By Kevin Hall
(Editor’s note: “Climate Politics” is a new monthly opinion column covering the need to change our political climate in order to address our changing climate.)
The Fresno mayor’s race suddenly got very personal—and expensive. While the top two candidates agreed to a campaign truce of sorts months ago, a third force with no such restrictions emerged in November: Juan and Amy Armbula, parents of State Assembly Member Joaquin Arambula.
If reported statutory rapist (Fresno Bee, Dec. 5, 2019) and former Fresno police chief Jerry Dyer thought he would get a free pass on his sordid past in his bid for mayor, no such luck. Only his base has forgiven him, the same base that regards Donald Trump as a greater president than Lincoln.
The Arambulas, for their part, saw three generations of their family dragged through a nine-day trial and onto the witness stand in May by Dyer and District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp on a child abuse allegation. The jury took less than a day to find Joaquin Arambula not guilty, but in the process the family’s parenting and punishment practices were exposed to critical public review.
Dyer and Smittcamp also lost in the court of public opinion for having highly politicized the investigation and prosecution. The extended Smittcamp family are now Dyer’s biggest campaign contributors.
Meanwhile, Joaquin’s parents are backing “Fresno Rising Together, No Dyer 2020,” an independent expenditure committee. Rather than supporting a candidate for mayor, Fresno Rising is simply focused on seeing Dyer not become mayor. That means a lot of negative advertising. To that end, they have contributed $97,500 (City of Fresno-Netfile). Unlike candidate campaigns, there are no limits placed on individual contributions to independent committees.
Fresno Rising was founded in October by Dee Barnes, a Fresno Police Department employee and former head of the Fresno City Employees Association. Another $17,500 in early support has come from the Carpenters, Operating Engineers and Sheet Metal Workers unions.
Fresno Rising’s first move has been to produce an online video emphasizing Dyer’s close ties to the impeached president and their shared political philosophy that favors intimidation, violence and cages.
Dyer, thanks to his years of high visibility as police chief, is a virtual incumbent. Never subtle, local leaders in recent years have allocated city dollars to feature him on billboards throughout south Fresno; he was the main spokesperson for the Assemi-funded No on Parks campaign in 2018, and the fair board recently allowed Dyer to be honored with a giant toy-like statue of him as a cross-wielding, metal-armored, weaponized robocop, conveniently placed inside the fairgrounds where tens of thousands passed by it in October.
Every voter knows his name; every voter has an opinion of him. For many voters, probably more than the 50% needed to win, it’s a positive association. But a basic rule of politics is that in order to defeat an incumbent, one must go negative; a corollary is that his opponents should not do it if they can avoid it. Enter the Arambulas. Of course, there would be no need for Fresno Rising if Dyer and the police department he led for 18 years weren’t an endless source of high crimes and misdemeanors.
Bars and Bagel Shops
Dyer has been raising money at a steady clip with more than $300,000 banked as of mid-December. The usual cast of local developers and related construction and property management businesses are his biggest backers with $107,000 in contributions. A collection of Assemi family members and business interests have given $10,400 so far, and nearly every other major developer has joined in, with more than a dozen giving the maximum of $4,700.
That maximum amount applies to candidates and is routinely exceeded by people giving from multiple business entities or individuals. In the last mayor’s race, the Caglia family and businesses contributed more than $60,000 to Lee Brand. Fresno Rising has no contribution limits because it does not back a candidate.
Three local labor unions—cops, firefighters and bus drivers—with support from their state councils have contributed another $30,000. From agriculture comes Dyer’s biggest group of backers thus far, the Smittcamp clan. They’re at $13,245 from five different sources. Trucking interests are also heavily backing Dyer with more than $21,000 coming from six companies.
The rest of the business sector accounts for $53,400. Candidates must always reach out to their personal and professional contacts, and Dyer is no different. His mix is an unusual if not surprising one: a bail bondsman, bars and bagel shops, and a complete array of medical professionals and auto body shops for every kind of repair—physical, mental and vehicle. No doubt as chief he had cause to make many referrals.
Working with Community
The Fresno mayor’s race is a microcosm of our national election. Whether it’s Dyer or Trump or their backers, the agenda is the same. They are the people who treat the least among us the worst. And profit greatly from it. The recent impeachment hearings showed our region’s sorry contribution to the national debate amounts to the likes of Rep. Devin Nunes (R–Tulare), Kevin McCarthy (R–Bakersfield) and Tom McClintock (R–Elk Grove). They’re even worse when it comes to climate change.
We must do better. As 350.org founder and fossil fuel divestment campaign leader Bill McKibben pointed out recently, we simply don’t have another four-year election cycle to waste. And that applies to every politician. Given our dire circumstances, it matters a great deal that we have a mayor with the ability to work with the community in ways Jerry Dyer can’t even imagine.
The candidates competing to beat him have their work cut out for them, but Fresno Rising and the Arambulas have given Fresnans reason to hope—and act.
*****Kevin Hall hosts Climate Politics on KFCF 88.1 FM every second and fourth Friday, 5 p.m.–6 p.m. He tweets as @airfrezno and @sjvalleyclimate, coordinates an informal network of climate activists at www.valleyclimate.org and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for presentations and information.