Fresno city council representatives hold opposing press conferences over gas tax
The next mayor of Fresno will be a Democrat.
Of that, I’m fairly certain. The unknown is whether that Democratic mayor will win election in 2020 or 2024.
Either way, the 20-year-plus run of Fresno mayors that belong to the Republican Party ends with Lee Brand.
What makes me so sure? The two-word explanation is “changing demographics.”
Quite simply, Fresno is no longer the red dot in California’s deep blue sea that it used to be – or that Republicans, most of whom identify as conservative, wish it to remain.
As an emailer angrily wrote me last fall, “Fresno and the Valley are red and will never be blue.”
Never? Think again. The tides are already shifting. Choose to ignore them all you want, but denial will pack a wallop.
Take a look at Fresno’s voter registration for 2019. Democrats outnumber Republicans in five of the seven City Council districts, and nowhere in those five is it particularly close.
In District 1, registered Democrats outpace Republicans 15,768 to 7,710. In District 3, 14,534 to 4,745. In District 4, 13,487 to 8,993. In District 5, 14,917 to 6,101. In District 7, 12,966 to 5,103.
Republicans still hold the upper hand in District 2 and District 6, but only District 6 (19,181 to 13,174) is squarely red. In District 2, Republicans have a slim lead (16,068 to 15,708).
Add it all up and you get 85,637 Democrats registered in Fresno compared to 67,901 Republicans.
Rise of ‘No Party Preference’ voters
There’s a third voter block that also must be taken into account. Last June, California voters registered “No Party Preference” outnumbered Republicans for the first time.
This same trend is taking place in Fresno, where registered NPPs (64,692) will soon pass registered Republicans. In fact, NPPs already outnumber Republicans in the five council districts where Democrats hold the upper hand.
While impossible to predict how NPPs will vote, a recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found independents are more likely to lean Democrat than Republican (43 percent to 29 percent) while 28 percent lean toward neither.
For perspective, compare 2019’s voter registration numbers to those from 2009. (I chose 2009 for symmetry and because it was a non-election year.) Believe it or not, Democrats (87,198) outnumbered Republicans (78,199) back then, too.
Besides the rise of independents, the biggest trend over the last 10 years has been the dwindling of Republican support. Only in District 6 did their numbers grow. By contrast, there are more registered Democrats today in all seven council districts than in 2009.
Republicans have long countered the registered-voter deficit by getting more of their side to the polls. But in the days of vote-by-mail will it still be that way in 2020, when President Trump runs for reelection, or 2024?
I wouldn’t count on that. Which is why in future Fresno mayoral races, Democrats have the inside lane.
All strong mayors have been Republicans
It’s not like Fresno has never had a Democratic mayor. The list includes Dan Whitehurst (1977-85), Dale Doig (1985-89) and Karen Humphrey (1989-93), the city’s first female chief.
Except in those days Fresno’s mayor was basically a glorified City Council member, elected in his or her district and bearing only one vote on the seven-member council. In 1993, voters approved a strong-mayor form of government that took effect in 1997.
Fresno mayors under the current system are elected citywide and have authority over the city manager as well as veto power over council decisions.
Since 1997, all Fresno mayors have been Republicans: Jim Patterson, Alan Autry, Ashley Swearengin and Brand.
What else does this quartet have in common? All are white, and all are associated with the affluent northern half of Fresno.
The next mayor of Fresno won’t fit into that demographic. He or she will likely have a browner skin tone and represent the poorer half south of Shaw Avenue.
Andrew Janz doesn’t exactly fit that description. Still, the Fresno County prosecutor would be a strong candidate unless Fresno County Supervisor Buddy Mendes (a Republican) cuts him off at the knees. So would Esmeralda Soria, currently serving her second council term, or Henry R. Perea, the former city councilmember and county supervisor who lost to Brand in 2016 by a couple thousand votes. (Note: The original column incorrectly named Henry T. Perea, who is the son of Henry R. Perea.)
Janz has all but officially declared. Soria is holding her cards close to the vest. Perea told me he would consider another run if he thinks he can raise the money needed to fund a campaign. The only Republican wild card could be Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, who may be tempted to get into politics after he retires in October.
New council majority flexes its muscle
When Fresno voters elected a City Council with a majority of Democratic Latinos last November, it was only a matter of time until the new majority flexed its muscle.
That time arrived last week when Councilmembers Luis Chaves, Miguel Arias, Nelson Esparza and Soria spoke out against Brand’s gas tax plan and called for more money on road repairs to be spent in older parts of the city.
That prompted a predictable reaction from Republican Councilmembers Steve Brandau and Garry Bredefeld, who accused his fellow councilmembers of “class warfare.”
(Funny how it’s only class warfare when the rich don’t get over, and never when Fresno’s poorer neighborhoods get neglected for decades.)
“I don’t think it’s the end of it,” Bredefeld said. “I think it’s, frankly, the beginning.”
Bredefeld is right, in ways he probably didn’t intend to be. The days of Republican conservatives from north Fresno wielding the most power at City Hall are numbered.