A new face has come to the Fresno City Council.
Old challenges await her and her colleagues.
Esmeralda Soria was sworn in as District 1 council member on Thursday before a huge audience that came to witness a morning full of ceremonial milestones.
She was one of four council survivors from 2014’s election season. But the other three — Oliver Baines, Sal Quintero, Clint Olivier — were incumbents.
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Soria’s hard-fought victory in November over Cary Catalano produced a successor to the termed-out Blong Xiong and busted on the dais what for four years has all been an all-male flush.
Soria took the oath of office from Perla Soria, her younger sister. It was a symbolic event, since the real deal (as required by law) was administered by City Clerk Yvonne Spence on Tuesday.
Quintero also took the official oath on Tuesday. That enabled Luis Chavez, his chief of staff, to administer a symbolic oath on Thursday.
Soria’s first comments as a legislator in the state’s fifth biggest city soon followed. Much of one side in the council chamber (standing room only) was filled with family and friends from Lindsay, the home of her youth.
Fresno, Soria said, is at a crossroads marked by impressive assets and serious problems.
The former include hard-working residents, the richest earth in the world and a long-standing commitment to progress. The latter include an economy that continues to sputter, air still shy of consistent quality, public safety services rocked by the Great Recession and infrastructure woes that infuriate neighbors. All are issues familiar to any City Hall veteran.
The key takeaway, Soria emphasized, is that “the city of Fresno is poised for greatness.”
It was hard to keep track of all the oaths, emotions and speeches.
Council President Steve Brandau was thanked by his peers for a year’s service in the hot seat. The people’s voice and orderly meetings were his priorities.
Baines was elected the new president. His unanimous selection came as no surprise since the job is rotated annually by district number.
Baines, Quintero and Olivier took their oaths. Each has an interesting back-story to his re-election.
Quintero is an old hand at oaths — District 5 voters have picked him as their representative four times since the mid-1990s. No one in 2014 would risk even the modest filing fee to oppose him.
Olivier in District 7 was thought by political insiders to be vulnerable because of several controversial votes. Instead, he handily won a second term in the June primary.
Baines, too, rolled to an easy primary victory, then watched with interest the November general election. Had Ashley Swearengin beaten Betty Yee for state controller, Baines might have moved quickly from council president’s chair to mayor’s office (until the special election).
Swearengin gave a good fight, but fell by a 54% to 46% vote. The mayor was doing city business in Sacramento on Thursday, but released a statement congratulating the four council members.
Swearengin noted that 2014 ended for Fresno with a balanced budget, the start of a reserve worthy of the name and elimination of an oppressive internal debt. She said a new general plan, a promising bullet train project and a revived Fulton Corridor are just around the corner.
“I’m looking forward to working with each of our council members to continue to move Fresno forward and welcome their leadership in our city,” Swearengin said.
Soria and Xiong stood tallest on Thursday. That’s speaking metaphorically, for both are of modest height. But they represent the two things that drive any political engine — what was, what might be.
Xiong’s departure touched all hearts on the dais. He ended his two terms with thoughts for Fresno’s 500,000-plus residents.
“I count my blessings that I had a chance to serve all of you,” he said.
Soria might have set a record for longest opening remarks by a council rookie. She touched on more local, state, national and international issues than Swearengin in any of her State of the City addresses. It was hard not to think of Soria: She’ll learn.
Yet, maybe it’s others facing the steep learning curve. She’s Hispanic in what’s becoming an Hispanic city. She’s a woman in a world that’s becoming a woman’s world. She made a point of thanking the heavy hitters in her camp of supporters, among them former Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Assembly Member Henry T. Perea and Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea.
One thing is certain: The Fresno City Council’s Old Boys Club is dead.
“I’ve rolled up my sleeves,” Soria said. “I’m ready to do the hard work.”