By Michael D. Evans
There was little ambiguity in the outcome of Election 2014. Nationwide, it was a Republican year. Even the West Coast failed to stem the national sentiment as effectively as in 2010. But now that it’s over, we have to ask, “How the hell did this happen?”
It was the triple-D election—doubling down on dysfunction. Rather than refuting dysfunction, the American electorate embraced it wholeheartedly.
The pundits are touting the election as a referendum on the Obama agenda. But, in fact, it was a referendum on the Republican spin of the Obama presidency. That’s all the American people were exposed to.
“The results, while discouraging, are not completely surprising for an incumbent party in an off-election year,” notes Rich McIntyre, executive director of Leadership and Jobs for a New Economy (operating locally as the Fresno Partnership). “What is disturbing is the decrease in Latino turnout, a result in part of the President’s failure to push through immigration reform.”
Furthermore, “the widening gap in income equality is causing the middle class to look for new answers and leaders aside from progressives,” says McIntyre. “There was no cohesive Democratic message in this election, and many candidates ran from the party, the Affordable Healthcare Act [aka Obamacare] and the President.”
From a labor perspective, “the 2014 national election was a major wake-up call,” states Dillon Savory, political director of the Fresno-Madera-Tulare-Kings Central Labor Council. “First, in the wake of Citizens United, union PAC dollars are dwarfed by millionaire contributions. Secondly, the two-party system is becoming increasingly unattractive to members and activists nationwide.”
Doug Kessler, Region 8 director for the California Democratic Party, believes “the DNC [Democratic National Committee] did a horrible job of messaging. They didn’t give voters a reason to vote.”
The Central Valley
In the Central Valley, the vote was clearly influenced by this national trend. It would appear to have been less so elsewhere in California. But the primary takeaway locally is that the analysis post-election was the same as the message pre-election: turnout, turnout, turnout.
“The Central Valley results were flat out deflating,” says Savory. “All the cash, ground troops and endorsements on the planet don’t seem to have any effect on increasing voter interest in disadvantaged communities. The biggest mystery in modern-day U.S. politics goes answered again.”
“The Central Valley continues to be plagued by low voter turnout, the inability of campaigns to fully engage and mobilize the Latino community, continuing fractures within labor, and a continuing massive fund-raising advantage of Republicans,” notes McIntyre. “Registration advantages mean nothing if you cannot get people to vote.”
Most of the statewide races were a foregone conclusion after the June primary election. The Republicans fielded an unusually weak slate of candidates, and the only two partisan races deemed competitive were for controller and secretary of state. A third race, for superintendent of public instruction, is technically nonpartisan, but Republicans for the most part rallied around registered Democrat Marshall Tuck against incumbent Democrat Tom Torlakson. Indeed, this ended up being the closest statewide race with Torlakson winning by 4.2 percentage points.
At press time, Democrat Alex Padilla was leading Republican Pete Peterson by 6.6 percentage points for secretary of state and Democrat Betty Yee was ahead of Republican Ashley Swearengin by 7.4 percentage points—in other words, these races were not even close. And the final count of provisional ballots will probably increase these margins of victory.
Locally, the big story was Fresno Mayor Swearengin’s candidacy for controller. However, she did not run a particularly effective statewide campaign and there was little publicity around her candidacy here. Nevertheless, she did an excellent job of selling her mixed record as mayor as a “success” to the major daily newspapers in the state. Only one major daily, the San Francisco Chronicle, endorsed Yee. Did the press fail to do its due diligence on Swearengin? Or did the press feel obligated to find at least one or two Republicans to endorse? Both scenarios seem likely.
Yee, on the other hand, already sits on the Board of Equalization, the best possible stepping stone to the controller position, after previously having worked with the California Department of Finance and in senior staff positions in both houses of the state legislature. In addition to being the best qualified candidate for the position, Yee has a record of success.
Still, Republicans will no doubt run Swearengin for higher office again. One would hope her record is perused more closely at that time.
“For many of us, watching Ashley lose her second straight campaign ([after] Measure G) was the best part of a rough election night,” says Savory.
Swearengin-Xiong Endorsement Exchange
Playing into the controller race was the well-publicized endorsement exchange between Swearengin and Board of Supervisors District 1 candidate Blong Xiong, a Democrat. This exchange clearly benefited the mayor more than it did Xiong, and many of Xiong’s supporters questioned the approach. Xiong did not get the uptick from the exchange that he was seeking, but it was far from the only factor affecting his lopsided loss.
“It would be easy to say that the cross-endorsement was the reason for the failure of the campaign, but it was more of a Hail Mary postscript,” notes McIntyre. “It angered his base and split the progressive coalition embodied by the Fresno Partnership, but frankly, it was a last gasp effort.”
“To voters, the exchange very clearly had no impact,” says Savory. “To activists, however, the exchange represented everything that is the status quo in our community. Politicians over people. We all felt the wind leaving our sails when it was announced.”
Kessler called this “a case of two candidates who thought it was more important to win than to keep their values.”
Of the four Congressional districts that cross into Fresno County, each had a different script in this election. In Congressional District 4, incumbent Tom McClintock (R–Elk Grove), a hardcore conservative, faced an intraparty challenge from alleged moderate Art Moore, but McClintock won handily.
Devin Nunes (R–Tulare), the incumbent in Congressional District 22, easily turned back an energetic but poorly financed challenge from Suzanna “Sam” Aguilera-Marrero with an overwhelming victory.
The other two races were somewhat surprising.
In Congressional District 16, longtime incumbent Jim Costa (D–Fresno) appeared to have lost on Election Day but with the final count of vote-by-mail and provisional ballots he kept his seat. Still, this race was not expected to be close as the district is considered “safe Democratic.”
The challenger, Johnny Tacherra, does not live in the district and was not even considered viable by local Republican leaders.
Costa faced a similar challenge four years ago in his previous district (which went south to Kern County). This time, his campaign focused its efforts on Merced County (parts of Madera and Fresno counties are also in the district) and does not seem to have gotten much payoff from doing so. The closeness of the race raises the question of whether Costa will make this his final term, especially given that the Republicans will almost certainly field a stronger candidate in 2016.
Renteria and Chavez
Congressional District 21 (CD21) was a nationally targeted race. There, Amanda Renteria, chief of staff for Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D–Mich.) and the first Latina chief of staff in the U.S. Senate, returned to the Central Valley (she hails from Woodlake) to challenge first-term incumbent David Valadao (R–Hanford). Despite ample funding and an aggressive ground campaign, Renteria’s effort fell short primarily because of the region-wide turnout woes.
In Senate District 14 (SD14), which covers much of the same area as CD21 (all of Kings County and parts of Fresno, Kern and Tulare counties; SD14 includes much of the city of Fresno, whereas CD21 includes none of the city), Democrat Luis Chavez, a Fresno Unified School District trustee, challenged Andy Vidak (R–Hanford), a farm owner, who was elected in a 2013 special election following the resignation of Michael Rubio.
Affecting both of these races was the Kings County factor. One of the most conservative counties in the state, if not the country, turnout there was 47 percent (versus less than 40 percent in Fresno County). Both Renteria and Chavez got less than 30 percent of the vote in Kings County, which virtually ensured a loss despite any level of success in Kern and Fresno counties.
“I think most people, from most backgrounds or ethnic groups, will agree that the Latino voting population was the X-factor here,” says Savory. “Great candidates. Different core issues. Same result.”
Campaign consultant and former Board of Supervisors candidate Magdalena Gomez contends that there was “no effective ground campaign in SD14 or CD21 in the June primary. It got started in September for both campaigns. We had candidates that were relatively unknown in their respective districts, so branding and fund-raising were a priority over building voter confidence.”
“As for CD21 and SD14, we can have all the Democratic registration number advantages in the world but if people do not vote it does not matter,” says Kessler. “We had two outstanding candidates in these races but again with no message from the top of the Dems it was hard to motivate people to vote.”
“How many voters stayed home because of negative campaigning?” asks Kessler. “The Republicans were very negative in these two races.”
In the other Senate races, Tom Berryhill (R–Twain Harte), despite limited campaigning due to health concerns, easily won reelection against Fresno-based challenger Paulina Miranda.
In Senate District 12, Shawn Bagley challenged incumbent Anthony Cannella (R–Ceres) in a rather odd race. Cannella, a Republican, was endorsed by most labor groups and the State Senate Democrats took a hands-off approach, all apparently thinking Cannella would come through on some progressive votes. We’ll see how that works out.
Bagley, a longtime Democratic activist and Democratic National Committee member, says he reached his No. 1 goal: “Cannella finally helped his Party by sending $50,000 out seven days before Election Day. $2 million tied up for as long as I could. Mission accomplished.”
Board of Supervisors
Two competitive Board of Supervisors races were made possible by the retirements of Phil Larsen and Judy Case in Districts 1 and 4, respectively.
In District 1, the aforementioned Xiong faced off against Brian Pacheco, a dairy farmer. Both are registered Democrats, but Pacheco had widespread support from Republicans, whereas the core of Xiong’s support was from labor and the Democratic base.
In District 4, Republican Buddy Mendes, a farm owner, almost won the June primary outright because his primarily Democratic challengers split the vote among themselves. Daniel Parra, a Fowler City Council member, finished second in the primary and gained the support of most of his June rivals for the fall campaign. However, with labor and Democrats prioritizing other races, he did not receive sufficient resources. Nevertheless, he worked tirelessly in his unsuccessful effort.
“Corporate agriculture continues to strategically hand select, train, and fully fund conservative candidates,” says McIntyre. “They hire campaign consultants who know how to win in these districts.
“Phil Larson, as hardcore a Republican as one can find in Fresno, took DINO [Democrat in name only] Brian Pacheco on a tour of key funders two years in advance of the 2014 supervisor election,” adds McIntyre. “We are told that candidacy was scoped out at least a year in advance of the tour. Three years out from the election, Pacheco was handpicked and building his resume.”
The Republican candidates “for 2016 and 2018 are likely already identified,” concludes McIntyre. “They get it.”
“In the supervisor races, we must come to the reality that Districts 1 and 4 are rural districts and ag rules,” says Kessler. “We cannot win these seats with candidates who live in the city of Fresno or small city elected officials no matter how qualified they are.
“Voters in these districts do not care about Fresno city and its politics,” notes Kessler. “Until we find a progressive ag person we will never win these seats. More than 25 years ago, Bill Johnson, a progressive Democratic farmer, won District 4 and served several terms. So it can be done.”
The Judicial Race
Superior Court Judge candidate Lisa Gamoian ran one of the most negative campaigns ever seen in a Fresno County judicial race. The tenor of her campaign leads one to question if she has the character and the ethics to be a judge. Having won, though, she effectively has a lifetime appointment. Serious challenges to incumbent judicial candidates of either party are rare.
Her opponent, Rachel Hill, featured a resume with a diverse array of legal experience and a platform far more open-minded than Gamoian’s. Hill held her own in the fund-raising battle, but in the end, the negative campaign of her opponent could not be overcome.
“Negative campaigning works,” says McIntyre. “Ignore it at your peril.”
“The judicial race has set a new standard,” said Kessler. “It will be all about money now even to run for judge. Again, negative campaigning paid off.”
Fresno City Council
Only one race for Fresno City Council made it to the November ballot, the District 1 race between Esmeralda Soria, an attorney and political consultant, and Cary Catalano, who owns a PR and marketing firm. Another race between two registered Democrats, Catalano had Republican support but was not as fully embraced by the right wing as was Pacheco in the District 1 supervisorial race.
Catalano was seen as closely tied to the mayor and her agenda, and he aggressively defended his support of Measure G, the 2013 initiative by Mayor Swearengin to privatize residential waste service, in a district where 62% of the voters opposed it.
Soria ran a focused campaign with diverse support from labor organizations, Democratic groups and community entities. Her youthful, energetic campaign team worked aggressively on persuasion to counter the anticipated low voter turnout.
“This race should set the gold standard on campaign mail harassment,” says Savory. “Kudos to Esmeralda Soria for keeping a positive message throughout.”
Catalano had the “best campaign signs we’ve ever seen,” adds Savory, “but Soria was the best candidate, no doubt. Cheers to a local victory!”
Michael D. Evans is a political activist, editor and writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lessons Learned for the Future
Some political insiders offer their input as to what can be learned from the 2014 election and what should be done differently in forthcoming elections.
McIntyre is the executive director of Leadership and Jobs for a New Economy, president of the Sierra Nevada Organizing PAC (SNOPAC) and facilitator of the Fresno Partnership.
- The unwillingness of candidates to speak hard truths about the health impacts of deadly Valley air and water quality, and their direct connection to unsustainable corporate agricultural practices and urban sprawl speaks volumes about a lack of pragmatic political leadership.
- Labor is reluctant to take on industries that supply jobs for their memberships.
- Farmworkers are reluctant to take on corporate ag for the same reason. Politicians conveniently sidestep the issue. At the same time, the life expectancy of children in many areas of the Central Valley is three years less than the national average, primarily due to environmental factors.
- It takes courage to lead. “We are killing our children” is a message that would get people’s attention. The vacuum of political leadership on this issue continues.
- The lack of early, progressive candidate identification and training continues to be a problem, and unlike Republicans, there is not a stable of successful, regional political consultants to pull from. The farm team for higher office is weak.
Gomez was a candidate for Board of Supervisors District 4 in the June primary. She is a labor activist with Wall Street experience.
- Develop messaging; the Republican message was simple: “If you are unhappy with Obama, vote against Democrats.”
- Coordinate campaigns more effectively.
- Fund a campaign manager training school to better train local staff.
- Emphasize ballot conversion for non-English speakers.
- Register high school students.
- Start the GOTV (get out the vote) effort early in an election year.
Kessler is the Region 8 director of the California Democratic Party and a longtime Democratic and labor activist.
We will continue to be confused and unprepared unless we as Democrats unite behind our candidates like the Republicans do.
We must have a strong progressive message to motivate people to vote.