I spoke at the Unitarian Universalist Church Town Hall the other day. I was asked to talk about “How Progressives Can Bring Social Justice to Fresno.” Without trying to be too flippant, I said that progressives need to be more “effective” at what we are doing if we are going to succeed in achieving social, economic and environmental justice in this community. We also need to think more strategically about what we are doing.
I have lived in Fresno all of my life. My family goes back generations in this area and, having been politically active my entire adult life, I feel that I have some insights into the political landscape in Fresno. One of the things I always hear people say is how conservative Fresno and the Central Valley are; they talk about how this is the Bible Belt of California, that Republicans are always winning elections here and what a harsh political environment it is for liberals/progressives.
While I agree that conservative politicians have power and pass laws that serve their interests and hurt poor and working people, that does not mean that the majority of people in this area are conservative. At the UU Town Hall meeting, I displayed a map of the 2008 mayoral election (reproduced below). The race was between Ashley Swearengin and Henry T. Perea. Swearengin, who won the race, is a conservative Republican. Perea is a Democrat, a Latino and considerably more liberal than Swearengin.
The remarkable thing about the map is that it shows Perea actually won more precincts than Swearengin. As you can see, the precincts he won are primarily in the southern half of the city. The reason Perea did not win the election was because of low voter turnout in southwest and southeast Fresno. He won 80% or more of the vote in many of those precincts, but the voter turnout was low—only 25%–45%. The problem for us is that voting turnout in north Fresno was in the 80% range, and they voted for Swearengin in large numbers. If we had a level playing field, Perea would have won and things would be a lot different in this community.
Why do so many people south of Shaw Avenue not vote? There are a lot of reasons.
- Poor people move more often than wealthy people. If you move, you have to re-register.
- Poor and working people have transportation issues and sometimes can’t get time off from work to get to the polls.
- In the last election, polling places in southwest Fresno were closed to save the county money. Some residents had to walk for miles to get to their new polling place.
- There are thousands of people in the Fresno County Jail (68% of them awaiting trial and convicted of no crime), who literally can’t get out to vote. Most of them are poor and working people from south of Shaw Avenue.
I could go on, but the point is that the entire voting system is flawed in favor of the wealthy who live in north Fresno and who vote for conservative politicians. If we had a level playing field, the majority of voters in this city would elect more liberal/progressive candidates into office.
The other thing that keeps conservative politicians in power is the lack of campaign finance reform and publicly financed elections. As long as Republicans can get bucket loads of money from builders, developers and other business owners, they will be able to dominate the local political scene.
I told those in attendance at the UU Town Hall that progressives need to develop an electoral strategy that can counter the juggernaut the right-wing Republicans have built. There are more than a hundred progressive groups working in Fresno on a wide range of issues—peace, police accountability, immigrant rights, supporting the homeless, marriage equality and many more. There are thousands of progressive activists. If we can build unity and support an electoral political strategy, we can win power in this town. The Central Valley Progressive PAC, started in 2004, was established with that goal in mind.
The leadership of the CVPPAC believes that if enough money can be raised for progressives to run viable election campaigns, we will win local races. If the thousands of progressive political activists in Fresno all joined the CVPPAC and good candidates were recruited to run, we could run this town. Of course, winning elections takes more than raising money, so CVPPAC members also work on door-to-door campaigns to register new voters and to help get out the vote.
Winning political power at the Fresno City Council and Board of Supervisors would affect all of our work. We could stop the cruel and heartless treatment of the homeless, stop the privatization of essential public services, implement effective and real police accountability, and so much more. We would no longer be fighting these single issues one at a time but would be able to affect public policy by actually having political power.
If you agree, join the CVPPAC today. Go to www.cvppac.org for details.
I also encouraged those attending the UU Town Hall to participate in a new group called the Progressive Umbrella that is an outgrowth of the talk Jim Hightower gave in Fresno last October. Hightower encouraged us to amplify the voice of the progressive movement, and that is exactly what this group is doing. In addition to electoral politics, the Progressive Umbrella group is working to build unity among the many single issue groups in this area.
An example is how the Progressive Umbrella group put out a call to oppose the destruction of Jesse Morrow Mountain by a multinational corporation that wanted to turn this mountain, considered sacred by the Native American community, into a pile of gravel. More than 100 people turned out to oppose this important environmental justice issue at the county Planning Commission, forcing that body to hold off approval of the project—at least for now. But that is an example of how groups can come together to support each other at critical times.
The Progressive Umbrella is also talking about forming a think tank. If progressives had a think tank in Fresno, we might be able to propose a “People’s Budget” to counter the proposed budget proposed by Mayor Swearengin.
When Hightower was in Fresno, he acknowledged how difficult it is to get progressives to build the unity needed to achieve political power. He said it is sometimes compared to herding cats. Hightower said that all we need to herd cats is a can opener. I mentioned this in my talk at the Town Hall, and someone afterward asked me what kind of a can opener we could use to herd those cats. Without hesitating, I said that one of the things we should do is more events like the Saint Patrick’s Day event we had at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium the night before.
At that event, which was a fund-raiser for the Community Alliance and DREAM Act Scholarships, we had a cross-cultural group of Irish and Latinos, young and old, and a distinctly progressive message. The music and dance were absolutely magnificent; I want to thank Kevin Hall, Pam Whalen and Oday Guerrero for their hard work to make this event such a big success.
Perhaps I’m pathologically optimistic, but I believe we can dispel the myth that Fresno is a conservative stronghold. With your help and support, we can build a movement for social and economic justice that will empower the poor and working class that are the majority in this community.
Anyone have a can opener? Those cats are getting mighty hungry!