He came here twice, the first time to show his face in the heart of California and win the support of local farmers and the second time to pick up a Valley record $1.25 million in campaign contributions.
I am talking about Donald Trump, the businessman-turned-politician who owned 2016. It was as if someone handed him the pink slip to the world and told him to take it for a spin like it was a Ferrari with a full tank of gas.
Donald J. Trump – hotel and golf course magnate, “Celebrity Apprentice” host and reliable New York tabloid fodder – dominated the news, social media and people’s thoughts and emotions from start to finish.
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He and his hostile takeover of the Republican Party and dispatch of the presumed Clinton Dynasty en route to the presidency wrote the No. 1 story of 2016 – from Fresno to the top and bottom of the globe and all points between.
Regardless of whether you cheer or fear the Trump presidency, you should know his influence will reach deep and wide in the central San Joaquin Valley.
That’s because of the political alliances he has here. Think House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield. Think Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare, the chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
McCarthy’s position and influence are obvious. But Nunes will have Trump’s ear, too. On intelligence, trade, agriculture, water, immigration and even health care.
Moreover, the Trump agenda of privatizing as many traditionally government functions as his executive powers and Congress allow, and of handing now federal programs to state control, will affect many of the issues challenging the Valley. Among them: poverty, educational attainment, immigration, air and water pollution, infrastructure, transportation, homelessness and affordable housing.
Here is how Powertalk FM 96.7/AM 1400 talk-show host Trevor Carey assesses the Trump phenomenon:
“The magic of Trump is, to me, something we strive to exemplify and teach our kids: honesty. Trump’s honesty caught hold. Every last person on this planet – regardless of race, religion or political views – respects the truth. Both political parties have been hiding behind it for too long; the mask was removed.
“Working-class callers of all colors called my show over the campaign stressing a ‘moaning ache’ to be heard and noticed. Believe you me, I thought many times over the campaign that Trump stuck his magical foot in his Twitter for the last time, but he survived and thrived.
“America obviously craved the magic, which is truth. Any politician can obtain the magic; it’s no longer a secret.”
Yes, @realDonaldTrump was the Valley’s biggest story of 2016. He could be our biggest story of 2017, too.
Now a look at some of the other big local stories from the past year:
2. After years of negotiations, Congress passes a water bill with Valley implications
Farmers, rural communities and endangered native fish species continued to be plagued by a lack of water. Residents and businesses continued to conserve water in the hope that there would be enough to go around for everyone. And in northeast Fresno, discolored tap water become an issue in the mayoral race.
But finally, the Valley – along with the rest of California – saw traction on water, which year in and year out pits farmers vs. environmentalists, no-growth advocates vs. developers, and people with dying lawns vs. their local water police.
Perhaps it was the specter of what Trump might do on federal water policy or the dogged determination of Sen. Dianne Feinstein – or both – that produced President Barack Obama’s signature on a controversial $12 billion federal water bill that included clean-water aid for Flint, Mich.
The legislation offers $335 million for proposed dams at Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin River and Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley. The bill’s provisions also opened the door to greater flexibility in managing water flows and the possibility that Valley farms could gain between 250,000 and 400,000 acre-feet in irrigation deliveries.
Mark Grossi covered water and the environment for The Bee before retiring in 2015. Now he is an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow reporting and writing about California’s environmental challenges. This is how he sees 2017 shaping up for water in the Valley:
“Next year may be like 1993, but with a twist. Remember that year? An environmentally friendly Bill Clinton entered the White House and long-dreaded irrigation reform took shape for disappointed San Joaquin Valley farmers. True, a six-year drought ended in 1993, but farm water cutbacks would follow in years to come as important environmental protections took hold.
“Twenty-four years later, a business-friendly Donald Trump will be president, and a federal law passed by Congress would appear to help Valley farmers get more water. But 2017 won’t really be like 1993 unless California gets relief from the most intense drought on record. That’s the most pressing water issue facing the state now.”
3. Dylan Noble shooting ignites protests and likelihood of changes to Fresno Police Department
Amid national outrage over police shootings, Fresno appeared to be an exception. Protests here of officer-involved shootings rarely involved more than family members of the victims and a handful of social-justice activists.
That changed after an unarmed 19-year-old, Dylan Noble of Clovis, was fatally shot by officers during a June 25 traffic stop at a gas station. Hundreds of mourners gathered the next day at the shooting scene. Bystander video of the shooting went viral.
On July 9, hundreds of protesters assembled on Blackstone Avenue while shouting “black lives matter” and “hands up, don’t shoot.” They blocked the intersection at Shaw Avenue and continued north. While the march, for the most part, was peaceful, protesters met face-to-face with officers clad in riot gear at a Highway 41 onramp.
The organizer was Justice Medina, 19, of Fresno. He said he was upset by police shootings of two black men in Minnesota and Louisiana, and the shooting of Noble, who was white. The tools he used to put the protest together were Twitter and Facebook.
Nine days later, in what police Chief Jerry Dyer said was the “most important” news conference of his long tenure, he released police body-camera video of the shooting. The video showed Noble repeatedly ignored officers’ commands. Still, the video raised questions about the final shot – one fired from a shotgun 14 seconds after a third shot.
On Dec. 9, Dyer held another news conference. He said the shooting of Noble largely followed department policy but that proper tactics were not used before the final shot was fired.
Two of the top priorities for Lee Brand, who will succeed termed-out Mayor Ashley Swearengin on Tuesday, is creating a citizens policy advisory panel and making the independent police auditor a full-time position with the requirement that he or she live in Fresno.
Two lawsuits have been filed by Noble’s parents accusing the officers of a wrongful death of their son. This story is far from over.
4. Lee Brand edges Henry R. Perea in Fresno mayoral race
This didn’t fully capture the public’s attention. Voters were more concerned with the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton battle royale and a ballot with 17 state propositions. In addition, the two mayoral finalists and their support groups ran relatively clean campaigns that largely stuck to real issues.
That said, this was an important story. Brand has big shoes to fill in that Swearengin has been, far and away, Fresno’s best mayor since voters approved the chief executive format in the 1990s.
And because Swearengin led with a sharp focus on both the challenges of the moment and the city’s needs far into the future, her successor has the power to build on her big projects – rebuilding the urban core, leveraging high-speed rail investment by the state, revitalizing downtown – or veer off in new directions.
An irony of the race: Brand, a conservative Republican, offered voters a more liberal platform in many ways – especially on growth issues – than did Perea, a Democrat who positioned himself as a business-friendly conservative in his bid to become Fresno’s first Latino mayor.
5. Fresno makes progress on slum housing, but much work remains
Anyone who has read Matthew Desmond’s amazing and heartbreaking book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” knows Fresno is not alone in trying to break the cycle of poverty gripping generations of families.
If you have not read it, you should. Desmond’s reporting reveals the ugly truth about how the high cost of housing leaves minimum-wage workers, the disabled and those battling addictions or poor life choices with little money for anything else: food, clothing, utility bills.
The result is eviction. The family, often led by a working mother, must move. Children bounce from school to school, losing friends and falling behind in their studies. Transportation to work, or even holding down a job, often becomes more challenging. Meanwhile, slumlords and payday loan companies continue to rake in the cash from a business model that exploits the poor.
The Summerset Village Apartments crisis in late 2015 moved the situation front and center in Fresno and spurred The Bee’s “Living in Misery” investigation of substandard housing. Stories in the series documented numerous cases of rundown properties that have long histories of health and safety violations.
City Hall is trying to wrap its arms around solutions, but the sledding has been tough. Mayor Swearengin leaves office without passage of her proposal to register and inspect all rental properties. Now the responsibility for doing right for those who often are politically powerless rests with Brand.
The new mayor will face another aspect of the challenge that came to light earlier last month: rundown motels operating as apartment complexes. The Hotel California, where residents have been without heat this winter, is one of them. The problem for city officials is that if they close the hotel for being in violation of its zoning permit, it would leave the people there with no other place to go.
Andy Levine, executive director of Fresno Faith in Community, has been on the front lines of the effort to improve rental housing for the poor. Here is his take:
“Because of residents and the power of the community, and despite daunting pressure and money to preserve business as usual, there’s real reason to be hopeful that 2017 will be the year that Fresno finally follows the lead of dozens of other cities and stands up for our families ‘living in misery’ – as well as for property values across our entire city.
“At the state level, there’s momentum toward finally addressing our affordable housing shortage in 2017 – important in Fresno, because a primary reason slumlords thrive here is our lack of quality affordable housing (the city continues to remain out of compliance with state housing law). We’re way behind on housing and every Fresnan suffers the consequences each day.”
6. California voters approve legalization of recreational marijuana
Proposition 64 passed easily statewide, but approval of California’s next gold rush came over the objections of a majority of voters in Fresno, Madera, Kings and Tulare counties.
Here is what we know for sure:
▪ The proposition’s supporters coughed up (with or without taking a toke) $16 million for the ballot measure.
▪ California will become the biggest marijuana market in the United States, and the savviest sellers will become millionaires – even though under federal law the drug remains illegal.
▪ When state officials figure out how to implement the initiative, adults 21 and older will be allowed to buy and transport 28.5 grams of marijuana. Adults also can grow up to six plants for their personal use.
▪ The California Highway Patrol is getting $15 million to develop standards so law enforcement can figure out who is too stoned to legally drive.
▪ Marijuana taxes collected by the state are expected to generate as much as $1 billion a year to clean up the colossal damage caused by pot use.
▪ And Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who led the marijuana legalization effort, will be pleased as punch if 57 percent of voters – the percentage that supported Prop. 64 – vote for him for governor in 2018.
Here is what Rory Appleton, who reports on marijuana issues for The Bee, sees happening in 2017:
“California Proposition 64 may have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, but the state is a ways away from putting anything into practice. Complex issues like how an industry that is federally illegal will bank in California are still being hashed out.
“In the Valley, most cities and counties are taking an anti-pot approach, tiptoeing up to the lines drawn by state law. Because of this stance, an industry already well on its way in areas of Northern and Southern California will likely grow much slower in the state’s center.”
7. Voters step up to support schools
It’s clear to me that a majority of voters here and throughout California disagree with politicians and experts who say America’s schools are failing. Many voters like the schools in their neighborhoods and evidence of that is found in their willingness to tax themselves to support renovation and new construction.
Think about this: In Fresno County, voters in the Caruthers, Central, Coalinga-Huron, Firebaugh-Las Deltas, Fowler, Fresno, Kerman and Sanger school districts approved construction bond measures on the November ballot.
That came after many of these same voters (and many more in other counties) said “yes” to State Center Community College District’s $485 million bond request in June. And statewide voters gave a thumbs-up to Proposition 51, which authorized $9 billion in bonds to improve and build facilities for K-12 schools and community colleges.
Yes, lowering the approval threshold from two-thirds to 55 percent in California has made it easier for districts to pass school bond measures. But voters don’t tax themselves if they believe their schools aren’t worth supporting or if they believe the money will be wasted.
While the comings and goings of school superintendents and dust-ups about dress codes, bathrooms and charter schools might be huge stories for a week or a month, the confidence voters showed in public schools in 2016 will have a significant and positive impact on communities for decades.
Now, let’s hear what Mackenzie Mays, The Bee’s education reporter, has to say about what to look for at Fresno Unified in 2017:
“With a reconfigured school board and an outgoing superintendent, Fresno Unified will likely see a lot of change in 2017 – and be held more accountable. Teachers threatened to strike this year and seem to be holding officials’ feet to the fire.
“After a year full of calls for transparency, all eyes will be on the new superintendent search and pushing for a focus on student achievement over district politics. I think we’ll see new developments with student discipline policies, a bigger-than-ever push to get more students enrolled in college (despite calls for more Career Technical Education instead) and more help for minorities and English learners who keep falling behind.”
8. High-speed rail is battered, but lives on
Dan Walters, state Capitol columnist for The Sacramento Bee, rocked the Valley and all of the state in mid-November when he wrote, “All in all … it’s likely that the bullet train as envisioned, linking San Francisco and Sacramento in the north with Los Angeles and San Diego in the south, won’t materialize.”
Walters is right. Odds are that Californians won’t get the bullet-train system they voted for in 2008. But work continues on the first segment in the Valley – adding jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy annually – with the hope of completing a segment that links Kern County through Fresno to the Silicon Valley.
The Bee’s Tim Sheehan is an expert on high-speed rail. I asked him to opine on what is ahead:
“The coming year will likely bring more uncertainty for California’s high-speed rail project. Contractors will continue to plug away on three separate construction segments between Madera and Bakersfield.
“But eventual completion in the Valley will likely hinge on whether the California High-Speed Rail Authority can finally access about $2.6 billion in bond funds from Proposition 1A. That money is needed to match federal contributions toward work in the Valley – and like so much else with the ambitious rail project, it’s facing a legal challenge rooted in opposition in Kings County and the Bay Area.
“While the authority has identified funds for work in the Valley and on the San Francisco Peninsula, there is a substantial gap – both physical and financial – to fill between San Jose and the Chowchilla area before trains would start carrying passengers in 2025.”
9. Fresno County finally caves and releases its report on Seth Ireland’s death
It took seven years, but Fresno County officials finally fulfilled their promise to tell the public about how Child Protective Services responded to warning signs 10-year-old Seth Ireland’s life was in danger long before he was brutally beaten by his mother’s boyfriend and died eight days later in early 2009.
Not that the county released the report willingly. The Board of Supervisors had fought court rulings ordering the report be made public. But with its legal avenues virtually exhausted, the board complied on Feb. 3.
In it was a timeline of the dozens of interactions Seth and other family members had with social workers, law enforcement officers, mental health professionals and school officials during the last five months of his life.
Also documented were instances where CPS policies weren’t followed and social workers assigned to the case failed to obtain complete information, make proper evaluations and interview witnesses who could have shed light on what was going on in Seth’s home.
The year also brought resolution to a lawsuit filed by Seth’s father, Joe Hudson. The county agreed to pay Hudson and Seth’s stepbrother $1.35 million.
Transparency and trust are essential to democracy. Let’s hope the Board of Supervisors – the people’s representatives – remembers this going forward.
10. Fresno State football hits rock bottom, but university academics soar
For the Bulldogs football team, it was a year to forget. A 1-11 record, plunging attendance, head coach Tim DeRuyter fired during the season, and recognition as the worst major college team in the country.
The school hired former Bulldogs quarterback and University of California, Berkeley, coach Jeff Tedford to get the program headed in the right direction and restore the university’s reputation for football excellence.
A far different story was being written in classrooms. U.S. News & World Report rated Fresno State No. 1 in the nation for “graduation rate performance” in September.
The university was lauded for graduating nearly 60 percent of students – well above its expected graduation rate, which is based on factors such as the number of students receiving federal aid and spending per student.
I expect that graduation rate to climb, as more of the Valley’s immigrant families embrace the importance of a college education – especially a first-rate education at a fraction of the cost of many universities.