By John Ellis
It’s the doldrums of summer, but issues that have emerged over the past month have forced both candidates into what now seems like a never-ending campaign as they vie to lead the state’s fifth-largest city as its 25th mayor.
Perea and Brand advanced from the June 7 primary. The general election is Nov. 8. This is usually a down time when candidates assess their campaigns, raise money, shore up endorsements and plan strategy for a race that usually starts around Labor Day. Instead, Brand and Perea find themselves addressing issues such as the shooting of Dylan Noble by Fresno police, increasing activity from the Black Lives Matter movement focused on national police shooting cases and the growing problem of northeast residents grappling with discolored water and, occasionally, the presence of lead.
“Both candidates have a hill to climb here,” says Tom Holyoke, a Fresno State political science professor.
Perea came in first in the five-person primary, winning 44.7 percent of the vote, but since he failed to win 50 percent of the vote, he faces a runoff with Brand, who finished second with 30.8 percent.
The recent issues, which could come to dominate the campaign if they continue to dominate the news, hold both promise and peril for the two candidates.
Both candidates have a hill to climb here.
Tom Holyoke, Fresno State political science professor
For instance, the discolored water issue is centered in northeast Fresno, which is Brand’s district. Perea has worked to highlight the issue, saying Brand has been unresponsive to his constituents.
Perea even delivered 4,000 bottles of water to individual northeast homes with a message: “For eight years, City Councilman Lee Brand did nothing about your drinking water. As mayor, I will find a fair solution to a problem you didn’t create.”
At the same time, both the Noble shooting and Black Lives Matter protests could force Perea into a tight spot. He has been endorsed by the Fresno Police Officers Association, but as a Democrat has a natural constituency among many minority residents of the southern parts of the city – many of whom don’t trust police. As Perea walks that fine line, advocates for the poor are working through the summer to encourage occasional or nonvoters to engage in the political process.
All this comes at a time when Fresno – founded 144 years ago by the Central Pacific Railroad Co. – feels like it is at a crossroads.
Should it continue to sprawl outward or focus itself inward? Can, or should, residents be coaxed out of their cars and into using more public transportation? Can downtown be truly revitalized and how much should the government assist in the effort?
These big-picture questions seem vital to a city steeped in agriculture but which also gives hints that it may be on the verge of a major rebranding, especially if the state’s high-speed rail system, currently under construction, connects Fresno to the Bay Area and Los Angeles. As such, these issues were debated and largely dominated the primary election campaign.
Take, for example, the city’s major revamping of its general plan and first updating of its development code in more than 50 years: Brand and Perea come down on different sides.
The undertaking was a cornerstone of outgoing Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s second term and one of her legacy issues. As a City Council ally, Brand helped push the plans, and he largely stands by them, including the general plan’s key concept of pushing infill development over more sprawl on the city’s edges.
Perea has questioned the wisdom of such a strategy, thinking builders may simply go to Madera County, Sanger or Clovis if they are limited in efforts to build new fringe subdivisions that consumers may demand.
Now, that debate has taken a back seat to recent issues.
Perea especially has been trying to capitalize on the water issue, bubbling up as a growing number of northeast Fresno residents express worries that water from the city’s Surface Water Treatment Facility is causing corrosion in their pipes, discolored water and, in several dozen instances, lead contamination.
Perea frames the debate line: “The issue for Lee is what did you know and when did you know it, and what did you do.”
Brand says the problem dates to 2004, four years before he was elected to the council, when there were a few scattered complaints. The investigation never was expanded and the state was never notified, Brand says.
During that time, one of those who spoke up was a tenant in one of Brand’s properties. The city was contacted and the tenant was told to flush out the pipe. There was no other contact from the tenant after that, and Brand thought the issue was handled. Others, however, continued to speak up. Brand said the city dropped the ball.
“I didn’t know there was a significant problem until Jan. 5, 2016,” he says.
On that day, he received an email from a constituent that had attached comments from a social media group – 16 in all.
“You get 16 in one day, you know it’s a problem.”
I’m banging Lee because he knew about the problem and did nothing.
Henry R. Perea, Fresno mayor candidate
Brand referred the matter to Thomas Esqueda, the city’s public utilities director, and Brand says the city has been thoroughly investigating the problem since then to find solutions. The city has now contacted nearly 40,000 residents.
“Henry came in late on this issue pandering to area residents,” Brand says. “He didn’t know the facts and didn’t make a difference.”
Pushing the matter further, Brand says Perea – a Fresno County supervisor since 2004 – has been unresponsive to water issues in his own county district: Brand says the city of Fresno had to help Calwa residents after the county failed to ensure a safe water supply there.
“I didn’t see Henry delivering water bottles to Calwa residents.”
Brand also points to Orange Center Elementary School, also in Perea’s district. Tests in 2003 and 2012 found high lead levels in the water. The city of Fresno is working to hook up the school to the municipal water system, with funding through a state grant.
Perea says Brand is just trying to distract from mishandling the water problems in his own council district. Perea says there has been ample evidence since Brand took office in 2009 that should have tipped him off about the water problems. It started, Perea says, when Brand kept on the council assistant of his predecessor, Jerry Duncan.
Instead, Perea says, Brand not only waited until this year to act on the problem, but also did nothing concrete to address the issue until the final days of budget negotiations, when he asked Swearengin to allocate $750,000 for northeast residents – $500,000 for low-interest loans to replace indoor plumbing, and $250,000 to replace interior fixtures.
Perea says that all came after he began highlighting the problem.
“I’m banging Lee because he knew about the problem and did nothing,” Perea says.
Brand says what Perea doesn’t know is that the decision to help residents was made two weeks before Perea’s news conference on the issue.
Perea has a similar complaint about Brand’s criticism, saying he had reached out to the county health department to help Calwa residents. And in the case of Orange Center, Perea says the county’s responsibilities don’t include water delivery. “We engaged with the health department,” Perea says. “They worked with city to connect into the city water system. That’s how it works.”
Another issue where the two disagree is the city’s “Recharge Fresno” plan, passed in 2015. Brand says Perea opposed the project, a major water system upgrade that has a new $159 million southeast Fresno surface water treatment plant as its centerpiece. Perea disagrees with Brand’s assertion that he opposed the project.
Perea also says he thinks the problems with discolored water and, at times, lead in the water being experienced in northeast Fresno – which appear to be related to the opening of the northeast surface water treatment plant – will spread to the much older homes in the southern part of the city when the new southeast plant opens. City officials say steps are being taken to ensure the northeast problems aren’t repeated when the southeast plant – currently under construction – opens.
The Noble shooting and Black Lives Matter protests are tougher issues, mainly because Fresno voters appear largely supportive of city law enforcement.
Both candidates say emphatically that both Fresno police and Chief Jerry Dyer have their support – 100 percent.
In addition, both Brand and Perea are hesitant to comment on the Noble shooting, saying they are waiting to see results of the investigation. Perea says he will take a close look at not only how the police handle the investigation, but also how the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office handles its own look. Brand also welcomed the added help of the FBI.
“I think the combined investigative efforts will ferret out the facts in this case to get to the truth,” Brand says.
Says Perea: “In every corner of the city I’ve talked with on this, people are nervous. People are anxious. People are anxious about the level of response from the community – from marching peacefully to marching angry to shooting officers.”
Social justice advocates say it’s important to consider the Police Department’s relationship with residents, especially minorities in the poorer parts of the city.
“We believe that law enforcement is necessary for our safety,” says Andy Levine, executive director of Faith in Community, a coalition of Fresno religious groups working for social justice. “But it’s necessary to have law enforcement and a Police Department that’s respected and trusted by the community and by all communities, and right now there is mistrust by communities of color in particular.”
This issue isn’t new. It was highlighted in an April mayoral candidates’ forum in southeast Fresno, and Faith in Community has highlighted it in a white paper and in conversations with the candidates.
But the issue seemed largely in the background as the mayoral candidates in the primary field focused more on the need to increase the number of sworn officers on the force – with Brand in particular noting a goal of 1,000 – as well as allocating more resources to the patrol division.
The focus has been far less on addressing residents, and earlier police shootings didn’t seem to rouse anger among advocates for minorities or the poor. Following the Noble shooting and the shooting deaths of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana, the marchers came out in Fresno. But what also came was the shooting deaths of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rogue, La.
Says Perea: “I have no concern about Black Lives Matter. My concern is about the very small element of any community that needs an excuse to act out like they did in Dallas or Louisiana.”
Of Black Lives Matter, Brand says the movement “has a legitimate purpose in the sense that there are African-Americans who are racially profiled and have had their civil rights abused. Every American citizen has the right to protest in a peaceable manner. They do not, however, have the right to be lawless and commit crimes.”
Levine says Faith in Community wants to be clear about its overarching message: a call for Police Department reform.
Chief Dyer has said he intends to retire during the next mayor’s term, and Perea says he would bring candidates before a host of interest groups and those representing the city’s minority groups.
That’s fine, says Taymah Jahsi, a Faith in Community community organizer, but “it really doesn’t matter what chief we have in there if the policies don’t change.”
Those changes, Jahsi says, start with requiring the police auditor to live locally, and not out of state. They also want the auditor to have more power – to be able to investigate police shootings rather than going over reports and conclusions at the end of the process. That change would include giving the auditor subpoena power.
Currently, Jahsi says, “their review is not very independent. It is quite dependent on the information that has already been gathered.”
In addition, Faith in Community would like to see the next chief be a supporter of community policing, have the city implement a community advisory board so the public can look into acts of police misconduct and see how officers are reprimanded, and a mayor who is more visible in the poorer parts of the city.
“We want a healthy and trusted Police Department,” Levine says. “We think that is possible and necessary.”
Perea says while he favors making the police auditor be local, he does not support giving the position investigative and subpoena powers and also does not support any sort of community advisory board. He says there already are enough investigative layers as is.
Brand, too, says that the auditor should be local, calling it “valid” and “something to strive for.” Beyond that, giving the post more power would be difficult, he says. Brand says he was part of the council that approved the auditor position, which he called “a good fit at the time.” It was also, he says, “a model that recognizes political reality,” and thus did not include investigatory powers. He says the Fresno Police Officers Association would have pushed back hard and likely would oppose any change to the current setup.
But, in a difference from Perea, Brand says he would consider a community advisory board. He says race relations and the political climate have changed in the past year, and that requires new thinking – “a way to ratchet down tension and develop relationships” between police and the community.
Holyoke, the Fresno State political science professor, predicts voters will make their decisions based on who they feel is the best problem solver.
“People expect a mayor to be the kind of person who gets things done,” Holyoke says. “A nuts-and-bolts person and a buck-stops-here person."