The Elephant in the Room

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This map illustrates the potential voting power of the less affluent southern section of the City of Fresno. The same pattern emerges in each election. According to the Central Valley Progressive PAC, if a candidate could inspire and motivate a majority of the people living in the poor and working sections of this community, they could easily win a city wide race.

By Mike Rhodes

There has been a right-wing, conservative Republican in the Fresno mayor’s office since 1993. If you like business as usual and want more of the same, Lee Brand is your guy in the November 8, 2016, election. What’s not to like? During the Republican’s reign of power, Fresno has

  • Been declared the city with the highest concentration of poverty in the country
  • Some of the worst air pollution in the United States
  • A crisis unfolding right now in northeast Fresno with tainted water
  • Massive homelessness throughout the city
  • Police accountability issues
  • Seen Operation Rezone catch builders and developers bribing city officials
  • Been named the drunkest city in the United States
  • Been named the city with the most stolen cars
  • Come to accept scandal and corruption as the new normal (the arrest of the Deputy Police Chief for selling heroin is business as usual)

Brand does not run in horror from this record. He describes himself as a conservative Republican who will continue in the same general direction as current mayor Ashley Swearengin, but adds a nuance. Brand message resonates with the Tea Party.  At one of their recent meetings he said “Many of you know me; I have been at Tea Party meetings for the last four or five years.” He went on to strongly identify with the issues and concerns of the Tea Party.

Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea is a Democrat and is running against Brand to become the next mayor of Fresno. Perea is a moderate Democrat who is unlikely to bring about a political revolution if he wins the election. Still, many progressives like Perea and are supporting him in the race. Michael D. Evans, chairperson of the Fresno County Democratic Party, says that “the current mayor declared war on the homeless of our city [and] followed that with a battle against the working people of Fresno. The people pushed back by defeating Measure G, the mayor’s effort to privatize residential waste service. The residents of Fresno should not have to fight their mayor; the mayor should lead a resurgence that benefits everyone.”

Dillon Savory, political director of the Fresno-Madera-Tulare-Kings Central Labor Council, says the “Central Labor Council and the affiliated unions are proudly supporting Henry R. Perea to be the next Mayor of Fresno. Supervisor Perea is unquestionably the most knowledgeable candidate on working family issues. He has demonstrated commitment to our issues and seeks to solve them with us, together.”

Savory identified high-speed rail as an issue that he agrees with Perea on. He said, “Fresno County is on the cusp of being awarded the high-speed rail maintenance facility, where every train in California would be built and serviced. This facility will deliver an additional 4,000 permanent jobs to our community and help diversify our economy. Our mayor must put Fresno in the best position to implement a successful rail system.” Perea is a strong supporter of high-speed rail.

Brand, speaking at the Central Valley Tea Party meeting on April 7, 2016, said he opposed the high-speed rail project. “In 2011/2012, I had a press conference with Andreas Borges and Clint Olivier where we came out opposed to high-speed rail.” Brand went on to say that he was concerned that the project would divert local tax money and that it would have a negative financial impact on the city.

Howard Watkins, past president of the Central Valley Progressive PAC, said he is supporting Perea “because I believe he will be more effective in addressing the significant issues currently impacting the City of Fresno. These include increasing affordable and safe housing (including effective code enforcement), a more humane and effective program to better resolve the homeless situation; improving relations between the community and law enforcement, bringing in new, living wage jobs to our community, improving relations between the City and the County of Fresno so that we are working together on related issues, and increasing transparency in local government.”

Savory, when asked why electing a mayor that shares his values of social, economic and environmental justice are important, said, “In the case of Fresno’s next mayor, we are simply looking for access to city hall once again. All of us. The ‘justice ecosystem’ is comprised of community groups and leaders that must be willing to educate our elected officials. We cannot expect every candidate we support to hold progressive values, but we can give them tools and education to pass progressive policies that are in the best interest of Fresno residents.”

Evans said he wants a mayor that shares progressive values and that “sustainable economic development is crucial to the success of our city, but if that development benefits only a small segment of the population in north Fresno, for example, such ‘success’ will have failed the vast majority.”

Speaking about sustainable development at the Tea Party meeting, Brand complained about community groups like Faith in Community, Tenants Together and the Earth Justice League coming before the Fresno City Council demanding things like “inclusionary housing where you have to put in a mandatory 20% low-income people, not market driven. They want affordable housing mandated in areas that are not by market demand.” If you are in the Tea Party, the words “sustainable development” are code for a nefarious plot by socialists and the United Nations to take over this country and force people into high-density living spaces with public transportation. They use phrases like “social engineering” to describe what progressives call sustainable development.

Dee Barnes, president of the Fresno City Employees Association, is also supporting Perea. Barnes said that “Fresno has a strong mayor form of government so it is important to have a mayor that shares my values since they set the tone and direction for our city. Our poor and disadvantaged communities have felt neglected, and it is important to have a mayor that truly represents all of Fresno, not just the north end. I also want a mayor that believes providing good public services encompasses more than just police and fire. The city needs professional, courteous and well-trained employees that are able to provide all of the necessary services to our community. I believe Henry also understands the benefits of having fairly compensated public employees that do not live under the constant threat of privatization.”

Ashley Werner, a social justice attorney working for the Leadership Counsel in Fresno, says she plans “to vote for Henry Perea for mayor because I believe that between the two candidates, he will do more to allow the community access at city hall and a seat at the decision-making table and to ensure that city resources improve quality of life and access to opportunity for all residents.”

Werner added that “if we are to effectively address the many issues impacting our community, from air quality to urban sprawl, access to park space and safe and affordable housing, community-police relations and beyond, the City of Fresno must transform how it operates to become inclusive of and responsive to all of its residents, especially those that have long been left out of decision-making processes. Perea has made inclusiveness and transparency at City Hall a pillar of his mayoral campaign. As residents, it will be our critical job to hold him to his campaign promises.”

Pastor D.J. Criner of the Saint Rest Baptist Church says he does “not know who I am supporting in the race as of yet. I am still looking at both candidates to see who has a heart for those who deserve to be heard but in years past have not and as of yet I am not convinced who that is.” Pastor Criner says he is “praying on it.”

Brand is supported by many elected officials, for example, Republicans Devin Nunes, David Valadao, Bill Jones, Jim Patterson, Nathan Magsig, Clint Olivier and Steve Brandau. His website, www.leebrandformayor.com, lists dozens of supporters, including Rick Steitz, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1027. I asked Steitz why he is supporting Brand, but he had no comment. Brand is also supported by the Fresno Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Fresno Apartments Association and the Fresno County Republican Assembly.

The Central Valley Progressive PAC sent questionnaires to both candidates running for mayor. CVPPAC members work to elect progressives to local office and endorsed Perea in the June primary. There were concerns in the group that Perea was not “progressive” enough, and it was agreed to ask more questions and hold a public forum.

One of the questions to both candidates was about the “Tale of Two Cities” issue in Fresno. The CVPPAC questionnaire asked:

“Are you aware that there is a 20- to 30-year difference in life expectancy at birth between the most-affluent and the least-affluent neighborhoods in Fresno? What is your understanding of the reasons for this discrepancy? Do you agree that urban sprawl, poor air quality, inadequate public transportation and lack of access to parks/green space contribute to this shocking statistic? If you become mayor, how would your constituents be able to tell that correcting this discrepancy is your highest priority?”

Brand replied that he is aware of “a substantial difference in life expectancy at birth between the most affluent areas of Fresno and the least affluent areas of Fresno. There is a clear disparity if you examine the issue by zip code.” He went on to blame the problem, in part, on the Affordable Care Act, which has expanded healthcare coverage. Here is what he wrote: “Obamacare is diminishing the supply of doctors and medical providers particularly for Medi-Cal physicians. This problem will become more acute.” (Editor’s Note: Read the August and September editions of Community Alliance for Hannah Esqueda’s in-depth reports on the expansion of Medi-Cal)

Brand also appears to blame the victim, saying that “poor diets and lack of exercise also contribute to unhealthy life styles. Poor, uneducated people do not understand the benefits of a healthy diet and exercise. Cultural food selections can also provide unhealthy diets. The combination of poor diets and lack of exercise result in high mortality rates and problems with heart disease, diabetes and related problems.”

Perea took a different approach to answering the question. He wrote: “I do agree that many factors contribute to different life expectancy rates. Lack of quality jobs and educational opportunities are also factors. Everyone deserves equal access to resources no matter what zip code you live in. I will hold regular community town hall forums in our most vulnerable neighborhoods to not only listen to concerns, but to bridge the gap that currently exists between the community and city hall. Finally, as budgets are prepared, I will allocate resources to improve transportation, green space and other factors impacting these conditions.”

The complete responses from both candidates are available on the CVPPAC Web site at www.cvppac.org.

Some CVPPAC members expressed concern about Henry Perea’s campaign contributions from builders and developers, suggesting that his ties to the industry would lead to more urban sprawl. But, as Kevin Hall’s article in the September 2016 Community Alliance clarifies, both candidates are getting contributions from this sector. Perea received 31% and Brand received 65% of their funding from the Developers, Builders and Property Management sector.

Although the influence of builders, developers and property management money in politics is a concern for our democratic system, Perea’s campaign contributions from this sector are considerably less than Brand’s.

A related area of interest is how the two candidates would handle the slumlord problem. The CVPPAC asked this question on the issue: Please answer “yes” or “no” to this question: Do you support a comprehensive routine interior code inspection program for rental housing?

Brand’s response was brief. He wrote: “No. If you want, I can provide a detailed plan to resolve substandard housing.” Perea wrote: “I support a comprehensive inspection program for rental housing owned by identified slumlords. This list would be routinely updated as needed. Inspections beyond this would be on a complaint basis.” Therefore, neither candidate supports routine interior code inspections for all rental units.

Another issue where both Brand and Perea lose credibility with many progressives is on the issue of police accountability. In the CVPPAC questionnaire, both candidates are asked about this important issue. Brand, who was on the City Council when the current structure of the Independent Police Auditor was established, responded that “the model that we adopted provided limited auditing capability compared to other areas of the state. In my opinion, this model represented the best fit for the city at the time given the political realities and the political strength of the FPOA [Fresno Police Officers’ Association]. There were some growing pains, but I believe the current police auditor is doing a good job of monitoring and investigating our police department. The only flaw I see is that the auditor is not local. I believe it is very important to have a police auditor who is local and is better connected to the community.”

Perea’s response reflects his close ties to law enforcement and the FPOA. He wrote: “I will have a broad-based community advisory board that will advise me on a variety of issues. Under my administration, the police department will employ a strong community-based policing program to improve police-community relations. The department has been working to improve the relationship between the department and the community by adding body cameras. As mayor, I will focus on engaging the community in hiring a new chief of police. The police chief candidates will come before community groups such as the Central Valley Progressives, because it’s important that the community feels a sense of ownership in the selection of our next police chief. These actions will be vital to ensure Fresno residents feel well-protected and have confidence in the police department.”

On the issue of homelessness, I was surprised that during an interview with Brand he made a point of bringing up an article I wrote mentioning him in the August 2016 Community Alliance newspaper. In that article, I quoted him as saying that homeless people were a “horrible cesspool of humanity.” He didn’t deny saying it, but said, “I apologize for the statement. What I meant to say was that human beings had to live in cesspool type conditions. The encampments had gangs that ran them, drugs, they were unhealthy with filthy living conditions.”

Responding to the CVPPAC question on the homeless issue, Brand wrote that “the City has done a lot since 2009 to address homelessness. The state prison realignment and other statewide policy changes have had a direct impact on the complex problem of homelessness in our city. I support a Housing First policy. With a larger investment of funding, I believe the city can make more progress on reducing the level of homelessness in Fresno. The cost of providing more funding for homelessness will be offset by cost reductions to the city for police and other related costs and may actually save the city money if implemented properly. The city should continue to explore all options to resolve our homeless problem and look at best practices of other cities.”

In conversations with Perea on the homeless issue, he consistently points out the gap between the city’s Housing First policy and the need to help homeless people who are living on the streets. Perea’s response to the CVPPAC reflected this difference with Brand and the current policy. Perea wrote that “the City’s biggest failure when it comes to ending homelessness was when the city dismantled the homeless tent cities and forced them to disperse throughout the entirety of our community. This made the homeless population more visible in every corner of Fresno. Under my administration, Fresno not only will offer more emergency and transitional-type housing, but will pair that with expanded rehabilitation programs. This will offer a homeless individual a temporary place to sleep at night while they transition to a stable living environment.”

Looking for opinions outside of the Democrat/Republican framework, I posted a question on the Fresno County Green Party Facebook page about who to support for mayor. The post got mixed reactions. James Hernandez wrote that “I feel like we have 2 Republicans running.” Stephanie Shaw, who is active on the Green Party page, wrote that “Perea assured me that he would shop locally for contractors (specifically about the construction of the stray animal facility). Also, he doesn’t demonize the homeless like Brand does.” Pedro Navarro Cruz wrote that “I also feel like he comes with intentions to help middle to upper class families but will continue to neglect the areas in poverty, which is a significant population. In my opinion, he is an establishment Democrat trying to further his career first before someone who represents us. Sadly, he is the better option, Brand is completely insensitive to our issues. The way he talks sometimes is comparable to Trump.”

The 2008 race for the mayor of Fresno saw Henry T. Perea (Henry R. Perea’s son) running against Ashley Swearengin. Henry T. won more precincts than Swearengin but lost the race because of high voter turnout in the more affluent north end of town. If the poor and working-class neighborhoods south of Shaw Avenue realized the power they had, they could determine who is our next mayor. But nobody is taking odds that is going to happen. Both Perea and Brand are focusing their effort in the northern half of the city because they believe that is where this election will be won or lost.

Asked why electing a mayor that shares his values is important, Howard Watkins with the CVPPAC said that “Fresno really is a tale of two cities. It is long overdue to address the many adverse issues impacting Fresnans living primarily in the southern half of our city. This requires action on many fronts that involve the economy, social justice and a broad array of housing issues. Henry is well aware of these issues and has the background to effectively make a difference on them. Lee Brand could be a good mayor; Henry Perea has the ability to be a great mayor for our City.”

Will Henry Perea bring the Bernie Sanders revolution to Fresno? Not likely. Will replacing an elephant with a donkey make a difference in resolving the deep, structural and intransigent problems Fresno faces? That remains to be seen.

For more information about Henry Perea’s campaign for mayor, visit www.perea4mayor.com.

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Mike Rhodes is the past editor of the Community Alliance newspaper and author of Dispatches from the War Zone, a book about homeless issues in Fresno. Contact him at mikerhodes@comcast.net.