The three candidates for the District 2 seat on the Fresno County Board of Supervisors met Monday in a crowded room near Fresno Yosemite International Airport for a candidate forum covering a wide variety of county issues including poverty, access to clean drinking water and job creation.
And while most of the conversation remained tame, late questions on a prickly issue – development – showed a massive gap between the candidates and nearly unraveled the entire event.
Candidates Steve Brandau, a Fresno city councilman and small businessman; Nasreen Johnson, spokeswoman for the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission; and Steve Hosey, a developer and former Fresno State and Major League Baseball player, attended the event. Each is gunning for a spot vacated by Andreas Borgeas, now a state senator. The special election will be March 5.
The forum was hosted by local chapters of Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA) and the Black American Political Association of California (BAPAC). About 100 people attended the event, which was also the monthly meeting for BWOPA.
The hosting groups are nonpartisan, though Dezie Woods-Jones, the statewide president of BWOPA and former vice mayor of Oakland, coyly admitted that “90-95 percent” of her members happen to be Democrats.
The 10 questions were crafted with input from both Democratic and Republican political groups and nonpartisan community organizations, Woods-Jones said. There was no debate between the participants, who simply had a minute to respond to each question.
The night’s flashpoint occurred during the final, clearly loaded question aimed at Brandau and his position representing city interests on the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board. Some residents have grown increasingly frustrated as the board has hashed out river access and trail development over the last several years.
The question claimed Brandau “voted to destroy Riverview Drive” – a reference to an access point to the San Joaquin River within the Woodward Bluffs neighborhood – in favor of spending $5 million on a new parking lot and road “when there was already access.”
“That is a BS question,” Brandau said in his response, drawing noisy protests from what had been a reserved crowd. He said that no access has been cut off and that his votes came after years of complicated negotiations, before turning the question back to the audience.
“You make the decision on the best access point,” Brandau said. “Do we go in through a neighborhood, or do we go in through a community center with wide, broad streets?”
Brandau spoke over the crowd as he shared the results of a recent test of bus access points that he said showed a 21-minute walk to the Riverview Drive access point compared to a five-minute walk for the alternative.
The salt was then rubbed a little deeper when Johnson and Hosey were given the far more enviable task of simply weighing in on river conservancy issues as potential leaders. Johnson said she supported Riverview and “saving that $5 million” for other crucial needs, while Hosey said he would want to learn more about other potential alternatives and their respective costs.
After the candidates answered a few more impromptu questions from the audience, Brandau looped back to his defense on the river access issue in the beginning of his two-minute closing statement, saying the Riverview cost analysis had not been completed and would likely cost more than $5 million.
It was the only question of the night directed at a particular candidate.
Although it is a nonpartisan race, the candidates and their support bases notch clear pegs on the political spectrum.
Johnson, the lone woman in the race with two young children, a master’s degree and a nonprofit background, seemed to have full Democratic support the second she entered the race. She’s received considerable financial backing from large labor unions and the support of most local progressive groups. She ran unsuccessfully for a Fresno Unified school board seat in November.
Brandau is among the most visible conservatives in the city. He’s the former head of the Central Valley Tea Party and brings the support of law enforcement, influential developers and various local leaders with him into a district race that should strongly favor a Republican, as his council district does.
Hosey, the admitted political newcomer, is somewhere in the middle. He distanced himself from any partisan description at the forum, saying he sought to give back to his community. His campaign’s support is mostly from developers, including a $5,000 loan to himself.
The crowd was decidedly pro-Johnson from the outset, applauding her just seconds into her opening statement and after each of her responses – compared to only sparse audible support for various points made by the other two candidates.
Each had a varied approach applied to their answers at the forum.
Brandau leaned heavily on his six years on the City Council, citing examples of cooperation and decision making on tough issues.
Johnson stressed better community outreach in many of her responses.
Hosey was far more general in his responses, at times repeating metaphors about being a team player or rolling his sleeves up to get to work.
On the issue of balancing the need for clean drinking water and sustaining farmland, Johnson and Hosey preached collaboration in broad terms. Brandau turned the blame onto the state and federal government, which he said allows most of the area’s water to wash into the Pacific Ocean. He also touted the city’s recently built surface water treatment plant.
On how to assist the homeless, Johnson criticized the relationship between city and county governments, saying they only push the issue back and forth onto one another. She advocated for the creation of new shelters with fewer entry barriers.
Hosey said he had recently sought out the Fresno Housing Authority’s counsel on this issue and come to realize it would require multiple solutions, including better city-county relations and increased mental health care.
Brandau mentioned the city’s camping ordinance, which has been unpopular with many advocates but he said had alleviated much of the strain on local businesses. He also said he was working with Supervisor Sal Quintero and Poverello House CEO Cruz Avila to bring a new shelter to downtown Fresno.
While Hosey and Johnson said they both supported public safety in general terms, Brandau went a step further. He again attacked the state for “thrusting a public safety crisis upon us” by releasing criminals into the streets of Fresno County – a reference, presumably, to AB 109, Proposition 47 and other laws that have reclassified certain nonviolent crimes and called for reduced jail occupancy.
The gap between the candidates was perhaps most visible during a separate discussion on development – this one tethered around permanent environmental impact costs for developers.
Johnson was in favor of these costs, then flipped into a criticism of the other two candidates’ support from developers.
According to Fresno County election records, Hosey has loaned himself $5,000 and received another $5,000 from his good friend and fellow Fresno State baseball-star-turned-developer Terance Frazier.
Hosey said he was in favor of “fair fees” for developers, but not “slapping on penalties.”
Brandau received $25,000 each from Darius and Farid Assemi of Granville Homes and Maricopa Orchards, respectively, as well as $20,000 from River Park developer Ed Kashian, at the beginning of his campaign. He has since received smaller donations from other developers, such as Bonadelle Homes and Wilson Homes.
Brandau said the state is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, and that such environmental fees are “part of the problem.” Builders will recoup fees during development later through the prices of the homes, he added.
“I’m not for gimmicks like this that add to the price of housing,” he said. “We need to drop the price of housing.”
Johnson told the audience her support came from “folks like you” giving small donations. That’s possible, as information on individual donors is spotty in the truncated special election cycle, but she’s also received major financial backing from labor unions.
The Service Employees International Union, a major Democratic supporter in Fresno and across the country, has given her campaign nearly $38,000 total in the last week. She said Tuesday that most of this – $32,500 – came from in-kind donations for polling.
The questions over development and its influencers – as well as a host of other key issues – are likely to linger as the three campaigns ramp up with more public appearances and increased advertisement over the next three weeks.