Fresno’s mayoral race on Friday got a midwinter jolt when Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea told The Bee in an exclusive interview that he would seek the city’s top elected office.
For months, Perea’s decision has been a hot topic of discussion in Fresno, and for months he had played coy as the political prognosticators speculated.
The decision became clear, Perea said, once he “was able to take risk and chance out of the equation.” He said he was finally able to accept not being a county supervisor, and that he could give up a relatively safe seat and take a chance on running for mayor, knowing that he would be OK as an out-of-office official and grandfather if the run was unsuccessful.
But Perea said he isn’t in the race to lose.
“One, I think I’m ready. Two, I think I would bring the right people around me to execute. I think there’s a lot of opportunity in the city.”
Already, Fresno City Council Member Lee Brand and pastor and community leader H. Spees have said they will seek to replace Ashley Swearengin, who is termed out of office this year. Perea is the first Democrat in the race. Both Brand and Spees are Republicans.
Perea’s entry into the race to lead the state’s fifth-largest city increases the likelihood that the election could stretch to November. If no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote in the June primary, the top two finishers move on to the November general election.
Another compelling storyline is that Perea is trying to do what his son, former Assembly Member Henry T. Perea, couldn’t in 2008 when he ran for mayor and lost to Swearengin.
Tom Holyoke, a Fresno State political science professor, says the elder Perea is a smart politician who isn’t entering the race blindly.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Holyoke said. “He has an organizational base. He has labor support. He knows how to raise money. He’s giving up what seems to me to be a safe, cushy seat. I think he’s giving up something safe to go for not a sure thing. He’s made a calculation somewhere that he has a good shot at this.”
A long political career
Perea’s political career stretches back more than two decades.
In 1991, he made local history when he was the first Hispanic to sit on the Fresno County Board of Education. He was appointed to the position after the death of board member Larry Parrott.
The following year, he won a full four-year term on the county board of education and never looked back in his political career. In 1996, he won election to a two-year term representing the city’s newly created seventh council district. The district was created when Fresno went to a strong-mayor form of government and the mayor left the City Council. Perea won re-election to a four-year term in 1998, and in 2004 he was elected a Fresno County supervisor. He won re-election in 2008 and 2012.
Perea made it clear Friday that while he likes some things Swearengin has done, and he would look to build on some of those, much would be different under a Perea administration.
For instance, downtown revitalization would move forward, as would the bus rapid transit and Fulton Mall reopening projects. Would Perea have done them the same way? Probably not, he says, but they are already in the works and must be not only completed, but complemented with a viable business plan headed forward.
“That’s the only knock I’ve ever had on the Fulton Mall,” Perea said. “We’ve opened the street, but where’s the plan? The business plan.”
If Perea has his way, SMG would also be out as the manager of the Fresno Convention Center, which includes Selland Arena. Perea said Selland has played second fiddle to the Save Mart Center, also managed by SMG. Instead, he said, there needs to be competition, with a management company that goes toe-to-toe for bookings with the Save Mart Center. Hopefully, he said, there will be a way to fund improvements to both Selland Arena and the Saroyan Theatre.
But while Perea would likely continue some of Swearengin’s cornerstone projects, he said he would tweak others.
For instance, he likes the push to improve Blackstone Avenue – but the commercial aspect of it, not so much the residential part. There is no indication, he said, that there is a market for urban living or condominiums along the Blackstone corridor. The local market still wants single-family housing, he said, and if Fresno doesn’t provide it, homebuyers will go to Clovis and the new frontier of Madera County north of the San Joaquin River.
So while Swearengin’s new general plan focuses on infill, Perea said he would complement that with single-family developments on the city’s edges. And if that means building farther north of the Copper River development toward Friant, so be it. That is, Perea said, provided the market is there and developers can prove they can provide water and other amenities to their projects.
“This stuff is not a zero sum game,” Perea said. “When you look at it that way, there are winners and there are losers. There doesn’t have to be. I know there are a lot of folks who want urban living. Downtown living and revitalization. I get that and I support it 100 percent. But I’m not going to be telling you where you can and can’t live. My job is to make everything as good as it can be so you make your choice based on what’s best for you, rather than ‘I have to flee this neighborhood because everything’s going bad.’ ”
Perea also said Fresno needs to be more active regionally. One example: Joining with other counties, cities and water agencies to win some of the water bond money for the Temperance Flat reservoir above Lake Millerton. A joint powers authority has been formed, Perea said, and it is time Fresno joined it.
On public safety, Perea said he would be OK with police Chief Jerry Dyer staying on the job – as he has said he wants to do until late 2019 – especially as he works to implement changes that came out of a recent survey that showed low department morale, particularly among officers in the patrol division.
Dyer already has said the department will restructure to downsize its “special units” and use those officers to rebuild the patrol unit. The plan is to add enough officers to the patrol unit so its officers no longer will have to be called in to work on their days off. That plan is effective July 1, Dyer said.
But Perea said if Dyer hasn’t done that and he is elected, “within the first 100 days” in office Perea will instruct the chief to add 50 more officers to the patrol division through a reallocation of officers.
“If the chief doesn’t do it before the end of the year, I guarantee you that department will be reorganized,” Perea said.
Perea also said it appeared fire Chief Kerri Donis has done a good job.
Other department heads, however, would have to re-interview for their jobs, and if they don’t buy in to Perea’s vision, they will be replaced, he said.
Brand, Spees react to Perea
In separate interviews, both Brand and Spees welcomed Perea to the race. But at this stage, it is already clear that Brand and Perea are eyeing each other as the biggest competition.
Brand said he is looking forward to “a vigorous campaign where we talk about our records, qualifications and our vision for the future of the city of Fresno. I expect him to be a strong opponent, but I believe with my heart that I will ultimately prevail. I think voters want someone who has been successful in both business and government, and that person is me.”
Already, Perea and Brand are staking out political positions that offer a glimpse at the coming campaign.
Perea said there is a vast difference in how the county, while he was chairman, handled the early years of the Great Recession, in comparison to the city with Brand on the council. The county, Perea said, was much better prepared for the downturn.
Brand, on the other hand, points to a 37-year business career, and says his and Perea’s votes while in office are public record.
“I think voters will prefer that over a record of a career politician who has been in elected office for more than 22 years and doesn’t have the business experience necessary for this important position,” Brand said.
Spees, who officially kicked off his campaign this week after telling The Bee in November that he would run, congratulated Perea on his decision and said it did not matter to him who is in the race. He is, Spees said, running for the office and not against anyone.
“Fresno needs a fresh start,” Spees said. “There are many things that are different now than they were in 2008 when we had a mayor that was fighting our way through the recession.”
But it is clear that Spees will try to differentiate himself from Perea and Brand by running “not as an insider, not as a politician,” but as a community leader whose career has been spent coming up with community-based solutions and by bringing together people from different realms such as education, law enforcement and business to move the city forward.