Let’s start with this: You won’t totally agree with this list of the people who defined Fresno in 2017.
Some folks might not agree with a single selection.
In fact, you might be able to come up more than a few newsmakers that would make me smack my forehead and think, “Why didn’t I think of them?”
Consider this effort a conversation starter. And then make your nominations in the comments section below this column.
12. Mackenzie Mays — Fresno Bee education reporter
I worked with Mays at The Bee. Facts matter to her and she is relentless in pursuing them. She goes to great lengths to report both sides of the story. Her goal is to be a news-breaker — not a newsmaker.
But this year, after taking on the challenge of looking into the Valley’s high teen birth rates and how school districts were reacting to a new state law mandating comprehensive sex education, she landed in the bull’s-eye of Fresno Unified School District Board President Brooke Ashjian.
Mays got there for reporting what Ashjian said about the district’s sex-ed program: “My biggest fear in teaching this – which we’re going to do it because it’s the law – but you have kids who are extremely moldable at this stage, and if you start telling them that LGBT is OK and that it’s a way of life, well maybe you just swayed the kid to go that way,” Ashjian said. “It’s so important for parents to teach these Judeo-Christian philosophies.”
Instead of owning his remarks in the face of criticism from the LGBT community and others, Ashjian attacked Mays, calling her “fake news” and the “ministress of propaganda.” He also claimed that Mays went on school campuses without permission to query students for a survey about sex education.
Ultimately, Ashjian failed in his quest to make Mays the story. She had the facts — Ashjian said those words and the school district approved the survey — on her side.
And, on Dec. 29, Glamour magazine published Mays’ first-person piece about her experiences in reporting on sex education. It is appropriately titled “How One Reporter Got An Entire City Talking About Sex Education.”
11. Steve Brandau — Fresno City Councilman
Conservatives adore him. Liberals despise him. Regardless of how you feel about him, it must be recognized that Brandau drives the political conversation more than anyone else at City Hall.
That’s because he’s mastered the conservative populist playbook and seemingly has an opinion on everything. To name a few: immigration reform, high-speed rail, homelessness, the high cost of affordable housing, President Trump’s performance, “fake news,” CalExit and San Joaquin River Parkway access.
He rarely turns down an opportunity to appear on talk radio. He writes op-eds. And, although he sometimes receives massive pushback — his retweet of an anti-immigrant post from Sweden, for example — he is adroit at social media.
Amazingly, there are times when he appears to dominate local social media despite having just 225 friends on Facebook and 1,039 Twitter followers. Perhaps he — or someone on his staff — has mastered the art of “tagging” to gain him wider exposure. At the same time, his team has mastered the art of story-telling via Facebook videos featuring the councilman.
Earning approval for a no-camping ordinance targeting homeless people was Brandau’s biggest political victory in 2017.
We shall see if he and other council members come up with a plan that effectively and humanely deals with homelessness in 2018.
— Steve Brandau (@stevebrandau) December 10, 2017
10. Debra Rush — Co-Founder of Breaking The Chains
Debra Rush, left, with Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, and Breaking the Chains co-founder Tiffany Apodaca
Her story and her perseverance on behalf of human trafficking victims have made Rush the face of local efforts to save young women from prostitution.
When Rush speaks, people listen. That’s because she is a second-generation sex-trafficking survivor. Forced into prostitution by a Fresno gang member, she found a way out — and a path to redemption.
“We advocate for the victims, but we also try to get them to cooperate with law enforcement,” Rush told GV Wire. “We know it’s painful because you have to relive the trauma, but it is so healing to put an end to it and know that you are ensuring this pimp is never able to do this to another girl.”
Two of Rush’s biggest fans are Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer and Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp. All three have teamed up to focus public attention on sex trafficking and its reliance on social media. With police and the DA’s Office committed to putting pimps in prison, many dozens of local victims will get a second chance at better lives.
9. San Joaquin River Conservancy Board
Fed up with the glacial pace of San Joaquin River Parkway expansion, trail advocates banged the drum loudly for progress in 2017. Suddenly, the little-known 15-member board composed of four elected officials, representatives of various state agencies and local citizens moved into the spotlight.
The question before the board: Where to provide access to the long-planned Eaton Trail expansion through an area dubbed River West. Residents in the bluff community opposed access in their neighborhood and said the entry should be at Palm and Nees avenues. Others countered that it should be through the bluff community.
Ultimately, the board decided upon the Palm and Nees location. But only after longtime City Hall administrator Bruce Rudd painted a scenario in which the city would pull out of the project if the board didn’t go with Palm and Nees.
Meanwhile, there’s no telling when the trail will be built.
8. Clint Olivier — Fresno City Councilman
If Fresno’s “Just Say No” City Hall caves in and joins the legalized marijuana gold rush, it will be because of Olivier, a Libertarian who served in the U.S. Marines.
Slowly but surely the Fresno City Council president has convinced some others on the dais that Fresno must be out of its mind not to capitalize on the state’s legalization of medicinal and recreational marijuana.
Olivier has one year before he terms out to lead efforts to legalize medical marijuana dispensaries. Will it happen? The jury’s still out, but the fact that the council and Mayor Lee Brand are weighing the pros and cons is the direct result of Olivier’s tenacity.
On another front, Olivier is leading the effort to finally open a first-class senior center in Fresno. A ribbon-cutting would provide a fantastic finish to his council service.
7. Jeff Tedford — Fresno State Football Coach
Be honest. What were your expectations for the Fresno State football team this season?
Three wins? Four wins? A .500 season if the breaks went the Bulldogs’ way?
It’s doubtful that even the most optimistic Red Waver envisioned 10 victories, including a win over Boise State; a Mountain West division title, and a bowl victory.
But that’s what Tedford delivered for the Bulldogs after they went 1-11 in the final year of Tim DeRuyter’s tenure.
How did Tedford do it?
He knows what it takes to win in college football — as he proved at Cal. He brought in capable assistant coaches and had the good fortune to land last-minute Oregon State transfer Marcus McMaryion of Dinuba. McMaryion gave the Bulldogs exactly what they needed at quarterback: leadership, experience and an upgraded passing game.
Football pays the bills for all the other athletic programs at Fresno State. In addition, a winning program unites a community and fills restaurants and bars.
Tedford was the right man at the right time for the university and for Fresno.
6. Todd Suntrapak — President/CEO of Valley Children’s Hospital
There is obvious news measured by digital clicks, headlines and broadcast reports.
And there is quiet news. These are the big things that the media, much less residents, don’t piece together until long after the fact.
Suntrapak is a quiet newsmaker. Unlike many of today’s CEO’s, he’s not the face of the organization. Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and his family, the kids cared for at Valley Children’s and George, the hospital’s giraffe mascot, take care of that.
The news here is that Valley’s Children’s is expanding well beyond its Madera County campus: Clovis, Bakersfield, Modesto and Fowler.
Suntrapak told ABC30 in June that the hospital’s goal is accessibility, especially in the Valley where it provides medical care in a 45,000 square-mile area.
“Our objective is to create access to pediatric doctors no more than 30 minutes or 30 miles from families in that geography and that’s what we’re doing,” Suntrapak said.
He joined the hospital in 1995 and took over the top spot in 2012. The organization’s growth is impressive and its medical-care excellence is undisputed. Besides being a newsmaker, Suntrapak is one of Fresno’s most influential and powerful leaders.
5. Fresno Teachers Association
Fresno Teachers Association
Will they or won’t they strike? That question has lingered throughout the year, as the teachers and the district have locked up in an intense battle to win public support.
These negotiations typically are tough. But, for a multitude of reasons, the stakes are magnified this time.
Former Superintendent Michael Hanson successfully utilized divide-and-conquer tactics against FTA throughout his reign to gain union approval. Finally recognizing that they need to stay united to get the raises they desire and more control over classroom conditions, the teachers are now in lockstep.
But district leadership — meaning Superintendent Bob Nelson and the board of trustees — have shown no signs that they will surrender control or divert funding intended for helping underachieving students to teachers’ paychecks.
In addition, the district has gone to great lengths to ensure that classes will continue should the teachers strike for the first time since 1978.
Will they or won’t they?
We’ll find out after Jan. 18. That’s when a mediator’s “fact-finding” report is released. Until then, the battle goes on.
4. Joseph and Mary Castro — President and “First Lady” of Fresno State
Joseph and Mary Castro
Fresno State’s dynamic duo is on a mission to make the Valley a better place for families struggling to find work and put food on the table.
They both know and preach that education is the key to success. And that the full development of human capital is essential to improving the Valley economy.
It’s a huge assignment, which is why both have taken it on.
But beyond the big picture, there’s the day-to-day challenge of leading a university.
Fresno State’s president faced a few of them in 2017.
In February, Fresno State lecturer Lars Maischak tweeted “To save American democracy, Trump must hang. The sooner and the higher, the better.” That became a national story and enraged the university’s conservative supporters.
In May, two Fresno State students sued a professor for erasing anti-abortion messages they wrote in chalk on a campus sidewalk. The students said that their free speech rights were violated. The Fresno Bee reported that the professor later agreed to pay $17,000 to settle the matter and undergo First Amendment training.
And in November, Athletic Director Jim Bartko resigned, citing personal reasons.
Castro handled all of these situations in stride — not allowing them to flare out of control.
He’s able to do that because he’s experienced and thoughtful. And because his No. 1 concern is doing the right thing.
3. Tim Jones — Developer/Attorney
Left to right: Robert McCaffrey, McCaffrey Homes; Tim Jones, Riverstone Development, LLC; Norm Allinder (in the back), Chief of Development Services, Madera County; Tom Wheeler, Madera County Supervisor, District 5; Brett Frazier, Madera County Supervisor, District 1.
Fresno area home-buyers are always looking for the newest “hot spot” somewhere north. Most recently, it has been northeast Fresno and Clovis. Now, while Fresno’s controversial General Plan promotes urban infill, families who prefer suburbia also are crossing the San Joaquin River to Madera County.
Developer and attorney Tim Jones long ago recognized the convenience and appeal of the Avenue 12 location, just west of Highway 41, where he has set the stage for builders to construct 6,600 homes on 2,000 acres of former ag land.
Woodward Park is minutes away. So are Riverpark Shopping Center and high-paying jobs in medicine and finance in north Fresno and Clovis. Thanks to Highway 41, it’s a quick commute to downtown Fresno.
His project, Riverstone, is the first in the Rio Mesa Area Plan. At buildout, Rio Mesa would have 30,000 homes and 100,000 residents, certainly big enough to sustain significant retail and commercial development of its own. Think of it this way: The “New Clovis.”
Jones cleared many hurdles to get this far. There were lawsuits and he had to prove that the project had a sustainable water supply. Now the homes are selling like hotcakes.
As Jones doesn’t have much of a public profile, most people wouldn’t consider him a newsmaker. But he is, and his project — along with those of other Rio Mesa developers —will shape Madera and Fresno counties for decades to come.
2. Brooke Ashjian — Fresno Unified Trustee
I’ve got Brooke Ashjian fatigue. You’ve got Ashjian fatigue. I am willing to bet that Brooke has Ashjian fatigue, too.
There’s a reason why we’re all weary.
In one year, he fought more toe-to-battles than Muhammad Ali did in his entire career.
But it’s a fact that Ashjian accomplished what many thought impossible: Forcing Michael Hanson, long backed to the hilt by Fresno’s political brokers, into departing Fresno Unified School District. Now the district has an opportunity to move forward with a more collaborative leader, Bob Nelson, and a board more focused on student achievement.
Here’s something else. Ashjian’s name in a headline draws readers. I saw it in the digital analytics at The Bee when I was there. I see it here at GV Wire. The split between people who want to read about Ashjian because they’re mad or want to cheer him on? Even in this age of data mining, I can’t fathom a guess.
The other thing that Ashjian pulled off was turning the school board presidency, largely a ceremonial role, into a position of power.
Will Ashjian seek re-election to his Bullard-area seat in 2018?
I doubt it.
He’s got a business to run and a loving family to spend more time with.
I don’t expect him to quit Twitter, though. He’s a political warrior through and through — sometimes strategic, sometimes looking to get a rise out of his adversaries, always unfiltered.
1. Mary Curry — Southwest Fresno Activist
Pastor BT Lewis, left, and Mary Curry
What, you were expecting Devin Nunes in the No. 1 spot? Yes, he is a national story. But let’s wait until the end of 2018 to see how he and President Trump fare in regard to impacting Fresno.
Mary Curry, along with other community activists, took on City Hall and Gov. Jerry Brown to ensure that southwest Fresno gets its fair share of $70 million in state cap-and-trade money to help impoverished and unhealthy communities. Initially, the city’s and the governor’s plan was to spend it all in downtown Fresno.
Curry also led the effort, with a big boost from Fresno City Councilman Oliver Baines and attorneys representing southwest residents, to finally get the city council to approve the relocation of the Darling Ingredients rendering plant. That plant has fouled the air for those living nearby for decades.
Many, many people had a hand in these two victories for southwest Fresno. But Curry has fought the good fight for too many years to count. And for southwest to come up a winner, well, that rarely happens at City Hall.
Now perhaps it will be the south side’s turn to see investment, jobs and significant crime reduction. Really, where else is there for Fresno to grow?
“We ask for help, “ Curry told The Fresno Bee’s Mark Grossi in 2013 about southwest Fresno’s long-ignored problems. “Nobody has been listening.”
In 2017, City Hall finally listened.
That makes Curry and all those who fought beside her No. 1 in my book.