By Yezdyar S. Kaoosji
“The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them”—Albert Einstein
We all remember when we were pumped up having defeated Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s Measure G and succeeded in preventing the privatization of residential garbage disposal services. With that success, we went into the 2014 primary confident that the synergies we created would lead to a progressive majority on both the Fresno City Council and the Fresno County Board of Supervisors.
We convened a scattering of progressive groups to form the Fresno Partnership. We organized the biggest candidate forums ever in Fresno. Two separate forums for the Board of Supervisors (BOS) and the Fresno City Council gave the voting public a perspective of candidates by bringing them all on the same stage and having them respond to the same questions. The candidates did not have the luxury of prior knowledge of the questions, or the comfort of an invited audience of supporters. The bolder candidates from all political affiliations attended, and a few chickened out offering flimsy excuses.
This month’s Progressive Voice focuses on an analysis of four crucial local races in 2014: Districts 1 and 7 of the Fresno City Council and Districts 1 and 4 of the BOS. Following the brief analysis, a few suggestions are offered to help develop successful strategies in the future.
In the much touted “turnaround” City Council District 7 race, progressive Mike Wells was unable to establish a credible candidacy to unseat right-wing incumbent Clint Olivier. With 54.31% to Wells’ 29.55%, Olivier won the election in June, proving that to be the best open primary election strategy.
Next up, the primary race for City Council District 1 clearly demonstrated a total lack of coherence among progressives. Termed-out City Council Member Blong Xiong endorsed politically unknown Rama Dawar early in the race. Rushing into the vacuum, Rebecca Rangel and law professor/political adviser Esmeralda Soria attempted to claim the progressive mantle. The other major contender was registered Democrat and Swearengin camp follower Cary Catalano, who shied away from the Fresno Partnership candidate forum and declined to participate in the Fresno County Democratic Central Committee’s endorsement caucus.
The lack of a progressive candidate endorsement strategy started showing in the City Council District 1 campaign. The Central Valley Progressive Political Action Committee (CVPPAC) and the Fresno County Democratic Women’s Club co-endorsed Soria and Rangel for the same office. Other local Democratic groups endorsed Soria or Rangel. Thus, mixed messages were sent to voters, and the progressive votes were split several ways.
At press time, Soria appeared to have won with 51.94% of the votes cast. Catalano led in the primary with 33.91%, whereas Soria was 30 votes behind with 33.52%. Had Rangel’s 10.72% and half of the remaining candidates’ votes gone to her, Soria would have swept the election in June with more than 55%. This fact begs us to develop a different strategy for the primary elections.
Moving on to the BOS: Despite a weak effort last year by Supervisor Andreas Borgeas to introduce term limits, the BOS continues to be a lifetime job for an election-savvy incumbent. Then came two surprise announcements. District 1 Supervisor Phil Larsen and District 4 Supervisor Judy Case both announced that they would not seek reelection in 2014.
Xiong threw in his hat for the District 1 BOS race. As did another Democrat, Brian Pacheco. Xiong relied on his experience as a two-term City Council member, whereas Brian Pacheco focused on his range of experience in the public, nonprofit and private sectors, adding to it a remarkable show of support from left- and right-leaning individuals.
Then, a mysterious last-minute compact of mutual endorsements between Xiong running for a nonpartisan seat and a partisan Republican candidate for state controller, Swearengin, left progressive voters dumbfounded. It is interesting to note that while Swearengin lost her bid for state controller, she did win 59% of the Fresno County vote, whereas Xiong attracted only 40% of the voters in his district. Quite an alliance! Pacheco, who trailed Xiong by less than 10 votes in June, won the runoff with 57.7% of the vote.
Given Xiong’s expedient pact, Pacheco should have received a second look by leaders of the progressive groups, who remained contently locked in their initial commitment to Xiong.
The District 4 BOS race looked much like the District 1 City Council race with several candidates. Democrats Daniel Parra, Magdalena Gomez and Steve Rapada all brought good credentials to the race. The conservatives had a single experienced candidate in Buddy Mendes. Although Parra and Rapada had City Council and mayoral experience, Gomez brought a unique combination of agro-labor advocacy and corporate expertise. Almost predictably, dual endorsements followed; even the Fresno Partnership endorsed Parra and Gomez on the same ticket.
The BOS District 4 runoff was a clear win for the conservative candidate Mendes. With three contenders on the left, Mendes nearly wrapped up the election in June with 49.24% of the vote. In the November runoff, Mendes beat Parra with an impressive 62.66% of the vote.
In all four races, the progressive establishment was limited to selecting the best available person in a pool of self-nominated candidates, instead of being in the position to groom and nurture a viable candidate well in advance of the election. But being proactive has never been a progressive election strategy in the Central Valley as these four races so clearly vouch.
On Nov. 5, the Fresno Bee printed a banner headline in blazing red ink proclaiming a “Red Tide.” However, the paper was commenting on the federal scene where the Senate turned over in a national anti-Obama hysteria successfully whipped up by the GOP.
But the focus of this article is on the four Fresno City Council and BOS races. The one major takeaway from the 2014 election is that progressives are not proactive. Without a long-term strategy, we found ourselves ill-equipped to exploit a marvelous opportunity to change the balance of power on these two bodies. We wait until someone decides to run for office and settle down to select the most suitable person by conducting written tests and pouring over the responses for “correct answers.”
We are content with subjective endorsement processes and have no compunction in endorsing more than one person for the same office, splitting the votes and sending confusing messages to the voters. We need to recognize this fact and accept the responsibility that low voter turnout is partially a result of the high voter turnoff we have generated with our own actions.
Here are a few strategies to consider for becoming more effective and proactive:
- Involve a cross-section of the progressive community to scout for individuals based on area of interest, knowledge of community, specialty in particular geographic area and/or a special affiliation.
- Compile a database from the membership records of all partners and use it to systematically link prospective individuals with public offices. Progressive groups need to work around the year to identify and engage leaders in business, professions, academia, etc., among their constituents, to serve in public office.
- Identify and assess community issues and needs across the county. Progressive organizations could draw on their areas of expertise to draft platform statements on issues that matter in each district. The GOTV (get-out-the-vote) workers can use such information to motivate voters, and candidates can use well-drafted locally relevant cases to present their candidacy with greater credibility.
- We also need to understand how to work in the open primary system. We need to accept that it requires us to change our strategies. First, we need to field only one strong candidate for each elected office. Second, we need to plan a campaign to win the election in June and not prepare in June for a November runoff.
- Several public service positions are not elected offices. Many appointed positions on commissions, boards and committees at the city, county and state levels go unfilled for lack of interest and information about their existence. We need to invest time and money to find and match people to such positions.
- Commission and board appointments should become stepping-stones and an integral part of a candidate cultivation and recruitment strategy.
- Our political action committees (PACs) are not lush with corporate dollars. The small amounts contributed to campaigns by progressive PACs could be more effectively used if channeled to year-round outreach to cultivate candidates and train campaign workers.
It is hoped that by examining these 2014 BOS and City Council elections, the leaders of the progressive community and readers of the Community Alliance will launch sincere efforts within their organizations to prepare for the future and in particular for the 2016 election cycle.
Yezdyar Kaoosji is a progressive activist. He writes an occasional column “Progressive Voice” for the Community Alliance. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.