Primary Candidates Challenged the Status Quo

Several progressive first-time candidates ran for elective office in the March 2024 primary. Candidates Bryce Herrera (Board of Supervisors District 2), EJ Hinojosa (Board of Supervisors District 3), Jennifer Cruz (Board of Supervisors District 5),  Matthew Gillian (Fresno City Council District 2) and Caleb Helsel (State Assembly District 8) provided local voters with alternatives to incumbent candidates.

Incumbents too often do not represent the views of the majority of residents in Fresno (city and county). With better financial resources and more people voting, alternative candidates could change Fresno for the better. However, the current electoral system favors candidates who have the financial support of developers and Fresno’s wealthy, white, older men.

The aforementioned progressive candidates advocated to improve the quality of life and livability of Fresno (city and county). Each discussed the need for improved government accountability, transparency, collaboration and equity.

Some of the incumbent candidates (e.g., Fresno City Council Member Mike Karbassi, District 2 Supervisor Steve Brandau and Fresno City Council Member Garry Bredefeld running for the Board of Supervisors District 2 seat) highlighted spending more on law enforcement as the answer to most local problems. The progressive candidates had other ideas for making Fresno a better place to live.

Studies have shown that additional law enforcement does not equally benefit Black and white Americans. Rather than focusing on law enforcement, the progressive candidates discussed unifying issues that benefit all the people of Fresno—better job opportunities, livable wages, affordable housing, better roads and transportation systems, quality education, more green spaces, clean air, clean water, better access to healthcare, and increased entertainment and cultural options.

It might not be possible to change Fresno’s hot weather, but livability can be improved. Little correlation exists between quality of life and the number of police per 1,000 residents or the percentage of the City’s General Fund spent on law enforcement.

The City of Fresno spends more than 50% of its General Fund on law enforcement, whereas some cities spend less than 20% and have less crime, fewer homicides and a better livability index.

In running for office and stating their positions on the issues, these progressive candidates opened themselves to attacks. Since the beginning of America’s political campaigns, there have been ugly personal attacks on candidates.

Karbassi unleashed a vicious attack on Gillian in their race for the District 2 City Council seat. As the incumbent with better name recognition, more campaign funds and many high-profile supporters, Karbassi was positioned to easily win the election.

Yet, for whatever reason, Karbassi must have felt threatened by Gillian. In the last two weeks of the campaign, Karbassi sent out a racist campaign mailer filled with innuendo and false claims. Rather than present the ideas he stood for, he tried to instill fear in the voting public about gang violence and Black candidates.

This ad was similar to what Karbassi experienced during his June 2022 candidacy for the State Assembly. Now Assembly Member Esmeralda Soria (D–Fresno) was favored to win that race because of better name recognition, more money and more endorsements. Nevertheless, she sent out a mailer that appeared to accuse Karbassi of assault.

Karbassi lost the race and later accused Soria of defamation. The case is going before the California Supreme Court. Karbassi, having learned from Soria, used a similar tactic against Gillian.

Karbassi used “dog-whistle” phrases to attack Gillian. He misrepresented Advance Peace as a “taxpayer-backed program that bribes gang shooters.” The ad failed to note that as a Fresno City Council member Karbassi twice voted to support the program.

Yes, Gillian does indeed strongly support Fresno’s Advance Peace. Advance Peace is a violence interruption program that has been successful in reducing gang shootings and homicides in Fresno. Contrary to Karbassi’s ad, Advance Peace does not offer “bribes to gang shooters” but rather offers stipends to participants who are able to follow and apply the program to their lives over a sustained period.

In the mailer, Karbassi also falsely claimed that Gillian “supported a ‘complete defunding’ of Fresno’s police department.”

Karbassi’s racist mailer was reminiscent of the 1988 racist attack ad by then presidential candidate George H.W. Bush against Michael Dukakis, governor of Massachusetts. As governor, Dukakis had supported a prison furlough program. The furlough program began in 1972 under a Republican governor, Frank Sargent.

Bush’s ad featured a menacing mugshot of Willie Horton, an African American man who had been convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life without parole. He was released as part of the weekend furlough program. He was later convicted of a brutal rape and assault that occurred while he was on the furlough.

Though leading in the polls, Bush played on white fears of Black crime. The Bush campaign linked the Horton crime to Dukakis being soft on crime. The “Willie Horton” ad “remains the key reference point for dog-whistle politics.” Karbassi is following a long American tradition of ugly, racist political attack ads.

In recognition of the progressive candidates’ efforts, we offer a few lines from a famous speech given on April 23, 1910, at the Sorbonne in Paris by Teddy Roosevelt. The speech is titled “Citizenship in a Republic” but is better known as “The Man in the Arena.”

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Quoting Teddy Roosevelt might be criticized given his racist worldview. He believed African Americans and Native Americans were inferior to white Europeans. But he was also known as a progressive who broke up monopolies, an environmentalist who established the National Park System and a champion of women’s rights. He believed individuals can make a difference, regardless of race, religion or gender. We need to remember that people are complex.


  • Jim Mendez

    Jim Mendez came to Fresno in 1977 for his medical residency training at what was then called the Valley Medical Center. He stayed to practice medicine and raise a family. He is now a retired physician and a community activist.

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