By Stan Santos
On Oct. 2, a candidate forum was held at the Sal Mosqueda Community Center, sponsored by One Healthy Fresno, the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, Faith in the Valley, Communities for a New California and Hmong Innovating Politics with the Fresno City Council District 5 candidates: Luis Chavez and Paula Yang.
The audience of around 100 attendees was surprised by the entrance of a dozen Yang supporters. They marched into the hall with a large drum, chanting “Let’s go, Paula” until they were seated.
After opening, moderator Ivanka Saunders asked the drummer to refrain from drumming. She later asked the audience to hold their applause and comments, which were coming from both sides, to allow more time for questions and discussion.
Yang introduced herself as a news reporter and radio host for the Hmong TV station and expressed her hope that she could win the opportunity to represent District 5. She spoke of her activism in response to the arrests of General Vang Pao and other Hmong leaders and her work with women who were victims of violence. She declared her campaign as “grassroots” and that she would have an open door to the community.
Chavez recounted that he has resided in District 5 most of his life and worked as a teacher, school board member and City Council representative. He stressed that one should be judged by their character, integrity, trustworthiness and what they have done for the community and added that “people want to know who’s supporting you.”
Chavez quickly took a shot at Vang saying, “On the one side you are going to get vagueness, broad, very general answers. On the other, you are going to get specific projects, programs and services that I have actually worked to bring to southeast Fresno.”
The first question related to a 2017 request by community groups for $200,000 from the City of Fresno to help immigrants targeted for deportation despite having no criminal record. On that occasion, Chavez abstained stating, “I couldn’t support tax funds for drug traffickers, gang members or violent offenses.”
Lucio Avila of the Leadership Counsel asked, “What is your stance on investing city funds in programs that support immigrant families in our neighborhoods?”
Chavez responded emphatically, “There has not been an elected official in Fresno that has done more for the immigrant community than me.” He cited the English Learner Master Plan for Spanish- and Hmong-speaking students and the Fresno Unified Satellite DREAM Center at the Mosqueda Center, which has grown to other schools and locations. He also took credit for expanding ESL and citizenship classes to schools and raising thousands of dollars to help pay the application fees for DACA students.
He finished by saying that he took offense to statements that he has not done anything for the community. He was later asked about funding immigrant services and again refused to answer.
Yang was just as emphatic in stating that as an immigrant woman, she had been involved with Sikh, Hmong, Hispanic and other groups in Fresno. She said that she would support the Legal Defense funding for immigrants and expressed her disappointment that the City Council rejected the request. She concluded, “Immigration is the most intense conversation around the nation.”
Land Use and Development
Regarding land use, industrial development, the environment and local hiring, Yang noted that District 5 has open, unused land and investors willing to work with the City. “We need more land for parks, green space and zoning that is appropriate. But the meetings should be open to the public.” She emphasized the need for transparency.
Chavez said that he supported the Amazon and Ulta beauty product operations in southwest Fresno. “We have to create jobs without impacting surrounding neighborhoods. We need to set aside specific parcels, meet with local folks.” Although the plants are not located in District 5, he is trying to get residents hired there.
Regarding housing and the Rental Housing Improvement Act, Chavez insisted that he “was the determining vote…I took that position but made enemies with a lot of slumlords.”
Yang recalled the conditions she witnessed at the Summerset Village Apartments and the lack of air conditioning and heating, poor plumbing and rats. She emphasized the need for more affordable, habitable housing and would consider the empty Valley Medical Center for emergency housing.
Safety and Restorative Justice
Another question arose regarding safety, gang-related homicides and redemptive, reformative measures.
Chavez said that he worked with restorative justice finds it effective. He also reinforced the need for community-based policing without defining what that meant or how it worked.
Yang cited an experience she had as a 14-year-old girl interpreting for a young mother who abandoned a newborn. Yang eventually saw her reunited with the family. “We need to engage with families face to face. Southeast is huge, diverse, but children are swept into the gang lifestyle for lack of other options. We need after school programs with tutoring, so they can get good jobs.”
She emphasized the need to improve police oversight, “We also need to form a third-party police commission because many crimes go unresolved. We need more than just boots on the ground and electronic surveillance.”
Questions followed regarding air quality, safe drinking water and environmental issues.
Yang said, “The City Council has to protect the citizens without a tradeoff for economic growth. We must work with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District to require them to look after citizens and not being lobbyists. The main pollution is Ag, the dairies and transport. I am here to make change.”
Chavez cited using state and federal grants to purchase clean city fleets and promote bus rapid transit. “But the city can’t do it alone…it has to be the city and state, agriculture as well.”
Both agreed on the use of forums and communicating with constituents, although Yang stressed the need for transparency and for youth and community engagement at City Hall. She also complained about the ineffective phone system, which leaves residents on hold for lengthy periods.
The Fresno City Council District 5 Candidate Forum outcome was predictable: There were no surprise revelations or “knockout punches.” Chavez was confident with his background and knowledge, boasting about his accomplishments and track record. Yang brought life experiences and provided a contrasting position on youth, immigrants and law enforcement, compensating for her lack of experience in city politics.
Yang supporters were surprised on Oct. 3 when the Fresno Bee ran an article headlined, “Drums, horns, hecklers steal the show at candidate forum. Was it ‘unprofessional’?”
Chavez told the Bee it was unprofessional and “that wasn’t the place or setting for those kinds of shenanigans.” He also said that a Yang supporter passed out copies of his donation filings and when he tried to address it he “was booed, cursed and shouted down by the crowd.”
Yang was not advised in advance of the distribution of campaign reports and instructed her supporters to adhere to the protocols established by the conveners. Although the noisy entrance might have unnerved Chavez slightly, when he spoke up, there were no observations of people cursing him.
An inquiry was made to the Fair Political Practices Commission regarding the distribution of Chavez’s campaign filings. They responded that “there is nothing under the Act that would prohibit the activity [outlined].”
In another twist of events, it was revealed that the Yang campaign planned advertising in the Spanish-language newspaper, El Sol Azteca de Mexico. The Chavez campaign attempted to have the ad canceled as a condition for running their own ads, however. the owner of El Sol declined the offer and ran the Yang campaign ad.
Stan Santos is an activist in the labor and immigrant community. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.