Bill McEwen

Brand’s roots are real, and so is his word

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand presents his Rental Housing Improvement Act to the city council Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017.
Fresno Mayor Lee Brand presents his Rental Housing Improvement Act to the city council Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017.

In one of his television commercials during the mayoral campaign, Lee Brand told of humble beginnings in a small house on McKenzie Avenue in southeast Fresno.

The story came as a surprise to many who knew him only as a highly successful businessman and the wonkish city councilman who represented northeast Fresno, where the yards are manicured, families are upwardly mobile and poverty is rare.

Some people snickered. It’s hard not to be cynical about politics. They wondered aloud if Brand’s motivation was to open up and share a bit about himself, or a slick attempt to attract enough south-side votes to beat Henry R. Perea.

If questions remained after Brand’s narrow victory in November, they have been answered. Completely and unequivocally. Lee Brand remembers his roots. He is a mayor for all of Fresno.

You might recall that in December the City Council unanimously voted to delay consideration of outgoing Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s rental housing inspection ordinance. Brand said then that he was not sure the proposal would receive enough votes for passage and he would bring back something better. He even guaranteed the date: Feb. 2.

He kept his word. More than that, he won the support of enough people and groups on both sides of the issue – camps that at one time had been miles apart – to persuade the council by the narrowest of margins to finally tackle slumlord housing head-on.

After the 4-3 vote Thursday night, Brand appeared equal parts elated and relieved as he met with reporters, shook the hands of community activists and talked with citizens who had opposed the ordinance.

Reporters, of course, are looking for that knockout quote and emotion from the people they cover. We’re rarely, if ever, going to get that from Brand, who is to local politics what Spock is to “Star Trek.”

We’re not the only ones who will have to adjust. It doesn’t matter what your political leanings or causes are, don’t bring the mayor stories or anecdotal evidence.

Brand is going to study the numbers. He is going to check out what other cities similar to Fresno are doing. He is going to consult staff and stakeholders. He is going to run everything by the city attorney. If a plan or policy is adopted, Brand will determine if it’s working and adjust accordingly. Rinse and repeat until it is the best it can be.

“I fulfilled my promise,” he said after the vote. “Now we have a lot of work to do.”

This is what Brand did during his two terms on the council, so we should not be surprised. He takes things in stride. He treats people with respect. When he is pleased, he cracks a small smile and his eyes twinkle a bit behind his glasses. On occasion, he expresses frustration: This is what the numbers say, this is what the law is, this is the right thing to do, why aren’t you joining with me?

Crossing the aisle

We kid ourselves that the mayor’s chair and those of the seven City Council members are nonpartisan. There are no party affiliations on the ballot for those positions, right?

Let the record show that Brand, a Republican, earned passage of the first major act of his mayoral tenure with support from four Democrats: Oliver Baines, Paul Caprioglio, Luis Chavez and Esmeralda Soria.

Caprioglio, in fact, was as sick as a dog, but he knew the importance of his vote to residents who are forced to live in unhealthy conditions. Good for him for soldiering on and standing up for people who have been victims of slumlords and City Hall’s past life-goes-on attitude.

Let the record show that three Republicans opposed the ordinance: Steve Brandau, Garry Bredefeld and Clint Olivier. All condemned slumlords and acknowledged there was a serious problem. All expressed support for the residents who spoke to the council about grim conditions.

By voting no, each was communicating – with unspoken words – that they know more about the rental business and the best ways to make slumlords shape up or ship out than Brand, who has 38 years in property management.

More about the subject than the California Apartment Association of Greater Fresno, which represents rental owners and managers. More about the subject than the Fresno Chamber of Commerce and Granville Realty. And more about the subject than Bishop Armando Ochoa of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno and 28 other clergy, who work with impoverished families every day. More about it than community organizers who have been in thousands of crappy apartments and rental homes in Fresno.

All of these groups – the broadest coalition I’ve seen at City Hall – stood with Brand. The three Republicans on the council did not. Two of them, Brandau and Olivier, endorsed Brand for mayor yet were willing to oppose him on the initiative he promised to deliver. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

Indefensible position

I won’t assign ulterior motives to their opposition. All of them voted what they thought best for the city. But their statements and objections were poorly researched and presented. And they ended up getting schooled by City Attorney Doug Sloan on the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures.

As for the many property owners and managers who offer safe and healthy housing for rent but are worried that the ordinance will significantly raise their costs, consider this: When I asked the mayor about the costs, he whipped out a calculator from a suit pocket.

“For a property with 100 units that passes inspection, which we call Tier One, and moves into self-inspection, the cost will be about $1 a unit per month over 10 years.”

Calculator? Tier One?

Vintage Lee Brand.

Just know that along with that calculator he has a big heart.

Bill McEwen: 559-441-6632,, @Fresnomac