The tone and tenor of Wednesday’s 31st Assembly District debate was set at the very beginning, when Fresno Republican Clint Olivier used part of his opening statement to attack Kingsburg Democrat Joaquin Arambula.
Olivier, a Fresno City councilman, cast himself as the only “independent” candidate in the campaign to fill the final year of Fresno Democrat Henry T. Perea’s term, one who is “not owned by Sacramento special interests.”
For anyone following the campaign – which is fast and furious ahead of the April 5 special election, and with people already casting ballots for more than a week – Olivier’s words were nothing new. One of his core talking points is that because Arambula is a Democrat, which is the majority party in Sacramento and also makes up many of the donors whose dollars have boosted Arambula’s campaign coffers far above Olivier’s, he would be “owned by Sacramento special interests.” As a minority Republican, Olivier says he’ll be free to pursue ways to help the district.
Arambula, however, would have nothing of it. Asking for immediate time to respond to Olivier’s salvo during opening statements, Arambula said he has had 81 contributions from inside the 31st District, while Olivier has had just five. Arambula added that he’d like to have more current information, but can’t find it because Olivier has not filed timely campaign finance statements. What might Olivier be hiding? Arambula asked.
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And so it went Wednesday inside the Old Administration Building at Fresno City College, site of the second 31st Assembly District debate.
Ted Miller was also on the stage, but the Caruthers Democrat was often reduced to the role of bystander as Arambula and Olivier traded barbs and accusations. Miller chipped in occasionally with some lighthearted humor, or would fire off an attack against Olivier. But he was mostly to the side as Arambula and Olivier went at it. At times they would give a quick answer to a question and then turn to attack the other.
For instance, Arambula used a question about first priorities if elected to criticize Olivier on the Summerset Village Apartments crisis, where hundreds of tenants – mostly Southeast Asian immigrants – were without heat or hot water last year after PG&E shut off the gas because of safety concerns at the Fresno complex. That eventually snowballed into a bigger issue about slumlords and city code enforcement.
“Summerset happened in his district,” Arambula said of Olivier. “On his watch. In his backyard.”
Arambula then went on to say that Olivier voted to cut city code enforcement staff.
Olivier bristled at the accusation, saying he was on site within an hour and spent weeks at the site – including on Thanksgiving Day – and helped to assemble a code enforcement strike team to crack down on blight in the city’s apartment complexes and other multifamily developments.
Arambula would return again to Summerset later in the debate, prompting Olivier to say he “worked my butt off to fix that problem.”
Olivier then turned the matter back on Arambula, saying he’s never seen him around the district before, suggesting he was waiting for his “Sacramento puppet masters” to show up and tell him how to do the job.
The three candidates have a lot in common. For instance, ask about the top issue, and the answer is water. There may be some slight variations, but in general the trio want a new reservoir at Temperance Flat and more water for the region.
As might be expected at a debate on a college campus, there were questions about student loan debt (all three agreed it was a problem that needed to be addressed) and gay rights (all three said they were supportive of gay rights).
One well-known difference is high-speed rail. Arambula and Miller support the bullet train – which is already under construction in the Fresno area – while Olivier opposes it.
This was where Miller got in a jab at Olivier for his support for a controversial proposed ballot initiative that would take money away from high-speed rail and use it instead for water-storage projects in California.
If it passed, Miller said, it would hurt both new dams and high-speed rail because it would end up in court and construction jobs would go idle.
But Olivier stood by his support for the initiative and reiterated his stance that the bullet train is a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Perea even emerged as a campaign issue when Olivier challenged Arambula to call on Perea to pay for the special election. Perea resigned early to work for the pharmaceutical industry, and his decision will cost Fresno County taxpayers between $530,000 and $575,000 to put on the special election. And that’s if one of the three candidates wins more than 50 percent of the April 5 vote. If not, the top two advance to a June 7 runoff, which will cost taxpayers more.
Arambula refused to do it, and then turned the question back on Olivier, asking him to commit to paying for a special Fresno City Council election to fill his seat if he wins the Assembly race. Olivier committed to using excess campaign funds – if he had them – to pay. It was a reversal for Olivier, who earlier said he wouldn’t do that, and Arambula called him a flip-flopper. Olivier dismissed the charge, saying he simply changed his mind.
As the debate wore on, it even got personal as Arambula suggested Olivier was running because he “can’t get another good job.” Olivier noted he was a journalist and was happy with that life. He then returned to the Perea criticism and Arambula’s refusal to call on Perea to pay for the special election.
“He loves career politicians,” Olivier said of Arambula. “He comes from a family of career politicians. The only politician he doesn’t like is me.”
Arambula then demanded an apology, saying his father, Juan – who previously served the 31st Assembly District – was a statesman who stood up to legislative leadership.
Though Wednesday’s debate comes less than three weeks before the election, the same three candidates are also vying to represent the district for a two-year term beginning in December. That battle will start with the June primary, and the top two finishers in that election will advance to a final showdown in November.