Understanding the Political Landscape of the City

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This map shows the voting pattern in the Nov. 8, 2016, election for mayor of the City of Fresno broken down by precincts. It shows a Tale of Two Cities with the more affluent north Fresno voting for the conservative Republican candidate and the south voting for Henry Perea, the Democrat. If the rampant disenfranchisement of voters in the south was not so dramatic, Perea would have won. For example, voter turnout in Precinct 7 (in southwest Fresno) was 43% and Perea got 80% of those votes. In precinct 151 (in northeast Fresno) voter turnout was 78% and Brand received 72% of those votes. Special thanks to Jason Carns for producing and allowing us to use this map.

– The content in this section is paid for by the Central Valley Progressive PAC –

 

By Mike Rhodes

Looking at the changing demographics of Fresno and voter registration numbers favoring the Democrats, you would have thought Henry R. Perea (a Democrat) had an excellent chance of winning last November’s race for mayor. But somehow things went horribly wrong. Lee Brand won with 71,776 votes (51.20% of the vote) to Henry Perea’s 68,053 (48.54%), continuing the long parade of right-wing conservative Republican mayors in this city.

Central Valley Progressive PAC President Pam Whalen said that “understanding the forces at work behind the scenes that led to this outcome will help Fresno progressives succeed in the next election cycle. Knowing the political landscape of the city you live in can only make you a more effective advocate for social change.”

Many progressives will tell you that they were not excited about Perea because he is a moderate Democrat and his positions on issues such as police accountability were not progressive enough. But there is an argument made in political circles that a candidate’s chance to win will improve if he is more centrist, winning more votes from the right end of the political spectrum. Of course, that assumes that progressives will vote for a moderate Democrat because the only other choice is a conservative Republican. If that were true, Perea would have won in a landslide.

The fact is that Hillary Clinton did well in the City of Fresno, winning with 55% of the vote, compared with Trump’s 36%. In an analysis of the election, produced by Jason Carns, a political consultant who worked on Perea’s campaign, Perea only received 46% of the votes cast (5% of Fresno voters left the mayor’s race blank). That is a stunning underperformance and a key factor in understanding what went wrong. It is not that a majority of Fresno voters are conservative, as many people believe, but rather that several critical elements of the Perea campaign failed. Both Clinton nationally and Perea’s loss locally might be evidence of a chink in the argument that “moderate” Democrats always have a better chance at winning.

When I met with Perea in January 2017, he said that he met his goal of getting the votes that were possible to receive in north Fresno and statistics show that to be true. Where the Perea campaign failed was in getting enough votes in southeast and southwest Fresno.

Michael D. Evans, the chair of the Fresno County Democratic Party and a Central Valley Progressive PAC board member, said, “The fact that he had so little support from the current City Council was a problem.” Two Democrats on the City Council (Paul Caprioglio and Sal Quintero) even endorsed Lee Brand. Oliver Baines, who represents southwest Fresno and is a Democrat, was neutral. Baines told me that he could not even remember if Perea asked him for an endorsement. Esmeralda Soria was the only City Council member to support Perea.

Quintero, who represented the heavily Latino southeast Fresno City Council District, appeared in ads supporting Brand. This was probably a critical factor in the significant underperforming number of votes Perea received (compared to Clinton) in that district. This was a major reason why Fresno did not get its first Latino mayor and instead continued the series of right-wing Republicans who dominate political power in this city.

Asked why Democrats on the City Council would support Brand or remain neutral, Evans said that Perea “did not do outreach early on to connect with these individuals and maybe there was something in the past when they worked together that they needed to work through. Maybe these individuals wouldn’t have endorsed him, but it might have prevented them from endorsing his opponent.”

Former City Council Member Blong Xiong influenced members of the Hmong community to vote for Brand and former Board of Supervisor Susan Anderson had a significant impact when she came out in support of Brand. It appears that Perea’s conflicts with local politicians who should have been allies accumulated into an avalanche that helped to crush his ambition to be the next mayor.

If Jesse Unruh is right and money is the mother’s milk of politics, then Brand’s campaign was well nourished. After the final numbers are released, it is expected that about $600,000 was spent to get Perea elected compared to $1,000,000 on Brand’s campaign. Perea told me that when Brand went negative on him at the end of the campaign, he simply did not have enough resources to mount a credible response. The business community and other wealthy contributors circled their wagons and supported the candidate they knew would represent their interests. Poor and working people simply could not counter the campaign contributions and independent expenditures that corrupt our political system.

Whalen, president of the CVPPAC, said, “Brand not only had support of the wealthy, he also was able to roll over significant cash reserves from prior campaigns.”

A contributing factor to Brand’s victory was that local Republicans had given up on a Trump victory in California, freeing them up to focus on the local mayoral race. The same was not true of the Democrats who had precinct walkers for Clinton and many other candidates and ballot initiatives. Perea largely relied on paid walkers and was somewhat perplexed about why more progressives did not come out to walk in support of his campaign.

Carns said, “The Perea campaign ran a very strong full court field campaign, and made substantial inroads into north Fresno, providing a framework for Democrats to win future races. The Perea campaign was, however, outspent. For almost every two dollars the opposition spent, the Perea campaign spent one dollar. In independent expenditures, for almost every three dollars spent on behalf of the opposition, one dollar was spent on behalf of Perea. That financial advantage can be very hard to overcome, but Perea came very close.”

The map Carns produced shows the recurring pattern of a conservative/Republican voting north Fresno and the more progressive south Fresno. What you don’t see in the map is that voter turnout is always higher in the north, due to the inherent unfairness in the voting system. Residents in north Fresno move less and therefore don’t have to re-register at a new address in order to vote. The residents in south Fresno have more transportation issues and sometimes cannot get time off from work to vote. Of the 3,000 (more or less) people in the Fresno County jail on Election Day, two-thirds of them are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime. Yet, they were unable to get out and vote on Nov. 8. Yes, the system is rigged against the less affluent parts of town and many people are so alienated that they don’t even believe it matters who gets elected.

Did the one union that supported Brand make a difference in the outcome of the elections? We might never know if the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1027 support influenced the vote, but we do know that their members received a 9.2% raise two months after the election. Yes, the bus drivers deserve a raise, but so do other city workers, even if they didn’t support Brand.

If progressives are going to win the City Council races in 2018 and the next mayor’s race in 2020 they will need to figure out how to build a coalition that can unite the left, raise enough money and inspire the people south of Shaw Avenue to vote in greater numbers. To do that, Whalen said that “progressive activists need to focus on recruiting and training strong candidates that can inspire voters around a progressive vision for Fresno. Ideally these candidates will come out of the local grassroots campaigns for social and economic justice.”

The next CVPPAC meeting will be on Saturday, Feb. 11, at 3:30 p.m. at the Fresno Center for Nonviolence (1584 N. Van Ness Ave.). Everyone who shares the goal of having progressives win political power is invited to attend. For more information, call 559-994-9390 or visit the CVPPAC Web site at www.cvppac.org.

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Mike Rhodes is a journalist and member of the Central Valley Progressive PAC. Contact him at mikerhodes@comcast.net.