This year’s Fresno mayoral race is breaking nearly all of the “political rules” built up since voters decided the city’s first “strong mayor” in 1996.
And that is creating an interesting — dare I say confounding? — situation heading to the March 3 primary.
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In truth, the race didn’t even really start until Wednesday.
That’s the day Fresno City Councilman Miguel Arias and others launched an attack on mayoral candidate Jerry Dyer’s plan to address the homelessness crisis. To which Dyer responded with a bomb of his own: “What have they done? I will answer it for you. Nothing.”
Expect more fireworks the rest of the way.
Interestingly, Arias — who isn’t running for mayor —commanded the news conference and not Andrew Janz, who is the only other candidate in the field of seven with a real shot at succeeding Lee Brand.
The Trump Effect
As I said, this race is unlike any Fresno has seen. Credit that to a half-dozen things, including the Trump Effect of turning what officially are nonpartisan races into Democrat vs. Republican slugfests all over the country.
Who’s going to win, Dyer or Janz?
It’s a premature question. Your guess is as good as mine, your neighbor’s, or the pizza delivery guy’s.
Brand Is First Incumbent to say ‘No Mas’
For starters, Brand shattered the norm when he didn’t run for reelection. The rule has been win once and you’re good for eight years. (See Alan Autry and Ashley Swearengin). Safe to say, Brand found that being mayor isn’t all that it was cracked up to be.
With Brand exiting, history suggests this year’s mayoral ballot should include several members of the Fresno City Council.
Autry faced four — including Garry Bredefeld — in the 2000 election for the open mayoral seat. Swearengin, who succeeded the termed-out Autry, went against four councilmen — Henry T. Perea, Jerry Duncan, Tom Boyajian, and Mike Dages — in the 2008 primary.
This time, councilwoman Esmeralda Soria jumped in against Jim Costa for a congressional seat. And, her dais colleagues sat out the mayoral race. Dyer’s and Janz’s high name recognition probably had much to do with that.
Countering Dyer’s Obvious Advantages
But while Janz’s name is well known — thanks to the scare he threw into Rep. Devin Nunes in 2018 — he also is limited by his job (Fresno County violent crimes prosecutor) and his family situation (the arrival of a baby daughter) in how much time he spends on the campaign trail.
Meanwhile, Dyer, the newly retired police chief, is out there speaking, shaking hands, and attracting media attention. Throw in Dyer’s huge fundraising advantage, and how does Janz address these deficits?
The independent expenditure group largely funded by the Arambula family has put out social media attack ads against Dyer. You can expect Arias and others to serve as Janz’s surrogates. And then there’s the Trump Effect.
In a poll conducted by GV Wire, Janz led Dyer, 47% to 45.2%, which was basically a dead heat given the survey’s plus-or-minus 4% margin of error.
More telling was this: Janz, a Democrat, was preferred by 83.3% of Democrats queried. Dyer, a Republican, was backed by 93% of GOP respondents. No party preference voters indicated 61.3% support for Janz and 22.8% for Dyer, with 15.8% undecided.
This suggests that many people are thinking to hell with this nonpartisan stuff, I’m voting for my party. That didn’t use to be the case in Fresno mayoral elections. By the way, the latest registration figures show Fresno with 254,693 voters — 42% Democrat, 27% Republican, and 25% no party preference.
Janz Has More Boots on the Ground
And while Dyer’s ads are all over TV, where Janz is noticeably absent, the same Democratic and social-justice grassroots volunteers that helped power Arias and Nelson Esparza to their council victories two years ago are out there in the neighborhoods working for Janz.
Trump, of course, will be the Republican nominee for president. But three Democratic presidential candidates have offices in Fresno — Bernie Sanders, Mike Bloomberg, Tom Steyer — and their teams will be harvesting ballots on their behalf. The more Democrats who vote, the better for Janz.
This election is Fresno County’s first under the California Voter’s Choice Act. Voters can mail ballots, drop them off in secured boxes placed around town, or vote in person at one of the “vote centers” that have supplanted neighborhood precincts. The centers will also be open for early voting, four to 11 days early depending on the location. You also can register to vote up to 8 p.m. on election day.
We know that Republicans are famously high-turnout voters. It’s one of the reasons why Fresno has had nothing but Republican strong mayors. But because Republicans are reliable voters, the GOP turnout increase under the new system figures to be smaller.
So, the fewer Democrats who vote, the better for Dyer.
Will There Be a Run-off?
One of the big questions is whether Janz or Dyer can get 50%-plus-one vote and avoid a November run-off. That’s a tall hurdle with seven names on the ballot.
Good thing for both that Elliott Balch, chief operating officer of the Central Valley Community Foundation, pulled the plug on his campaign in August. He figured to capture about 15% of the vote, similar to how H Spees’ presence in the 2016 election sent Brand and Henry R. Perea to a runoff.
Richard B. Renteria is running. He got 2.52% of the vote in 2016. The Rev. Floyd Harris Jr. will draw support — especially from anti-Dyer voters. And Nickolas Wildstar may appeal to Libertarian Party members (he got 9.4% of the vote while finishing last in a 2018 Fullerton City Council election).
Then there’s Bill Gates, who has the same name as the world’s second-richest person. Fresno’s Bill Gates will get support from people dissatisfied with Dyer and Janz, disgusted with politics, or voting on a lark.
These other candidates could soak up 5% to 7% of the vote, and that means if Dyer and Janz run neck and neck, they’ll line up for a November rematch.
And, that my friends, has been the rule in the strong-mayor era when the incumbent doesn’t run.