By Kevin Hall
Beneath the panic of the Trump pandemic, local politics continue. They must, of course, now more than ever. From dealing with the immediate coronavirus-induced health and economic crises to acknowledging the increasing speed of our climate and ecosystem collapse, our political decisions this year will determine the fate of humanity. Nothing less. Everything is on the table. Every race matters. Every vote counts.
Particularly the votes cast by people in elected office, because this is our last crop of politicians. This is the cohort with the enormous responsibility to craft policies over the next two years—and begin implementing them by 2025—that will radically alter our economy and lifestyles, something already happening due to the fatally dangerous incompetency of Donald Trump but in ominous ways that stand to worsen our predicament.
A sustainable environment does not lend itself to the instant gratifications typically afforded white-collar Americans, nor do we have the luxury of time to waste on moderate solutions. There simply aren’t enough natural resources left for humans to exploit to replicate a green version of our fossil fuel–dependent society. Nor is there time.
The seemingly extreme demands of deep ecologists for a shift to a sustainable environment are no less strident or urgent than the voices of ICU nurses calling for personal protective equipment.
Our biggest challenge is governance: who’s in office, who’s coming up. The ground floor to political power is found in local races for school boards and city councils. It’s a big lobby crowded with besuited candidates elbowing their way to the doors, hoping to catch an express elevator to the top.
And it happens. The most complicit Congressperson of our scandal-ridden era started his political career at age 23 as a community college board trustee. Today, he influences tens of millions. Badly.
No record of community service, education or career achievement qualified Devin Nunes for the House of Representatives. No, it was his anger. The conservative movement’s favored source of renewable energy—Republican voter fury—determines the victors in red party primaries.
How many more obscure, performance-rage politicians hoping to hop a political elevator to the top are out there?
Two local Republicans loudly racing for the metal doors are Fresno City Council Member Garry Bredefeld and Fresno County Supervisor Steve Brandau, both of north Fresno. The pair regularly punches their party’s political up-buttons of attacks on people who are unhoused, undocumented, female, non-Christian, non-White, non-binary, non-gun owning, differently abled, etc.
Not knowing which elevator door might open next or go the highest, it can be a complicated guessing game. The floors are determined by political term limits and campaign cash, but once inside, the goal becomes to capture 24-hour news cycles by making every ugly headline they can.
In the last round of California elections held in the distant past of March, when nearly all Americans and the world were still blissfully ignorant of the coming storm, voters closed some doors and opened others for members of both political parties.
Like their Republican counterparts, local Democrats are crowding in, too. On their top floor is Rep. Jim Costa (D–Fresno). An earlier, blue dog version of Nunes, Costa entered the State Assembly in 1978 as its young member at age 26. He, too, comes from the dairy industry, the San Joaquin Valley’s most powerful political constituency and, after oil and methane extractors, its second greatest polluter of our air and water.
Coming up through the Democratic Party shafts below trying to capture headlines of their own are an array of officeholders. Bredefeld and Brandau’s main competitors for the local news cycle are Fresno City Council Members Esmeralda Soria and Miguel Arias.
The pair’s biggest stretch was the June 2019 trip to Washington, D.C., to unofficially apologize on behalf of Fresno to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) for the airing of a racist video at the city-owned baseball stadium. The overture failed to garner the popular young Congresswoman’s support for Soria, who just weeks later declared her doomed open-primary run against Costa, which he topped at 38% to her third-place finish of 20%.
So the elevator doors have closed on Soria’s political career. Her second and final term on the City Council ends in two years and, like fellow Council Member Luis Chavez, she has reached her top floor. Blocking the buttons to higher office for both are stacks of incumbents whose term limits surpass theirs by years or who have none at all.
Chavez pushed his share of buttons. With several undistinguished years representing southeast Fresno, he found time to run and lose for the State Senate; he decided to run for reelection in 2018 only to see Sanger (pop. 24,270) City Council Member Melissa Hurtado win the State Senate seat and 12 years in Sacramento; he announced for, then withdrew from the Fresno mayor’s race just won by Jerry Dyer, and jumped on board the Michael Bloomberg presidential cash-grab this spring as a staffer.
But the breakdown that has everyone running for the stairs is the election of former Fresno police chief Jerry Dyer as mayor. Lee Brand’s decision to not seek reelection was an unexpected exit, and Dyer’s victory should see him in office through 2028. Based on his unprecedented 18 years as police chief, advocates predict as mayor he will bring a mind-set of occupier rather than guardian.
Arias, meanwhile, appears to have a clear path to replace political ally Joaquin Arambula in the State Assembly or Hurtado in the State Senate in six years. The latter is more likely as the four-year terms will offer risk-free shots during Costa’s biannual reelections.
There are some new kids on the block, including developer Darius Assemi’s pick from northwest Fresno, Michael Karbassi, a registered Democrat. He replaced Assemi’s previous fave, Brandau. Tyler Maxwell will go from City Council staff in Nelson Esparza’s office to City Council member for District 4, replacing termed-out Paul Caprioglio, an interesting power bloc.
The ultimate problem, of course, is that we’ve lost the luxury of time for political machinations. Every officeholder at every level must act now in ways difficult to see when striving to push buttons inside their crowded, windowless elevators.
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.