got a used bicycle in junior high. His prized possession was a transistor radio, which he used to while away summer days listening to San Francisco Giants baseball games. His favorite player? Willie Mays.
Crime and punishment
At some point, probably around the third grade, Brand estimates, he got his introduction to petty crime at the nearby McKenzie Market. There was a candy counter where popular 1950s items such as wax lips and candy cigarettes were bought on the honor system. One day, a friend of Brand’s started stuffing candy in his pockets.
“I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Brand recalls. “He’s like, ‘Nobody’s looking, just take it.’ So I got my introduction to crime.”
By junior high, things were getting more serious.
Gary, Lee Brand’s older brother, was a star athlete, and Brand’s parents now had given birth to a third child, a girl. The middle child sandwiched between a young sister and a jock, Brand by this point was seeking negative attention. His sixth-grade teacher told him he would probably end up in prison.
“By 9th grade, I was ready to fulfill that promise,” Brand says.
Brand and his friends had learned the art of key copying, and were using those keys to break into schools. One weekend, after breaking into Yosemite, his own junior high, the youthful gang was caught.
The police showed up at Brand’s house, and he recalls being taken “away in shackles” and booked into the old juvenile hall at Ventura Avenue and 10th Street. Mug shots, fingerprints and rest of the trappings of a criminal booking, including a long confession of his sins, from stealing candy to throwing rocks at cars to breaking and entering.
I never had a chance to ever redeem myself to (my father). When he died, I was the black sheep, the criminal. My brother was the All-American athlete, and everybody wants the approval of your parents. I chased that ghost for years.
Fresno mayoral candidate Lee Brand, reflecting on his father’s death a few months after his arrest for breaking into schools
Late that evening, Brand was the last of his group to be picked up. The ride home with his dad was in silence, but once through the door at home, Brand’s father whacked him across the face.
Three months later, his father was dead, killed in a plane crash near Tulare after he and some buddies went for a drunken joy flight. Brand’s father was a passenger. It was 1964. He wasn’t even 40.
“That was the worst year of my life,” Brand says.
He had been arrested and his father was dead. Worst of all, Brand’s arrest still hung in the air between father and son.
“I never had a chance to ever redeem myself to him,” Brand says. “When he died, I was the black sheep, the criminal. My brother was the All-American athlete, and everybody wants the approval of your parents. I chased that ghost for years.”
The fallout from his father’s death affected more than Brand. His mother, Brand says, never recovered from it.
As for Brand, he muddled along at Roosevelt High – an unremarkable, average student. But it was a better fate than two brothers who were arrested with Brand in the school break-ins. They later ended up murdered in drug deals gone bad.
Soon, however, Brand discovered athletics, and competed on the cross country and track teams. He was a sub-two minute half miler – 1:59 as a junior – and remembers being one of the 10 best in the Valley at the distance that year. By his senior year Brand regressed, suffering a bout of “senioritis” as he lost focus on athletics. Still, on the academic side, “some sparks started. I started reading,” he says. “I read everything. I must have read 30 or 40 novels. I couldn’t read enough.”
Brand’s English teacher didn’t believe him. Bad reputations die hard. Brand, however, says he proved himself in verbal, on-the-spot book reports.
He graduated from Roosevelt in 1967, and started Fresno City College that fall, but left a short time later after enlisting in the Air National Guard. He served less than six months on active duty and in a specialty school in Texas.
When Brand returned from that stint in early 1968, he found his friends had discovered “sex, drugs and rock and roll,” a lifestyle Brand says he then fell into for awhile.
He also passed a tough Air National Guard test and landed a fulltime civilian technician job that earned good money. To his family – many who had long careers working for Fresno County – the job was perfect. Work there 30 or 40 years and retire with a good pension.
It wouldn’t last.
A bolt of lightning
In 1971, when Brand was 22, “a bolt of lightning struck me,” he says of a dramatic moment of self-realization. “It was scary. It was exhilarating. But it lit a fire under me like I’d never seen in my life.”
Mayoral candidate H. Spees, the pastor and community leader who came in third in the June primary and is now endorsing Brand, says it was a calling from God, who was telling Brand there was something more in life.
“It was not a church engagement,” Spees says. “Just a very raw encounter.”
Brand says he still can’t explain it, and struggles to put the experience into words, but soon he was quitting his Air National Guard job and going back to college, where he had earned just a few units.
“My mother was so mad at me, and all my aunts and uncles said, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Brand says.
This life-changing moment also brought out something new in Brand – an obsessive personality.
Already four years out of high school and seeing some friends graduating from college, Brand decided to accelerate his learning schedule – vowing to finish his bachelor of arts in two years instead of four.
Neil McNabb, who has been friends with Brand since Yosemite Junior High, was surprised by the change.
“Nobody knew that he could do that until he did it,” McNabb said.
He hates to lose, and he’s always fair with everybody.
Neil McNabb, who has been friends with Brand for more than 50 years
Of the new Brand, McNabb said: “He hates to lose, and he’s always fair with everybody.”
Brand took double summer sessions at Fresno City and Fresno State University, and then regularly piled on more than 20 units during the fall and spring semesters, first at Fresno City, then at Fresno State.
In 1973, he accomplished the goal, graduating summa cum laude from Fresno State.
During his degree sprint, he needed money, so he volunteered for weekend duty with the Air National Guard, patroling Fresno streets in case there were riots over the Vietnam War and other social issues, and worked part time as a paint salesman at the Sears in Manchester Center.
Brand had never sold paint – or even painted – in his life. He learned by picking up paint cans and reading instructions. He also would get antiquing kits, compressors and other tools of the trade, and read.
“If you came into that store, you’d think I was the best painter in the world,” Brand says. “I could tell you everything about painting. How to put a scratch coat on. A final coat. How to prep. How to use a compressor. I was the top salesman because I read the instructions.”
In the fall of 1973, he entered the University of Southern California. Brand’s goal was a master’s in public administration, but it was a two-year program, and Brand says he couldn’t afford two years. He petitioned to do the non-thesis option and instead do a project.
One year later, Brand had finished.
Again, Brand took a well-paying job, this time as assistant administrator for the Madera County Mental Health Program with the Kings View Corp., a nonprofit health care provider. He worked there from 1974 to 1978, but during that time also started dabbling in real estate.
He bought his first house in 1976 at 6288 N. Sharon Ave. in Fresno for $52,000 and fixed it up while living there. Six months later, he flipped it, making $5,000. He bought a second house for $69,000, fixed it up and sold it four months later for $78,000.
Then Brand started buying houses and keeping them as he learned about leverage. He bought a house for $39,000, and by the time escrow closed it was worth $50,000. Instead of selling it, Brand took a second on the house and bought yet another one.
At Kings View, in the meantime, Brand earned promotions, and in his private life, he had started dating Trish Anderson, the woman who would eventually become his wife. They married in 1979, and Brand adopted Trish’s young daughter.
The couple then had three children of their own – Phillip in 1982, Tommy in 1984 and Emily in 1985.
Taking a chance
In 1978, however, Brand quit Kings View, and again, his family thought he was crazy. This time, Brand’s plan was to open a stereo store, and also start a real estate business, Brand-Glenn & Associates.
“My family is pissed off at me, again, for trading this great job and career, making a lot of money, for the uncertainty of being your own boss,” Brand says.
One of his associates at the start was Ken Warkentin, who later became Brand’s business partner – a professional relationship that is still going today.
It wasn’t always easy, Warkentin says, citing the normal tension of strong-minded people each with ideas on how to best run a business.
“We’ve had our ups and downs,” Warkentin says. “Dramatic ones. It’s like being married.”
That said, he pays Brand a big compliment, especially for a business partner: “Lee is an honest guy. I can trust Lee.”
As Brand-Glenn & Associates started up, Brand also invested more than $100,000 in The Sound Machine, a car stereo store on Blackstone Avenue, just north of Barstow Avenue. It failed. Brand at the time second-guessed the wisdom of his budding entrepreneurial spirit.
“I learned lessons,” Brand says. “Not everything you do is successful. But you learn from your failures and your successes.”
Brand-Glenn & Associates, however, didn’t fail. Quite the opposite.
By 1981, when the nation was in the depths of a crippling recession, Brand was “making 100 grand a year,” he says. That’s the equivalent of more than $274,000 now.
That year, partner Mark Glenn left, and Brand & Associates Real Estate was born. Six years later, Brand and Warkentin founded Westco Equities Inc. and what started as a two-person office eventually grew to more than 100 employees.
The firm started out in brokerages, but expanded into property management. And though Brand began with single-family homes, the expanding business grew to specialize in apartments and commercial properties.
“I saw the niche,” Brand says. “I like the investment properties.”
Around this time, Brand got a contractor’s license to go along with his real estate license. Westco then started construction services, mostly competing for maintenance work on the properties it managed.
The business hit its apex, Brand estimates, around 2004 or 2005, when it expanded into rehabilitating apartment complexes and eventually developing single-family home subdivisions in Kerman and Chowchilla.
“We were making a lot of money back then,” Brand says.
A strength of Brand’s is no doubt his obsessive personality. It served him well in his rabid push to graduate college as he morphed from wayward youth to disciplined adult. It served him well in his job as a paint salesman who had never painted anything, and then as he built his successful business.
At the same time, his obsessiveness spilled over into his play – and a few times almost got him killed.
Brand recalls walking through Fashion Fair Mall with Warkentin in the summer of 1984 when they came across a guy with a windsurfing board. It looked like fun, so Brand and Warkentin headed out to Millerton Lake, where they were giving free lessons. Warkentin never got into it. Brand was another story.
He’s a pretty obsessive person. Same with biking. Same with everything.
Brand’s business partner Ken Warkentin on Brand’s dedication to windsurfing
Looking back now, Warkentin marvels at what started that day. “He’s a pretty obsessive person,” he says of Brand’s dedication to windsurfing. “Same with biking. Same with everything.”
Says Brand: “My life was dominated by this sport. I was addicted to this sport.”
If Brand was sitting in a meeting and noticed the trees start ruffling outside, a sign the wind was kicking up, he would cut things short and head up to Millerton. Once, he almost drowned after his board got away from him in the middle of the lake.
For 15 years, Brand windsurfed everywhere – the San Luis Reservoir Forebay, Maui, the Columbia River, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. He developed a group of friends that went on windsurfing vacations.
“I just have this permanent smile on my face thinking about it now,” says Brand, who still has three or four windsurfing boards. “Part of me was this obsessive personality that loved this individual sport. It gave me the freedom. I can’t put it into words this day, what it’s like.”
It ended around 2001 when Brand headed up to a windy Millerton alone. It was that day he realized that everyone had moved on but him. Suddenly, he realized the fun of the shared experience was gone. That was the day he stopped windsurfing.
Already, however, bicycling was taking the place of windsurfing and Brand traded one obsession for another.
Brand had started cycling in 1996, and by the time he quit windsurfing in 2001, he was riding more than 1,000 miles a month. He would complete 50, 60 or 90 miles on a Saturday, starting on the Valley floor and then heading up into the foothills, maybe to Bass Lake or Auberry or Prather.
He questioned his sanity after a particularly long ride on an unusually hot day. He took a year off and bought a sailboat, but was soon back at riding, though maybe only 400 or so miles a month instead of 1,000.
It wasn’t until 2011 – more than two years after Brand was elected to the City Council – that his riding days ended for good. On that day, he was flying downhill on Friant Road with four other guys when his wheel clipped the bicycle in front of him, launching him sideways and onto Friant Road while going close to 25 mph.
The crash shattered Brand’s collarbone. He suffered a concussion, even with a helmet. His ribs were cracked.
“Every ounce of my body was in pain,” Brand says.
He now stays in shape on a stationary bicycle.
Political bug bites
Between business and sports, the political bug bit Brand.
It started when Ken Steitz asked Brand to manage his successful 1996 Fresno City Council campaign. Even then, Brand got a taste of the nasty side of politics when Steitz’s opponent, then-incumbent Bob Lung, called Brand a slumlord.
Brand said he resented the accusation. At the time, he said Westco managed about 2,000 properties, and that he owned around 10 percent of them.
“If I have an owner who doesn’t cooperate with the city, I will cancel the policy,” he said at the time. “We do not get involved with somebody who doesn’t take care of their property.”
Four years later, Brand himself stepped up and ran for Fresno County supervisor. One of his opponents was Steitz.
Even though Sharon Levy, who was retiring from the seat after nearly 25 years, supported Brand and had encouraged him to run, he finished third in a four-person race. Susan Anderson eventually defeated Steitz in a runoff, and Brand was later appointed to the Fresno Planning Commission by then-Mayor Alan Autry.
He then decided to run for the northeast Fresno City Council seat held by Jerry Duncan, and his strategy – as it has been for his mayoral campaign – was to start early, walking precincts and collecting endorsements.
Brand won the seat in the primary, capturing almost 71 percent of the vote and far outdistancing two challengers.
All of us have strengths and weaknesses. Lee’s strengths are that he thinks deeply about things. The weakness to that is that he does not express that in a polished, sound-bite way. He’s a lot of nuts and bolts, and nuts and bolts aren’t sexy.
Pastor and community leader H. Spees, who came in third in the June Fresno mayoral primary, and is now supporting Brand
When Brand won, so did Swearengin. Soon, both found the city in financial trouble and the nation struggling through the Great Recession. General fund revenues, once projected to reach nearly $300 million by 2010, plummeted instead and by late 2010 were projected at about $200 million.
Thus began Brand’s foray into legislative mandates that were binding on the mayor and city manager. Brand points to other accomplishments, but his council legacy likely will be one of a policy wonk and fiscal watchdog who pored over city finances and offered solutions through legislative acts.
“All of us have strengths and weaknesses,” says Spees, the Brand opponent turned supporter. “Lee’s strengths are that he thinks deeply about things. The weakness to that is that he does not express that in a polished, sound-bite way. He’s a lot of nuts and bolts, and nuts and bolts aren’t sexy.”
McNabb, Brand’s longtime friend who did painting work for him in apartments he owned or managed, vacationed with Brand in Lake Tahoe not long after he took office.
At Tahoe, McNabb says Brand worked on his computer the entire time, looking at how other cities addressed their financial troubles.
“I just bet on football, and let Lee do his thing,” McNabb says.
Swearengin obviously trusted Brand’s business acumen, as she appointed him as the council’s representative on a lease renegotiation with the Fresno Grizzlies’ ownership.
That negotiation has become a campaign issue, as it resulted in a reduction of the Grizzlies’ annual rent from $1.5 million to $750,000. Perea has criticized Brand for cutting a sweetheart deal with the team. But Brand says bankruptcy would likely have resulted, with the city then paying to maintain an empty stadium. He says there was no due financial diligence on the original deal, which was supported by Perea when he was on the council.
Mike Dages, who served with Brand on the council in 2009 and 2010, opposed some of Brand’s legislative acts. He said at the time that they were largely toothless efforts that offered no guarantee the council, in retrospect, would have acted wisely.
But Dages, who left the council in 2010 and is now retired and living in Bass Lake, says he would vote for Brand if he still lived in Fresno.
“I found Lee to be quite meticulous,” Dages says. “He looked into things a lot more than I ever did.”
One of Brand’s biggest strengths, Dages says, is that he always kept his cool.
“I was the perfect fit at the time,” Brand says of his council tenure. “She (Swearengin) was the perfect fit at the time. To come in and rescue the city, put it on solid financial footing. Make the difficult decisions.”
Brand says he began considering a mayoral run in 2012, though there are indications those thoughts may date as early as 2010. There is no doubt Brand was moving solidly in that direction after he was unopposed for re-election to his council seat in 2012. Term limits would mean this would be his final four years on the council.
In the latter half of 2014, Brand opened a mayoral account and moved in more than $152,000 from his City Council campaign account. It gave Brand an early fundraising jump on any competition, and signaled that he was in the race. Endorsements followed.
With the stars aligned, Brand early this year suddenly had second thoughts.
“Am I making the right decision?” he asked himself. “As it got closer and closer to the deadline to file, I’d wake up in the middle of the night and think, ‘What am I doing? Am I making the right decision?’ ”
It hit him that being the mayor of Fresno is a lot different than being a city councilman.
“I take the full weight of the responsibility,” he says. “I take it seriously, and it was like a ton of bricks hit me.”
Trish Brand, who declined to be interviewed, advised him not to run.
Looking back, Brand is now moving forward, confident in his decision. Win or lose, he concluded back in February that it was the right step to take.
If he loses in November, Brand says he will move on. He says the great relationships with his children will be there. He also has been raising his granddaughter Kylie, and has been her legal guardian since 2002. Kylie, a Clovis West High junior, even cut a commercial for her grandfather ahead of the primary election.
Earlier this month, in the middle of the mayoral campaign, Brand and his entire family headed to Hawaii for a week, where he and Trish renewed their wedding vows on the island of Kauai.
“Family comes first,” Brand said before the trip. “The campaign can be put aside for one week. I have no regrets about doing this.”
That said, Brand says he is in the race to win. He even has turned a bit philosophical, bolstered by some Spees insight, in assessing his final decision to seek Fresno’s mayor post.
“It was my destiny to run in this race,” Brand says. “This was my calling.”
Occupation: Fresno city councilman; business owner
Family: Married, 4 children, 3 grandchildren
Education: Master’s degree, public administration, USC; bachelor’s, Fresno State; associate’s, Fresno City College
Key endorsements: Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin; Fresno Chamber of Commerce; pastor and community leader H. Spees; Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1027; former Secretary of State Bill Jones; Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare; state Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford; Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno; Fresno City Councilmen Paul Caprioglio, Clint Olivier, Steve Brandau