Outside of close family, it isn’t often that Henry R. Perea opens his home to visitors. He lives alone in an 80-year-old, three-bedroom cottage a little north of Fresno High School, and prefers the privacy and solitude it offers.
During those times, if the television isn’t going, the radio is on – all night long.
It’s a throwback to Perea’s youth, when he shared a two-bedroom southeast Fresno home with his parents and four siblings in a space high on volume and short on privacy.
If he is socializing with friends, Perea is quiet and reserved, and is most likely the silent one, sitting and listening to the conversation.
It’s almost like a parallel universe for Perea, who for 25 years has lived a very public life as an elected official, first as a Fresno County Board of Education trustee, then a Fresno city councilman and now as a Fresno County supervisor.
In the public eye, Perea has been a vocal, forceful advocate for his causes. He is the student of Sun Tzu’s classic fifth-century BC military treatise, “The Art of War.” He is the hardcore politician who fights his battles bare-knuckled and has made his share of enemies. He is the guy who pops up at events everywhere, pressing the flesh and talking up just about anyone who will listen. He also has been accused of being too political, and has been criticized during campaigns as someone offering sound bites instead of solutions.
The distance Perea has come is light-years from his beginnings as the child of Mexican immigrants who came to the United States not speaking English. He had a stern, workaholic father who was gruff and never verbalized his love.
Even as Perea showed flashes of budding political acumen as a youth – leading a neighborhood band of friends that included his older brother and other older kids – he also grew to become the quiet San Joaquin Memorial High School student, a teenager his classmates likely never would have pegged for a political career. He was the one who went through Fresno City and Fresno State with few friends and little social life.
“If you would had known me then, you never would have pictured me where I am today,” Perea says.
Yet here he is. Now 64, Perea is running for Fresno mayor against City Councilman Lee Brand to replace Ashley Swearengin, who has been the city’s top elected official since 2008. Perea came in first in the June primary election, winning 44.7 percent of the vote. Brand was second with 30.8 percent. That was with five hopefuls. Now, Perea and Brand are going at each other one-on-one.
If elected in November, Perea would make history as the first Latino ever to lead the state’s fifth-largest city. Since Fresno went to a chief executive form of government two decades ago, he would be the first Democratic mayor and the first elected from south of Shaw Avenue, the city’s mythical dividing line between the wealthier north and the poorer south.
On a personal level, it would also mark a crowning achievement in a long political career that has made Perea one of the region’s best-known politicians.
For all that, Perea says he only decided to run when he accepted the possibility of losing. Not that he is in the race to lose.
“My years are valuable to me, so come January, if I’m the mayor, I’m going to do the work and I’m going to do it 110 percent,” Perea says. “If I’m not the mayor, I’m going to have a great life.”
Growing up on Whitney Avenue
Perea was born on July 30, 1952, the second of five children, in downtown Fresno at Community Regional Medical Center, which at the time was known as Fresno Community Hospital.
Like many children of immigrants, Perea was a first-generation American. His father, Julian, immigrated from Mexico City when he was around 19. He came north during the early years of the bracero program, which allowed Mexican nationals to do temporary work in the United States. Like many Mexicans who came here to work, Julian Perea was an itinerant farmworker who helped support his mother and siblings back home.
“He just traveled the country in trains,” Perea says. And he ended up staying.
Perea’s mother, Amelia Rueda – whose last name is also Perea’s middle name – made her way to the central San Joaquin Valley from Jalisco state, where Guadalajara is located, via Tijuana, where the family had a bakery. The Valley connection came from one of Amelia’s sisters, who married a man from Selma and moved here. The rest of the family ended up following when Perea’s mom was still a young girl.
Neither Julian nor Amelia spoke English when they arrived, though over time they learned the language. His father, Perea says, had a third-grade education and his mother maybe a sixth- or seventh-grade education.
“They wanted us to learn Spanish, but it was important for them that we learn English,” Perea says.
In Fresno, Perea’s dad found work with the railroad as an iceman. He worked more than 35 years for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and Perea remembers as a kid going to the ice room at Shields and Weber, where they made 500-pound blocks of ice that were then put into boxcars to keep produce cold. Perea’s dad often had to chip away at the ice after it was in the boxcar. Eventually, with the advent of refrigerated cars and the demise of the ice room, Perea’s dad became a mechanic.
After working nights at the Southern Pacific yard, his father would head to southwest Fresno to mow lawns at an apartment complex near California Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard.
At the same time, his mother did seasonal work at the Libby, McNeill and Libby cannery in Selma, and the rest of the time stayed at home with her children.
The Pereas lived in a two-bedroom, one-bath home on Whitney Avenue, north of Kings Canyon Road between Maple and Chestnut avenues. Perea started school at John Burroughs Elementary, but in first grade his parents put him and his older brother, Julian Jr., in parochial school at St. John’s Elementary, a K-8 Catholic school at Mariposa and R streets. The rest of his siblings would also go to parochial school. The nuns, Perea recalls, “were pretty strict.”
Education, Perea says, was a top priority for his parents, and they felt parochial school was the best option.
“That was his deal,” Perea says of his father. “I’m not going to give you a lot of hugs, but I’m going to give you an education. Honest to God, I don’t know how he did it, but he worked nights at the railroad, and during the day he mowed lawns. That’s how he paid for our tuition.”
In those days, there was no 41 Freeway and no convention center. Downtown Fresno was a patchwork of ethnic neighborhoods, and Perea remembers riding his bicycle everywhere to visit with friends. In 1964, Perea recalls being part of a Mexican dance group that performed at the opening of the Fulton Mall.
Former Fresno City Councilman Brad Castillo, who has been Perea’s friend since childhood, says Perea was the leader of a group that included his own older brother and Perea’s older brother.
“Not that we needed him to be the leader, but we looked to him to be the leader,” says Castillo, who is almost four years younger than Perea. “Without Henry, most of us would not have passed our classes. We grew up poor. He tutored us.
“He’s one of these guys that, he’ll listen, and while you’re talking to him he’ll analyze what you’re saying. He’s always three moves ahead. He taught us to play chess, and it was frustrating. He was so obnoxious to play chess with because he was always three moves ahead of us.”
A different ballgame
By the fall of 1966, Perea was headed to San Joaquin Memorial.
“Then it was a different ballgame,” Perea recalls. The reason? He now had to work to cover his tuition.
“As soon as we could get a work permit, we were working in the fields,” he says.
Peaches, plums, grapes. Perea picked them all. When he got older, Perea worked in a chicken slaughterhouse. And Perea’s dad suddenly took a hands-off approach to his education.
“If you guys want to go screw around in school, go for it; you paid for it,” he recalls his father saying. “When I look back now it was genius. He gave us the value of work. A work ethic. We had responsibility and accountability. And he connected it to education. He said, ‘You want to keep doing that kind of work, don’t get educated. You want a different world, a different life from what I had, here’s your key.’ That was his gift to us.”
Something else also happened. The natural leader Castillo recalls suddenly was the quiet introvert.
“You wouldn’t recognize me in high school,” Perea says. “Everybody knew me. Everybody liked me. I was a real likable guy. But when it came to the basketball game or the football game, I didn’t have a crowd. I kept to myself. I’m just a watcher. I just always watched and studied.”
Perea didn’t participate in student government, but he did run track, and recalls “eating the dust” of Carlo Prandini, U.S. Olympian Jenna Prandini’s father, who is now a deputy superintendent with the Clovis Unified School District.
Rep. Jim Costa, a Fresno Democrat who graduated from Memorial in 1970 alongside Perea, recalls him as a good student, but not someone obviously destined for political success.
“No one would pick he or I as somebody who would go on to be successful in public office,” Costa says.
Perea never thought about politics. That said, there was the hint of an awakening. It was not so much political as it was social justice, even though Vietnam War protests were heating up at the time.
Still, Perea tested the protest waters one day in the fields, when he, his brother and Castillo were offered more money to pick at another orchard. After arriving at the new orchard, the extra pay was denied to the group. Perea and the rest of the group held their ground – and were fired.
From that brush with protesting, Perea said he discovered that demonstrating wasn’t his thing.
“I’m not the kind of guy you’re going to find marching,” he says. “That just isn’t me. But I respected people’s roles because as I watched and I understood, I could see that, maybe I’m not the guy throwing the rock through the window. That’s the person getting the attention. But once you get the attention, then somebody has to fill that gap and find a solution.”
Perea also had to deal with some bullying, and Costa recalls how hard it was at Memorial to break into the cliques led by the longtime Catholic families that had so much sway at the school. Still, Costa came from a successful farming family that, while not rich, had more money than Perea’s.
“I always respected Henry for where he came from, not having some of the advantages I got,” Costa says.
There also was peer pressure from his fellow Latino students, who Perea says were routed to lower-level classes. “Are you one of them or are you one of us?” they would ask him.
So Perea “dumbed down” – intentionally. In his sophomore year, Perea was a C student assigned to C-level classes.
By Perea’s senior year of 1969-70, Fresno was full of war protests, and he recalls riots during marches in the city. As was his nature, Perea shied away from it. Soon, however, one of his Memorial teachers – a priest – assigned him a report on Cesar Chavez, who was active at the time as a leader of the United Farm Workers. Perea was incensed at first – a Mexican kid getting assigned a report on a Mexican labor leader. No one else in the class was given such an assignment.
Perea nevertheless completed it, and then presented it in front of the class. As he did, Perea recalls, a few of his fellow students were openly hostile, making derogatory comments about Mexicans. “Why don’t you go back to Mexico?” Perea recalls them saying. At first, he let is slide, but then grew angrier as it continued until he lost his temper and threw the podium at one of the students. Perea then pounced on him. He was sent to the office, and was angry that he was in trouble.
In retrospect, Perea has a different view of the incident and the priest. “He was teaching me a lesson,” Perea says. “What he was telling me was, ‘Wake up.’ ”
In June 1970, Perea graduated and headed to Fresno City College. He had a low Vietnam War draft number, but had a student deferment. It weighed on him, especially after his older brother Julian Jr. joined the U.S. Air Force after he was drafted. Perea then dropped his deferment. He never was drafted, but did get a call to report after his sophomore year in the middle of 1972 – just as the draft was winding down. The draft officially ended in January 1973.
At Fresno City, Perea planned to go into data processing, so initially he was a business major with a data processing minor. Four years later – after 60 Fresno City units but no associate’s degree – Perea graduated from Fresno State University with a criminology degree.
His college years were much like Memorial. Living at home. Not much fun.
The Pereas were a one-car family, so Perea never learned his way around town. When it came time to attend Fresno City, he didn’t know how to get there. It was the same when he transferred to Fresno State.
Each day, his dad would drop off Perea on his way to work, around 7:30 a.m. He would get home around 11 p.m. Time between classes was spent in the library. If he finished his homework, he would watch videos.
“I didn’t hang out with anybody or go to parties,” Perea says.
At the start of college, Perea still was working at the poultry slaughterhouse, though he also landed a job at an Arco gas station, doing jobs now long gone – cleaning windshields, checking tire pressure, measuring oil levels.
The work world
In his sophomore year, however, he got a job with the poverty-fighting Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, working in the Neighborhood Youth Corps, one of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty programs that was set up to give poor urban youths work experience.
By his senior year, Perea was thinking he wanted to be a probation officer, but was offered a full-time job with the Fresno EOC. He would end up working there 3 1/2 years.
During his sophomore year, Perea also met Maria Trevino, then a senior at Roosevelt High School, who would become his wife in 1975, which wasn’t long after he graduated from Fresno State.
Castillo recalls those days as the time when he knew Perea was a true friend.
Just graduating high school, Castillo had decided to accept a soccer scholarship to the University of San Francisco, but his dad told him he couldn’t go because he had to work with the family. The fight escalated, and Castillo was kicked out of his house. He got to his car only to realize he had no plan and didn’t even know how to get to San Francisco. So he went to Perea’s house.
Perea and Maria ended up driving Castillo to San Francisco in their own car, a 1966 Volkswagen Beetle, because Castillo’s never would have made it.
”I’ve known him pretty much my entire life, and I’m still friends with him, so that says something about him,” Castillo says.
A few years later, Perea saw a job possibility in the paper – personnel analyst for Fresno County.
“I loved the job,” he says of the Fresno EOC. “I loved the kids. But I got burned out.”
He applied for the Fresno County job on a whim. He had no connections, but still got the job. It was April 1977. Two months later, Henry T. Perea, his first child, was born.
“When you’re trying to raise a family, sometimes you stumble or fall into the things that you do and you just end up doing it,” Perea says.
That move began a long career for Perea with Fresno County. He started his job at the Fresno County courthouse, then spent time in the nearby Del Webb hotel building before eventually moving to the old Valley Medical Center at Cedar Avenue and Kings Canyon Road in the 1990s, where he was the hospital’s human resources administrator.
For years, it was Perea’s job, and for a huge chunk of it, he never thought about politics. He eventually moved on to do human resources work for Sanger Unified and, then Madera Unified (a job he still performs).
Things, however, were changing in Perea’s life.
At home, he was struggling to adjust to married life, with little guidance other than a strong instinct about what not to do.
“My dad was pretty rough on us and rough on my mom,” Perea says. “So I knew what I wasn’t going to do in a relationship.”
That said, other parts of the DNA died hard as he found himself doing many things his father did.
“I was a 27-year-old man living in a 60-year-old body,” he says. “I was fine going to work and going home and watering my lawn. That’s what I did.”
The marriage to Maria lasted 3 1/2 years, and then they separated. Perea found himself a bachelor, living alone, with a young son who split time between mom and dad.
It was the first time in his life that Perea lived alone, and he had a hard time adjusting. He ate alone. He went to the movies alone.
“For years, I would always sleep with the radio on because I didn’t know what it was like to be alone,” he says of the habit that has yet to die.
By Perea’s own admission, he was a mess. It was at that time that his older brother Julian stepped in and told him to “get your act together.” Julian Perea already was a police officer, and he suggested Perea sign up as a reserve officer. Perea took the advice.
“The world started changing for me,” Perea says. “I started seeing the world with a different lens.”
Thin blue line
Though Perea was a reserve officer, he looked like any other cop. He went to the academy, wore a uniform and carried a gun. He never fired his weapon, though there were a few close calls. Perea recalls one incident in which a man fired a shotgun at him and his partner, kicking up gravel that hit Perea in the face. After they took cover, the guy circled around behind them, but Perea ended up convincing him to drop his weapon. That time, Perea says he was close to firing.
His last detail as a reserve officer was an undercover operation that went bad at the old Greyhound bus station. When Perea’s backup missed his signal, he ended up in the backseat of a car on Highway 99, and was forced to pull his gun and put it to the back of the driver’s head, calmly telling him to pull over. The guy complied.
For years, Perea would get off work on Friday and get right into his police uniform. He worked Friday and Saturday nights and sometimes on Sunday, filling shifts.
Perea acknowledges one of the criticisms often leveled against him – when he wants something done, he will plow ahead like a political bulldozer, taking out everything in his wake.
“That intensity comes from those experiences,” he says of his time as a reserve officer. “People don’t get that. I mean, I’ve seen death, I’ve had little kids die in my arms just because a stupid dad was drunk and he crashed right there on the Belmont circle. When you see death and you see kids suffering, you see guys who beat women to a pulp, you know, it changes how you see the world.”
Near the very end of 1983, Perea married again, this time to Grace Garcia. They would have two children – Annalisa in 1987 and Thomas in 1990. Annalisa, now 29, is a planner for Quad Knopf, a civil engineering firm, and Thomas, 26, is a Cal Fire seasonal firefighter.
Henry T. Perea was 7 when his father remarried.
Maria was his primary parent growing up, Henry T. Perea says, but she and his father were of a like mind when it came to parenting strategies. They both wanted Henry T. to understand the sacrifices of his forefathers, and that’s why they pushed him to be the best he could be. “Even though they were divorced, they were still a team,” he says. “My father set very high expectations for all of us kids. He grew up in an era that was very different from my generation.”
Later on, Perea’s new family moved to a home near to Henry T. and his mom. Henry T. Perea remembers family events had both his dad and his family, as well as his mom and her family. Perea says he stayed friends with Maria until her death from cancer a few years ago, and was there with her at the end.
After 15 years, Perea’s second marriage ended.
When Henry T. Perea looks at his father, he sees a man torn.
“I think my father has always struggled with two things he loves the most – family and work.”
Instead of easing back, Perea pushed forward.
In the 1990s, when he was the human resources administrator at the county-owned Valley Medical Center, Perea had the opportunity to earn his master’s degree at the University of Southern California. The degree would be in public policy with a health-care option. So Perea went for it, attending classes at USC in Los Angeles as well as at the university’s Sacramento center. He would live and work in Fresno part of the week, and then take classes Thursday through Sunday.
After earning his graduate degree, Perea began teaching management classes at Fresno Pacific University. He still was working for the county and still a reserve city police officer. And he was about to embark on a new challenge.
In June 1991, Fresno County Board of Education President Larry Parrott died of a heart attack at age 45. A short time later, the board voted to appoint a member to fill Parrott’s term. Perea saw the ad in the paper, and like the job he landed with Fresno County, it was another cold call.
“I don’t know what about it sparked my interest, but I thought, hmm,” Perea says.
Ten people applied. Two were interviewed. In August 1991, Perea at age 39 became the first Latino appointed to the Fresno County Board of Education.
To earn the recommendation, Perea – a Democrat – knew he had to get through Pete Mehas, the larger-than-life Republican who was then the Fresno County schools superintendent. It was Mehas who did the interviews.
“He was a good politician and I think he understood having a Latino, politically, in his calculus he saw that as a plus,” Perea says of Mehas, who died in September 2013.
Perea fell in love with public policy while on the board. He also learned from Mehas, who taught him one of the key lessons of politics. It was a five-member board, and Mehas imparted to Perea that “until you can count to three it’s just a good idea, and that burned into my head. He beat me nine times out of 10, but he taught me a lot about how politics is handled.”
After being appointed, Perea won a second term on the board in 1992. Four years later, he served notice that he was a rising political force.
It was 1996, and Fresno at the time was making a monumental political change. The mayor, up to that point a member of the City Council, was being boosted to the city’s chief executive in a new “strong mayor” form of government. At the same time, a new City Council district was being created, taking Fresno from six to seven council districts. Perea and nine others sought the newly created seat – District 7. One of those was Diana Weeks, and Perea recalls she had broad support, including both business and union backing.
“I was in no-man’s land,” Perea says, recalling the district was Republican, and that unions dismissed him because his job as a human resources administrator earned him a “management” tag.
Perea designed his campaign flier himself and started walking precincts more than a year before the election. He walked the district three times before the campaign started in earnest.
“I just kept going and buying reams of paper, and I printed them and I walked,” Perea says.
He came in first in the March primary, and in the November runoff against Weeks, captured 56.8 percent of the vote – and the victory.
Perea’s first term was only two years, because the district had to get on an election cycle with the city’s other odd-numbered districts: 1, 3 and 5. So in 1998, Perea was again up for election.
For his re-election bid, Perea didn’t even need a runoff. He won 75 percent of the vote in the primary over Daniel Payne.
Two years later, Perea helped elect childhood pal Castillo to the City Council. Castillo lost his 2004 re-election bid.
“We have a mantra we use when we refer to each other – ‘If it’s important to you, it’s important to me,’ ” Castillo says. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him.”
In 2002, Perea termed out on the council, but his final effort was getting his son, Henry T. Perea, elected in his old seat in what was a hard-fought battle versus Richard Caglia.
As a council member, Perea ticks off what he sees as his successes, though some have proven contentious this mayoral election, such as the downtown baseball stadium. Perea also mentions building the new Exhibit Hall at the convention center and the federal courthouse at Tulare and O streets, securing an upgraded police helicopter, opening the northeast police station and adding to the ranks of Fresno police.
“But it was pretty bloody,” Perea says. “They were tough times. You had to fight to get things done, and I know how to fight.”
Indeed, Perea often is credited with being a wily and effective politician. Part of that can be traced to Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” one of his favorite books.
“My education training focuses on policy and systems,” Perea says. “Sun Tzu was a leader who understood systems and the importance of being clear in mission and using people effectively to accomplish the mission. He also understood human nature and how to be effective in using this knowledge to reach the end goal.”
The “Art of War” includes passages such as: “appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak,” and “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Perea no doubt has taken some of that advice to heart.
In a 2004 clash of former Fresno City Council colleagues, Perea went up against Sal Quintero in a race to replace Juan Arambula on the Fresno County Board of Supervisors. Quintero outspent Perea 2-to-1, and it was a vicious race, but Perea once again emerged victorious. He would win re-election in 2008 and 2012. To run for mayor, he had to give up his supervisor seat, and likely isn’t too happy that old foe Quintero is his replacement.
As a supervisor, Perea again proved effective, even though he often was in the political minority as the sole Democrat among four Republican colleagues.
“It’s no secret that Henry and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum,” says his supervisor colleague Debbie Poochigian, a Republican, “but having said that, we’ve worked closely on many issues. He’s every effective at what he does. He’s prepared. He’s a problem solver, and he’s a strong advocate for his constituents. I’ve always been able to take him at his word.”
Poochigian has endorsed Perea for mayor.
In this mayoral campaign, however, Brand is the one who has charged Perea with offering sound bites over solutions and tailoring a political message to a particular audience, even if it conflicts with something he told a different crowd. Perea has fought back at the charge.
Even with Perea’s tough political armor, he says he “tempered myself a lot, I think, in recent years.” He traces much of it to four years ago, when in the span of less than a year he lost both his parents, as well as his first wife Maria, all to some form of cancer. Despite a short marriage, Perea had remained friends with Maria, and it is the same with second wife Grace, who attended a recent mayoral debate with her ex-husband.
In deciding to run for mayor, the last hurdle Perea says he had to clear was one resting in his own mind. He never has lost a political race. He is 6-0. He had to accept not only that he could lose this attempt, but that after six wins and at age 64, this could be his final campaign. Once that was decided, Perea turned his attention to what he could accomplish if elected.
“I think the opportunity that the strong-mayor form of government gives the CEO, the mayor, is the opportunity to effectively connect policy to implementation, and that’s what I think has been lacking at the city,” he says.
Henry R. Perea
Occupation: Fresno County supervisor
Family: Single, 3 children
Education: Master’s degree, public administration, USC; bachelor’s degree, Fresno State
Key endorsements: California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon; Fresno County Supervisor Debbie Poochigian; Fresno Police Officers Association; Fresno City Firefighters Local 753; former Fresno County Sheriff Steve Magarian; Fresno County Auditor-Controller-Treasurer-Tax Collector Vicki Crow; Fresno County Assessor Paul Dictos; Fresno businessman Richard Egan; Fresno Coin Gallery owner Stephen Foster; Fagundes Brothers Dairy co-owner Fred Fagundes.