Local Election

How did Lee Brand put together a winning formula in the Fresno mayor’s race?

By seemingly every measure, Henry R. Perea looked primed to be Fresno’s next mayor.

He’s held elected office for more than 20 years. He’s well known to city residents. He’s a Democrat, and right now there are 29,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Fresno. He’s a Latino, and Latinos make up more than a third of registered voters.

In a five-person June primary for Fresno mayor, he finished first – by a whopping 14-percentage points.

Taken together, Perea was able to tick just about every box on the ideal candidate worksheet.

Instead, city voters appear to have elected Lee Brand, the fourth consecutive north Fresno Republican mayor.

With 100 percent of the precincts counted, Brand on Wednesday had 53.4 percent of the vote to Perea’s 46.3 percent. But there are still votes to be counted – around 80,000 mail ballots and 31,000 provisional ballots countywide, which likely means around 55,000 in the city.

To close Brand’s 6,035-vote lead, Perea would need to win around 61 percent of the remaining ballots. It’s a tall order thaT even Perea recognizes is likely out of reach, which is why he called Brand early Wednesday and conceded.

“We have about a 6,000-vote gap and remaining ballots should follow the trend,” Perea said later Wednesday.

A sliver of hope

Nevertheless, he still held out a sliver of hope, even though he conceded – a decision Perea said he is sticking by.

“With the events at the national level with polls and trends out the window, you never know with this number of remaining ballots,” he said.

It’s too soon to thoroughly analyze the race, but turnout in northeast Fresno’s City Council District 6 – which Brand currently represents on the city council – was 50 percent, while turnout in southeast Fresno’s District 5 – on paper what should be a stronger part of the city for Perea – was 30 percent.

In raw numbers, more than 21,600 votes have been counted in District 6, and just 8,847 in District 5.

The Fresno axiom is the voters in the city’s northern reaches elect the mayor. It was the part of town where current Mayor Ashley Swearengin – who reaches her term limit at the end of the year – claimed her victory eight years ago over Perea’s son, former Assemblyman Henry T. Perea. And it looks as if Brand did equally well up north on Tuesday.

Still, it wasn’t easy, said Tim Orman, one of Brand’s campaign consultants.

In a poll the campaign did just two months ago, Brand’s name identification was low, even though he’s been a council member for almost eight years and had run in the June mayoral primary, including sending mail pieces to voters and airing television commercials.

Despite that, 34 percent of those polled in September had never heard of Brand.

By the time the Brand campaign did a poll around Oct. 25, only 14 percent hadn’t heard of him.

Orman credits “primarily TV and radio” ads for the boost in Brand’s name identification.

Brand bought at least $80,000 in television and radio ads, but not all of them boosted his name ID. One TV spot that may have made a difference tied Perea to the more than $500,000 cost to Fresno County taxpayers for a special Assembly election that became necessary after his son resigned office early to take a private-sector job. But Brand also ran testimonial-style commercials that included Swearengin, former Mayor Jim Patterson and former Fresno County Supervisor Susan Anderson.

To do this, Brand needed money, which is the bottom line in just about every political campaign. Brand outraised Perea by around $300,000 – including a $100,000 loan he made to his own campaign – and that money freed up his campaign team to run a more aggressive and far-reaching campaign than Perea could afford.

While Brand was bombarding the airwaves as Election Day approached, Perea ran just a single television commercial on ABC30, which focused on public safety.

Beyond that, both candidates did much of the traditional campaigning – walking precincts themselves and having others, both paid and volunteer, do the same. Calling voters. Sending out campaign mail.

In total, Brand is now well past the $900,000 fundraising mark combined for the June primary and November general elections. Perea, by comparison, has raised $620,502 and counting.

Hiring campaign pros

Brand may have also helped his cause by hiring two of Fresno’s highest profile campaign consultants – Orman and Mark Scozzari. Both are campaign veterans with numerous wins under their belts, and Brand ran a disciplined campaign and always took the advice given him by Orman and Scozzari.

“I think we developed a game plan, a message and stuck to it all the way through,” Orman said. “We were also able present Lee as a very thoughtful, intelligent person who knew the issues backwards and forwards without appearing as a policy wonk. People got that.”

As part of that, Orman and Scozzari got Brand out of his stuffy tweed jackets and spruced him up for public consumption. Suddenly Brand was wearing deep-blue blazers and sharp matching ties, giving him more of a leadership look and less of a stuffy professorial appearance.

“We did all the things necessary, I think, to win the campaign,” Brand said Tuesday night. “I respect Henry for running a good campaign and running through the same gauntlet I went through, but I think now we can plan on a transition.”

Perea, on the other hand, largely ran his own campaign. He got some pointers from well-known Sacramento consultant Richie Ross, but it was Perea who called all the shots. That included a social media presence that dwarfed Brand’s. Perea was very active on Twitter and Facebook, and even tangled with Brand supporters such as local businessman Michael Der Manouel Jr. on Twitter.

Also, Perea was everywhere. If there was an event, Perea was there – and documenting it with a selfie he promoted on social media.

By comparison, Brand seemed invisible.

Besides the candidates themselves, several independent groups weighed in with their own campaigns either supporting or opposing Brand or Perea. Among them were Fresno firefighters and the Fresno Police Officers Association, which backed Perea, and the Greater Fresno Chamber of Commerce and the Lincoln Club of Fresno County, which supported Brand.

The end result surprised some people, who thought this was not only Perea’s year – but also time for Fresno’s first Latino mayor.

Indeed, right after Perea’s convincing win in the June primary, a new issue seemed fall into his lap as a discolored water problem centered on Brand’s northeast Fresno district that had come to the fore in January, exploded onto the scene. But despite Perea’s efforts to capitalize on the issue, it appears Brand’s constituents believed that he was aggressively addressing the issue, which became a flashpoint between the candidates as Perea said it showed Brand’s lack of leadership and Brand saying Perea was playing politics with a serious issue.