By Howard K. Watkins
Many might not know, but there is yet another special election in Fresno this year set for Aug. 13. Northwest Fresno’s City Council District 2 seat became open when Republican Steve Brandau won a Fresno County supervisorial seat in a special election to fill the position that became vacant following Republican Andreas Borgeas’s election to the State Senate in 2018.
Six candidates will appear on the ballot for the District 2 special election: Lawrence Garcia and Jared Gordon (Republicans), George Herman (No Party Preference) and Mike Karbassi, Oscar Sandoval and Phil Arballo (Democrats).
Garcia is a conservative businessperson who serves on the Fresno City Planning Commission. He has strong ties to incumbent Republican Mayor Lee Brand. Garcia is a veteran and owns a security company, AmeriGuard Security Services.
Gordon is a business/corporate law attorney in Fresno. He is a founding leader of the Central Valley Tea Party and has been its media coordinator. Gordon appears to be running a more moderate campaign for City Council, though he recently opined that climate change is not an environmental crisis.
Herman is running a low-profile campaign and has minimal name recognition in the district.
Although Arballo’s name will appear on the ballot, he already has dropped out of the race deciding instead to challenge Rep. Devin Nunes (R–Tulare) in Congressional District 22.
Sandoval is a special needs therapist and a member of the Fresno County Young Democrats. He is relatively new to politics and has yet to receive any serious traction, even failing to receive the endorsement of the Central Valley Progressive PAC, which recently voted “no endorsement” in this race.
Karbassi is the son of Persian immigrants whose family has achieved the American dream operating a successful Persian rug business in the district. He is a moderate whose campaign is focused on building bridges and engaging the entire community to come up with common-sense solutions. Karbassi is actively walking the district. He is the first candidate in recent memory to be endorsed by both the Central Labor Council and the Fresno police chief for an open Fresno City Council seat.
City Council District 2 is a Republican district and rough terrain for any progressive candidate. Although the district’s voter registration is 36% Republican and 35% Democratic, in a special election the turnout will more likely be 52% Republican and 36% Democratic.
In the Board of Supervisors special election earlier this year, Democratic candidate Nasreen Johnson’s campaign worked hard to change the likely dropoff in turnout but ultimately failed to shift turnout meaningfully. Turnout in a district of any size tends to be based off general moods beyond a campaign’s control. Sadly, even though local politicians can affect our community more than national politicians, these races often generate less energy and have less voter interest.
Based on fund-raising, endorsements and community engagement, Garcia, Gordon and Karbassi appear to be the most viable candidates. For now, all three are primarily self-funding their campaigns, though both Garcia and Karbassi have held successful fund-raisers.
Ultimately, City Council District 2 is a conservative district and rough terrain for any progressive candidate. Strong candidates such as Andrew Janz (candidate for Congressional District 22 in 2018) and Johnson have run aggressive campaigns but fell short.
A special election will see lower-than-usual turnout, as occurred in the recent supervisorial special election, meaning that turning out one’s supporters is the key to victory, or at least forcing a Nov. 5 run-off. (A candidate can win outright in the Aug. 13 primary by receiving more than 50% of the vote. If no candidate reaches that threshold, then the top two candidates advance to a Nov. 5 run-off.)
The best the progressive community might be able to hope for in such a race is a community-minded moderate.
Meanwhile, expect a multitude of campaign mailers if you are a District 2 voter. Ballots for those who have opted to vote-by-mail will drop in mid-July and, of course, voters can vote at their neighborhood precinct on Election Day.
Howard Watkins is a retired attorney, longtime progressive activist and community photographer.