2014 Primary Elections: Yes, It Matters (a lot)

By Michael D. Evans

Off-year elections historically have poor voter turnout. The electorate gets excited during presidential election years but typically fails to grasp the importance of the non-presidential elections in between. Yet, these interim local elections probably have a more direct effect on voters than national elections.

The common wisdom is that low voter turnout favors Republican/Tea Party and conservative candidates. That is certainly the case in the Central Valley and especially in Fresno County. Although Democrats have a wide (and growing) registration advantage county-wide, and a 10-percentage-point advantage in the city of Fresno, voter turnout, and our elected leadership, does not yet reflect that.

A number of races that could have a significant impact on our local power structure could well be decided in the June 3 Primary Election. First among these are the elections for the Fresno County Board of Supervisors and the Fresno City Council. There is a real opportunity for a change in the balance of power on these bodies for the first time in at least a generation.

Muddying our elections, though, is the open primary, which was approved by voters in a statewide referendum in 2010. The gist of the open primary is that, in partisan races, the top two vote-getters move on to the November election regardless of party. So rather than a choice in November between the Republican nominee, the Democratic nominee and the nominees of other parties, you could have only two Republicans, for example, from which to choose; of course, in that situation there is no choice. Still, that’s better than the open primary for “nonpartisan” elections, in which one candidate wins outright in June if he/she gets more than 50% of the vote.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the races on the June 3 ballot.

Statewide Races

We will not address the statewide races, which are well covered elsewhere, except for the one with a Fresno connection. Mayor Ashley Swearengin is hoping to exit the mayor’s office by winning a seat in Sacramento as the state controller. She is the leading Republican candidate for the position and is opposed by two well-known Democrats, Betty Yee, who is currently on the Board of Equalization, and John Perez, former speaker of the Assembly. Yee has solid progressive credentials and has made many appearances in the Central Valley over a number of years. One wonders how well Swearengin’s moderate positions (i.e., support of high-speed rail, infill development) will fare with the Republican base throughout the state.

U.S. Congress

Four Congressional districts cross into Fresno County. Although covering a lot of real estate in the county, there are relatively few Fresno County voters in Congressional District 4, for which the incumbent is Tom McClintock (R–Elk Grove). He is opposed by fellow Republican Art Moore and a No Party Preference, Jeffrey Gerlach. Moore is alleged to be the rare Republican primary opponent who is actually more moderate than the incumbent.

In Congressional District 16, Jim Costa (D–Fresno) is the longtime incumbent. Costa has a handful of challengers, all of whom are Republicans although one changed his registration just before filing to run as a Democrat. For the record, Costa has now voted against Speaker John Boehner’s effort to repeal Obamacare more than 50 times.

Amanda Renteria
Amanda Renteria

The priority Congressional race in the Central Valley, indeed one of the key races in the nation, is Congressional District 21. The district runs from Fresno County to Kern County and has a sizable Democratic registration advantage but a Republican incumbent, David Valadao (Hanford). Amanda Renteria, who left her position as the first Latina chief of staff in the U.S. Senate to return home to the Central Valley to seek this seat, is the challenger endorsed by the Democratic Party. One local progressive leader looked at Renteria’s credentials and called her a “rock star.” John Hernandez, a Democrat who experienced an embarrassing loss in the district two years ago, is also on the ballot.

In Congressional District 22, Devin Nunes (R–Tulare) is right at home in the new Tea Party–controlled House of Representatives. Surprisingly, however, he still has a challenger from his party’s far right, John Catalano. Nunes also faces a viable Democratic challenge from Suzanna “SAM” Aguilera-Marrero, who recently retired from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

State Senate

Of the three State Senate districts that come into Fresno County, all have contested races but none of the drama will be in June. Each of the 2014 races has one Republican incumbent and one Democratic challenger, so all will advance to the November election.

The most high profile of these races will be Senate District 14, in which Andy Vidak (R–Hanford) is the incumbent. This is the seat for which a special election was held last year after the resignation of Michael Rubio, and Vidak defeated Democrat Leticia Perez for the seat. This year’s Democratic challenger is Luis Chavez, who is currently a trustee on the Fresno Unified School District Board.

Shawn Bagley, an aggressive fund-raiser and a member of the Democratic National Committee (a cherished position that is difficult to obtain), is challenging incumbent Anthony Cannella (R–Ceres) in Senate District 12.

Tom Berryhill (R–Twain Harte) in Senate District 8 is opposed by Democrat Paulina Miranda.

The Boring Stuff

Neither Jim Patterson (R–Fresno) in Assembly District 23 nor Henry T. Perea (D–Fresno) in Assembly District 31 has a primary challenge.

Countywide, the incumbents for auditor/controller (Vicki Crow), county clerk/registrar of voters (Brandi Orth) and sheriff (Margaret Mims) are running unopposed. Moreover, almost all of the races for Superior Court Judge lack a challenger to the incumbent.

On the Fresno City Council, District 5 Council Member Sal Quintero has no opposition.

Fresno County

Election - Smittcamp
Lisa Sondergaard-Smittcamp

Probably the most visible local race is that for the Fresno County District Attorney. In a rare serious challenge to an incumbent in a countywide office, Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp is working aggressively to defeat incumbent Elizabeth Egan. The Central Valley Progressive PAC “urges a vote for Smittcamp.” Although expressing disappointment with some of her viewpoints (i.e., support of the death penalty and gang injunctions), the CVPPAC feels Smittcamp would be the better option given her “support for restorative justice, drug treatment options for drug offenders and mental health treatment for the mentally ill.”

There are two contested judicial races but only one of which is for an open seat. Of the five candidates vying for the Superior Court judge opening, the most progressive appear to be Rachel Hill and Charles Magill. Hill has a diverse judicial resume. Magill believes that a trial attorney can bring a new sensibility to the bench.

Paul Dictos, a No Party Preference, is seeking reelection as assessor. He has built a broad coalition of support across party lines, and he has not been afraid to take on powerful farming interests who are not paying their fair share in property taxes.

Board of Supervisors

Board of Supervisors District 1 is the seat being vacated by Phil Larson. Larson, along with the exiting Judy Case McNairy in District 4, forms part of a right-wing bloc on the Board that has greatly hampered rational policy making at the county level.

The leading candidates to replace Larson are Blong Xiong, a Democrat who is being termed out from his seat on the Fresno City Council; Brian Pacheco, who has widespread Republican, farmer and developer support; and Gary Yep, the Republican mayor of Kerman. Xiong has been endorsed by labor, Democratic and other progressive groups.

In District 4, the candidates seeking to replace Case are Democrats Magdalena Gomez, Daniel Parra and Steven Rapada; Republican Buddy Mendes; and Amandip Singh Gill (No Party Preference). Democratic organizations have rallied to support Gomez, whereas labor groups have dual endorsed or been split between Gomez and Parra. Mendes has a huge campaign war chest, with which he will try to offset his absence of community support.

Fresno City Council

City Council District 1 seems to be the most heated local election. There are many candidates, and most appear to be running aggressive field campaigns. Labor groups and the Democratic Party are backing Esmeralda Soria, whereas other progressive groups are split between Soria and Rebeca Rangel. The choice of the mayor and developers, always a significant factor in City Council races, is Cary Catalano.

In City Council District 3, incumbent Democrat Oliver Baines has two challengers, perennial candidate Barbara Ann Hunt and Eddie Rashad, a community organizer. Baines seems likely to ward off the competition for a June victory.

Election - Wells
Mike Wells

In City Council District 7, incumbent Republican Clint Olivier is being challenged by three Democrats: Mike Wells, Art Gonzales and Mauro Saldate. Wells has been endorsed by almost all labor groups, Democratic entities and progressive organizations. Olivier has provided no leadership for the district and has publicly waffled in his positions on high-profile issues. Originally declaring himself a libertarian, Olivier abruptly became a reliable Republican vote after flirting with a run for Congress in 2012. Wells, on the other hand, has a long history of working to address the concerns of Fresno’s neighborhoods.

Kings County

In a nearby race of interest, Holly Andrade Blair is challenging a longtime incumbent for a seat on the Kings County Board of Supervisors. Blair would be the first Latina on the Kings County board, if elected. She is a promising candidate who came to the public’s attention when she led the effort against the Kings County board’s efforts to close the county’s last women’s reproductive health clinic. That effort failed, and instead the county leased a plane with the money saved.

Conclusion

All elections come down to turnout and that is especially true in off-year elections. The bottom line for progressives is that “if we vote, we win.” And our community is progressive. Fresno County voted for Barack Obama for president—twice. Two-thirds of the city of Fresno (five of the seven City Council districts) voted to defeat Measure G, the mayor’s overreaching effort to privatize residential waste service. However, those two districts that voted for Measure G turn out as many voters as the other five districts combined. By changing that dynamic for both the city and the county, citizen control of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors and the Fresno County City Council will become a reality.

*****

Michael D. Evans is a political activist, editor and writer. Contact him at evansm@usa.net.

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  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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