Welcome to politics in the 31st Assembly District.
In 1976, Fresno Republican Ernest Mobley gave up the seat to run for the state Senate, a move that set up a showdown between a couple of then-young guns – Democrat Richard Lehman and Republican Bill Jones.
Lehman won the race with nearly 54 percent of the vote, and in the four decades since, 31st Assembly Democrats haven’t looked back.
From Lehman to Bruce Bronzan to Cruz Bustamante to Sarah Reyes to Juan Arambula to Henry T. Perea, Democrats have posted 19 consecutive wins in the Fresno County-centered district. In five elections since 1990, the Republicans didn’t even field a challenger, and in that same time frame, the GOP’s best performer won just 42.3 percent of the vote.
The latest Republican to step up for the challenge is Fresno City Councilman Clint Olivier. He is running against two Democrats – Kingsburg emergency room physician Joaquin Arambula and Caruthers engineer Ted Miller.
This year, however, Republicans think they have a good chance to break the Democrats’ 40-year stranglehold on the district, and for one big reason: Perea quit the Assembly a year before the end of his final term and took a job with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, known as PhRMA.
Perea left office Dec. 31, setting up an April 5 special election to fill the remainder of Perea’s current term.
The district’s numbers still strongly favor Democrats. The registration edge is close to 20 percentage points – 48.3 percent to 28.7 percent.
But it probably would be a miracle if more than one in five voters cast ballots in the special election. Republicans historically do well in low-turnout elections.
I can’t think of any other election at any level that rivals the quirky nature of this race.
Fresno State political science professor Jeff Cummins
Because of that, Olivier says he likes his chances.
Still, it’s a long road to ultimate victory. Here is the roadmap:
▪ If any candidate wins 50 percent of the vote plus one in the April 5 special election, he will immediately take a seat in the state Assembly. If not, the top two finishers will move on to a June 7 runoff. Regardless, the winner of this contest will only bebe assured of holding the seat until the start of December.
▪ There is a separate election to determine who will serve the next two-year term representing the district, starting in December. The primary election for that term will be June 7.
Arambula, Miller and Olivier all say they will be on that ballot, too. The rules for the primary election differ from the special, however: There is no chance for a majority win in June and the top two finishers move on to a November showdown.
Voters may be confused
The possibilities could confuse even the most hardened political junkie.
For instance, one candidate could win in April, but lose in November. He would be in the state Assembly a little more than seven months. Or a candidate could win in April, come in third in June and not even be on the November ballot.
District voters might also find themselves voting twice on the race in June – once for the special election runoff and once for the general election primary.
“It’s an incredibly unusual situation,” Fresno State political science professor Jeff Cummins says. “I can’t think of any other election at any level that rivals the quirky nature of this race.”
What seems absolutely normal is how Arambula and Olivier are approaching the race. They had campaign kickoffs. They’re raising money and collecting endorsements. They’re running active campaigns.
Already, Arambula has raised around $500,000. His money has come largely from political action committees, the medical industry and Assembly Democrats. He’s got a vibrant campaign operation, and former Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins and incoming Speaker Anthony Rendon – who certainly doesn’t want to start his tenure with a loss in a solidly Democratic district – will come to Fresno to campaign in person.
On top of all that, Arambula has the name. He grew up in a household steeped in politics, and his dad Juan represented the 31st District from 2004 to 2010 – and got sideways with leadership for his independent streak. It eventually got him banished to the Capitol’s worst office, nicknamed the Doghouse. In 2009, Juan Arambula left the Democratic Party out of frustration, re-registering as an independent. Perea took the seat in 2010.
None of this seems to have adversely affected Joaquin Arambula’s relationship with the Democratic Party – even though he, too, was registered as no party preference up until about a year ago.
To be effective in Sacramento I think you have to be part of the majority party.
Kingsburg Democrat Joaquin Arambula
Arambula won’t be raising much more money for the special election. He has agreed to an expenditure limit, which the state has set at $564,000 for Assembly races. Agreeing to the limit allows Arambula to purchase space in the sample ballot. Miller also agreed to the limits. Olivier has not.
The expenditure limit doesn’t affect outside spending, and an independent group that already has $426,000 in funding – including $200,000 from the California Medical Association Independent Expenditure Committee and $100,000 from the California Dental Association Independent Expenditure PAC – popped up Thursday supporting Arambula and opposing Olivier. That kind of money could be used for television or radio commercials or lots of campaign mail.
Olivier has raised around $150,000. The Fresno County Republican Party also has started running independent ads that tout the GOP and hit Arambula.
Miller has yet to raise $1,000 but insists he is viable. He hopes to get his message to voters through “free media” – radio and television appearances and in newspaper stories. And good old-fashioned shoe leather, too: walking precincts.
Already, he has appeared on KMJ radio along with Olivier, but he is being excluded from a Maddy Institute candidate forum that will be broadcast on radio and television because he is not considered a viable candidate.
Water the top issue
Given the region the 31st District covers – the southern and western parts of Fresno County, including a chunk of south Fresno, as well as Sanger, Orange Cove, Coalinga, Selma, Reedley and Kingsburg – it isn’t surprising that water is the top issue for Olivier and Miller, and among a trio of top issues for Arambula. All three say building a new reservoir at Temperance Flat above Lake Millerton is a top priority.
“My dad got in trouble for fighting for Temperance Flat a decade ago,” Arambula says. “We’d be a in a better place today if people would’ve listened to him back then.”
But Arambula says the battle should be framed less as “farmers vs. fish” and more about the wider community such as farmworkers and everyone else who struggles when there is not enough water.
Olivier also says water has to be the top issue, saying it fuels agriculture, and agriculture fuels the Valley’s economy.
“Whether we like it or not, this is an ag-based economy in the Central Valley,” he says. “In some way, most of us are touched by agriculture.”
Whether we like it or not, this is an ag-based economy in the Central Valley. In some way, most of us are touched by agriculture.
Fresno Republican Clint Olivier
Miller echoes Arambula and Olivier. In fact, he pretty much says water is the only issue. His campaign slogan is “water water water.”
It almost seems pre-ordained that Arambula would enter politics, but he says his parents “literally for six months … told me not to do it.” But Arambula says he had grown frustrated as a Selma emergency room physician, seeing the struggles of his patients – struggles he says were tied to drought, water and the resulting unemployment. He also looked around and didn’t see enough doctors like himself. Over time, a future as a politician was born.
Government, Arambula says, doesn’t do enough to help people.
Besides finding ways to bring more water to the region, Arambula’s top issues are a medical school in the central San Joaquin Valley and universal pre-kindergarten.
On the medical school, he says it is needed because studies show 60 percent of doctors stay within 50 miles of where they do their training. That could help the Valley, which he says lags behind Los Angeles and the Bay Area in the number of doctors per capita.
As for universal pre-kindergarten, Arambula says that a head start is vital for Valley children. He says locking up people costs $60,000 a year per prisoner, and the extra year of school would cost $10,000 a year per student. Better-educated children would reduce the prison population, he reasons. That’s where the money would be found.
“I believe early childhood education is cost-effective,” he says.
Olivier says he got into the race because he saw a lot of need as a Fresno councilman and realized he needed to be in higher office to help meet those needs.
Miller says he is motivated by a frustration with local government and says both Republicans and his own Democratic Party are part of the problem.
Though Miller talks about water a lot, he says he is not a one-issue candidate. Other important issues are jobs and the costs of college. A Bernie Sanders supporter for the Democratic presidential nomination, Miller says he wants college to be more affordable so graduates are not saddled with unreasonable student-loan debt.
Like Arambula, he proposes paying down the costs of college with money saved from fewer inmates being locked up in the state’s prisons. One of the reasons for the reduced population, he says, is the legalization of recreational marijuana use – and some money from taxing it could help reduce college costs.
High-speed rail divisive
If a voter is looking for a difference – at least between Olivier and the two Democrats – high-speed rail is a good place to start.
Olivier is against it, even though he acknowledges casting votes on the Fresno City Council that helped the project.
“High-speed rail is a loser,” he says. “Nobody from the 31st District can afford it.”
Arambula and Miller both favor it.
In fact, next to water, Miller was most enthusiastic about the project, pointing to the construction that already is taking place – and creating badly needed jobs for local workers.
“You can’t say you’re in favor of jobs and say you’re against the high-speed rail project in Fresno,” Miller says. “We need the jobs. The jobs are good jobs.”
Another area is road maintenance. Everyone agrees it is needed, but Olivier touts the Republican line – people already pay enough in taxes, and if priorities are shifted the money can be found to repair the roads. Arambula, by contrast, says he is open to some sort of additional revenue to help pay for the repairs, be it a road tax or gas-tax increase or maybe an assessment based on miles driven.
You can’t say you’re in favor of jobs and say you’re against the high-speed rail project in Fresno.
Caruthers Democrat Ted Miller
Arambula refused to mention Olivier, saying he preferred to focus on what he would do in Sacramento. Olivier, on the other hand, went right at Arambula. Neither talked about Miller at all.
“The beauty of having Clint Olivier in the Assembly is that you will have, for the first time, an independent,” Olivier says. “Dr. Arambula is a wholly owned subsidiary of Sacramento special interests and he owes everything to the speaker of the state Assembly.”
The two also have a vastly different view of how they would be received in Sacramento.
Arambula points out that he is a Democrat, and Democrats are the majority party and thus hold all the power in Sacramento. Not only that, there is also no indication that will change anytime soon. He says that being part of that majority – and with a good relationship with Rendon, who has offered his endorsement – would benefit the 31st District.
“To be effective in Sacramento I think you have to be part of the majority party,” Arambula says. “That’s where you get the chairmanships. That’s how you’re able to push legislation.”
He also says he can more than hold his own when there are disagreements.
Olivier, on the other hand, casts himself as an outsider – an independent beholden to no one, not even his fellow Republicans. He says Arambula would be held in check by Rendon and the Democratic Bay Area and Southern California power structure that holds sway over the Legislature. As such, Olivier says, Arambula would find himself having to support causes in those areas because Rendon and the majority would pressure him to fall in line. The losers, he says, would be Valley residents.
At the same time, Olivier says his independence would leave him free to form alliances with like minds of either party who recognize the needs of the Valley.
“When you’re independent, you can vote your district and you can advance the needs of your neighbors without fear,” Olivier says.
Miller seems the odd person out in the race, but if he doesn’t win he could play the role of spoiler – taking votes from Arambula, his fellow Democrat.
Prominent Democrats, Miller says, have called.
“The Democratic Party has been doing everything they can to get me out of the race,” he says, then adds that it’s not going to happen.
31st Assembly District candidates
City of residence: Kingsburg
Occupation: Emergency room doctor
Education: BS, Bowdoin College; MD, University of Minnesota Medical School
Family: Married, three children
Party preference: Democrat
Facebook: Dr. Joaquin Arambula for Assembly
Key endorsements: Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, state Treasurer John Chiang, Fresno City Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria, Former Fresno City Councilman Tom Bohigian, Sanger City Councilman Humberto Garza, California Federation of Labor, Central Labor Council of Fresno & Madera Counties, California Nurses Association
City of residence: Caruthers
Occupation: Technology management, pilot
Education: BS, electrical engineering, University of Southern California; MA, business administration, University of Southern California
Party preference: Democrat
Facebook: Ted Miller for Assembly
Key endorsements: none
City of residence: Fresno
Occupation: City councilman/author
Education: AA, Orange Coast College
Family: Married, two children
Party preference: Republican
Facebook: Clint Olivier for Assembly
Key endorsements: State Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford; Former Secretary of State Bill Jones; Reps. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare and David Valadao, R-Hanford; Fresno City Councilmen Lee Brand and Steve Brandau; Fresno County Supervisors Buddy Mendes, Andreas Borgeas and Debbie Poochigian