By Mike Rhodes
In the not too distant future (or maybe a parallel universe)…
Ashley Swearengin, Lee Brand and Steve Brandau were defeated but not surprised as they fell from political power. The conservative Republican stranglehold on Fresno had been broken, and a coalition of progressives now held power at all levels of government—from the Planning Commission to the Board of Supervisors.
Mayor Michael Evans was explaining to Wolf Blitzer on CNN how Fresno had gone from the Appalachia of the West to the new economic engine of America. Delegations from Europe, Asia and South America were touring the area to find out how we did it.
The focus of much of the world’s attention was on how the Evans administration had made a transition from the economic crisis (chronic double-digit unemployment), environmental degradation and some of the worst air quality in the nation to Fresno being the envy of all. In a few short years, we had become a world-class city with a booming economy, revitalized infrastructure and clear skies. About the only thing that the progressives in charge of Fresno were not able to fix was the heat in the summer and the fog in the winter (but they were working on that too).
Blitzer said that it had not been that long ago that “you were in a drought, farmland in western Fresno County was sinking, unemployment was twice the national average, homelessness was out of control and yet you were able to turn that all around. How did you do it?”
Mayor Evans smiled and explained that Fresno is a shining example of what can happen when progressives build a united front, develop an electoral strategy and take power from the conservative Republican power elite. “We knew that the builders, developers and other business interests had manipulated the system so they would win every election,” Evans said. “What we did was take money out of elections through campaign finance reform, we made it possible for all eligible voters to vote, and we developed competent, progressive grassroots candidates to run for political offices.”
When the conservative Republicans in Fresno had to operate on a level playing field, their ability to sell their anti-union, anti-regulation, anti-environmental, tough-love (death to the homeless) message lost its appeal. The progressive coalition won every election and immediately set out to transform Fresno into a model for peace, social and economic justice.
The first challenge the newly elected progressive coalition faced was the drought and dwindling water supplies. Residential water, under the City of Fresno Republican regime, had been put on meters and severe restrictions put into effect. City residents could use only 10 gallons of water per person each day. This was particularly hard to swallow because corporate farms in western Fresno County had secured water from Northern California rivers, the water paid for by taxpayers funding of a new conveyance system. The water the corporate farming operations received, which cost them next to nothing, was being sold to Los Angeles.
Because the underground aquifers had been pumped dry, the land had sunk and most west-side farmland was out of production. The Westlands Water District ended up “farming” the northern California river water they received and selling it at an obscene profit to thirsty Los Angeles area cities. Yet, the federal government continued to give close to $100 million a year in Fresno County farm subsidies.
Blitzer asked the chairperson of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, Stan Santos, about those farm subsidies and about the water flowing to Los Angeles. Santos said, “We thought it was absolutely insane to be giving that much money to farmers, not to grow anything and for them to profit from northern California water. Why not take that money and put it into solar panels that would produce power and generate income?
“Today, much of western Fresno County is covered in solar panels, the installation and maintenance has created jobs and Fresno is now exporting energy to the rest of the country. The investment in renewable energy, with this area’s abundance of sunshine, has created a cash flow into the city and that has led to some unexpected consequences.”
Blitzer wanted to know about those unexpected consequences.
Santos explained that as the transition from farm subsidies to solar power production started to happen, solar panel manufacturers moved their facilities to Fresno, increasing employment, bringing more revenue into the region. Fresno soon became the solar panel manufacturing center of America.
With unemployment at an all-time low and revenue from solar energy flowing into the city, voters demanded an election to create a Public Utilities District in Fresno County. Pacific Gas and Electric, the Koch brothers and the Chamber of Commerce did everything they could to stop the effort. PG&E CEO Anthony F. Earley, Jr., even conjured images of Armageddon, but the threats of hell and brimstone only made the people see more clearly the greed of the wealthy 1% . With an almost unlimited and free source of energy, no corporation to steal the profits, and the people of Fresno and their elected officials started to dream about what their city could become.
When electricity costs next to nothing, it was not surprising that more and more people started driving electric cars. Mayor Evans said, “At first, it was unusual and somewhat surprising to see all of the small electric cars zipping down the road, but before long, just about everyone wanted one. The demand was so high for these cars that production started in a couple of old abandoned warehouses on Van Ness Avenue south of Ventura, but soon new manufacturing facilities started sprouting up. Ford, GM and eventually Tesla moved their plants to Fresno.”
As the production of electric cars ramped up, it was obvious that Fresno was becoming the industrial center of the new economy. Solar panels, electric cars and then a new technology breakthrough hit the market that made Fresno the world-class city it is today. Solar roadways are interlocking panels that replace the traditional street surface. They generate electricity and can transform the road surface into a safe and environmentally sustainable pathway. As the primary manufacturer of solar roadways, Fresno’s economy was in hyper-drive.
All major city roads were replaced with solar roadways, generating even more energy, which was exported to produce additional income for the city. The solar roadways manufactured in Fresno were shipped all over the world and as demand increased, so did city revenue.
With these funds, public transportation was dramatically improved, and there were more frequent bus lines, an underground subway system and more bike lanes and walking trails. The long anticipated high-speed rail (HSR) connects Fresno to the Bay Area, Sacramento and Los Angeles in less than two hours. There are an enormous number of commuters who come to work in Fresno each day on the HSR.
Under the progressive leadership of the Evans administration, there are now parks and public art in every neighborhood. With 95% of Fresnans using public transportation, bikes and electric cars or walking, air quality is among the best in the nation.
Blackstone Avenue had become more famous than the Champs-Elysées in Paris. The avenue features the world’s widest solar roadway, with plenty of room for cars (mostly electric), light rail, bike paths, special bus lanes, plenty of trees, public art and sidewalks wider than the Rambala in Barcelona.
There are so many tourists wanting to visit this community that Yosemite started promoting itself as the gateway to Fresno.
Homelessness in Fresno has been eliminated through an ambitious housing and social services program. Anyone without housing in Fresno is immediately given a voucher for an apartment or house in the Eco Village project. Any problems they have (mental health, job training, drug addiction) are worked on with a qualified professional social worker. The city’s response to the tragedy of homelessness is no longer bulldozing their modest shelters and taking their property.
Former mayors Swearengin and Brand complained that their initiatives to save Fresno had not been given enough time to work. “Just give us another chance,” they wailed.
Evans noted that after decades of Republican administrations, with their pandering to builders and developers, neglect for the needs of the majority of the people and heartless treatment of the homeless, it was time for a change. Newly appointed City Manager Randy Ghan and City Council members Kevin Hall and Patience Milrod agreed as they headed off to negotiate a new labor agreement with city workers.
Blitzer from CNN made a transition and began talking to Fresno Police Chief Juan Avitia and Floyd Harris, the city’s Independent Police Auditor. Blitzer wanted to know what Avitia had done to reduce the crime rate to an all-time low and what Harris is doing since there had not been an officer-involved shooting in the last three years.
Avitia said that if you treat people with dignity and respect, they have jobs that pay a living wage, there is universal and comprehensive healthcare, people tend to get along better.
Harris declared the city’s progressive political coalition a success. “We have dramatically improved the economy, made the region an environmental showcase by using renewable energy, and created a more livable city where everyone’s human rights are respected. We answered Rodney King’s question about getting along—Yes, we can all just get along, but only if we live in a world of peace, social, and economic justice.”
Blitzer, for perhaps the first time in his life, didn’t know what to say.
Mike Rhodes is a regular contributor to the Community Alliance newspaper. This is his first attempt at fiction, and he would like to know what you think of the effort. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.