Debbie Poochigian, the longtime behind-the-scenes political activist who stepped into the spotlight to make a successful Fresno County supervisor run, said Tuesday she won’t seek a third term this year.
Don’t think, however, that this is the end of her political life.
“There are a lot of opportunities in 2018 – and I want to be in the mix,” Poochigian said in an interview.
The 63-year-old Fresno Republican sent a letter to constituents on Tuesday saying she wouldn’t seek re-election. Her reasons for stepping down weren’t specific, other than she said it was time for the new generation of supervisors to move the county forward.
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With Poochigian’s departure, only Supervisor Henry R. Perea will remain from the five members who were on the dais as recently as late 2012. And with Perea’s possible Fresno mayoral run this year, the likelihood exists that the entire Fresno County Board of Supervisors will have turned over in just four years.
As for Poochigian’s next step, the most obvious would be a run for the state’s 8th Senate District seat currently held by Twain Harte Republican Tom Berryhill. That’s the seat once held by Poochigian’s husband, Chuck, up until he reached his term limit in 2006. He now is a state appellate court justice.
“I don’t know about the state Senate, but I really am not closing the door on elective office in the future,” Poochigian said.
She mentioned that current Assembly Member Jim Patterson has said he will run for Berryhill’s seat, which would open up the Fresno Republican’s state Assembly seat. Poochigian lives in that Assembly district.
She also mentioned “down-ticket” races, a hint at a possible statewide run for one of the offices below governor that will be up for grabs in 2018. Another possibility is the state Board of Equalization, where George Runner – whose district covers the Fresno area – reaches his term limit in 2018.
Poochigian is a scion of the Koligian political family. Her father, Deran Koligian, was a five-term Fresno County supervisor. But Poochigian spent many years supporting the political career of her husband, Chuck, and then was a driving organizational force in local Republican politics. She shepherded local fundraisers and rallies for major politicians, including President George W. Bush.
In 2008, she became a politician in her own right, beating Clovis City Council Member Nathan Magsig to replace Bob Waterston in eastern Fresno County’s District 5.
Poochigian said that when she joined the board, Fresno County “really was in a fiscal crisis.” That board, with Phil Larson, Judy Case McNairy, Susan Anderson and Perea joining Poochigian, “made good decisions,” Poochigian said. “We turned this county around.”
In her seven years on the board, Poochigian has been a strong fiscal conservative, often questioning financial aspects that other supervisors didn’t think were significant. She said she considered her work on finance issues among her major accomplishments.
“I’ve had a pretty good run,” she said. “I worked really hard at this job for seven years, and I plan to continue to do that for the next 11 months. I’m not committing to anybody or anything else. I will finish this out with the same hard work and energy I’ve had the last seven years.”
Known to battle
But Poochigian also could be tough and partisan – and didn’t back down from political fights while on the board.
One of the most memorable clashes pitted her against then-First 5 Executive Director Kendra Rogers over the direction of the agency – which uses state tobacco tax funds to bolster health and education programs for families and their children from birth to age 5 – and its controversial $15 million headquarters in downtown Fresno. Poochigian, along with Larson and Case McNairy, called the building an unnecessary extravagance.
But there also seemed to be a political battle of wills at work as the controversy stretched over an entire year, starting when Rogers talked of challenging Poochigian this year. Now, Rogers is gone and the new building is finished and occupied.
Political allies Larson and Case McNairy also are gone, and with it Poochigian’s place in a solid board majority with common political goals.
Poochigian said she is not frustrated with the new board, which has seen her go from a position of power in the majority to the losing end of several votes – some of them 4-1 against her.
She said the new board already has accomplished some good things and she plans to continue to contribute for the remainder of this year.
“I’m not done yet,” she said. “I have loved every single minute of this job, and I still enjoy it, and I know I’m going to miss it.”
Taken by surprise
Poochigian’s announcement – done via a constituent letter and news release – caught many by surprise, including some of her board colleagues.
Fresno County Board of Supervisors Chairman Buddy Mendes said he “was very surprised” by the announcement.
“Debbie is probably one of the smartest people I ever worked with,” he said. “She also is one of the most principled people I’ve ever known.”
Her announcement created a major political vacancy just less than five months before the June 7 primary election.
And one elected official – Magsig – wasted no time in saying he would run to replace her.
“With Debbie Poochigian’s decision not to run, I will be seeking that seat,” Magsig said. He took out papers Tuesday afternoon to collect signatures that will allow him to have a reduced filing fee.
Magsig, 39, who has served on the Clovis City Council since 2001, works for Fresno Equal Opportunity Commission.
Clovis City Council Member Lynne Ashbeck also could consider seeking the seat. On Tuesday, she said she was not ready to make a commitment to run.
If they do, Clovis could have its first City Council election since 2009. The past three have been canceled because none of the incumbents were challenged.
Others could jump into the supervisor race as well, but the district’s geography and tight timeline could limit those seeking to replace Poochigian.
Both Magsig and Ashbeck already have a built-in constituency in Clovis – which makes up a good chunk of the district – and that gives them an early advantage if either decides to run. Besides Clovis east of Highway 168 and Minnewawa Avenue, the district also takes in a chunk of central Fresno, the Sunnyside area of southeast Fresno, the northern fringes of Sanger and all of the foothill and mountain parts of the county.
“I’ve announced early enough to give everyone an opportunity if they are interested,” Poochigian said. “We’ll see who wants to step forward.”
Will she endorse? She said she is a voter, taxpayer and resident of the 5th supervisor district, and as such will study the candidates and decide who to support. She may – or may not – make that an official endorsement.
If it comes, it likely won’t be for Magsig.
Asked about his candidacy, she offered a curt response: “That’s nice.”