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What’s Next for Lee Brand, Who Quietly Made Fresno a Better City?

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Lee Brand soon will exit politics and the Fresno mayoral chair as a man of his word, hoping that residents all over the city prosper, and riding the high of bringing Southwest Airlines here.

Freed from the grind of leading California’s fifth-largest city amid the tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brand, at 71, will continue on a road of self-discovery. He is writing a memoir, a blend of facts and fiction that, in keeping with his business roots, he hopes will be a commercial success. The book’s message is that the decisions you make today will impact three or four generations of your family.

Bill McEwen

Opinion

In addition, Brand is working on another passion project: turning $400,000 in leftover campaign funds into student scholarships. His goal is to solicit matching donations so that the fund packs a wallop for many years.

The scholarships, Brand says, won’t be for high-school valedictorians because they already have many grant opportunities. Instead, he wants to target high school graduates needing “a little bit” of recognition and financial support to succeed upon entering a community college or CSU.

“It’s for kids like myself,” says Brand, a Roosevelt High School and Fresno State graduate who spent time in juvenile hall and lost his father in a plane crash at age 15. “It’s for the 2.4 or 2.5 (grade-point average) kids.”

City Hall No Longer Spends Like a Drunken Sailor

It’s not surprising that Brand would direct these funds to students instead of attempting to influence future elections. The reason that Brand entered politics was a belief that his business acumen could position Fresno for better days. After eight years as a city councilman and one term as mayor, he has succeeded in that mission.

The city’s credit rating has gone from junk to blue-chip, $40 million in interest charges for taxpayers and ratepayers have been eliminated through bond refinancing, $36 million in loans from the enterprise fund have been repaid, and the city has a substantial reserve fund. Long story short: City Hall no longer spends like a drunken sailor.

This kind of work doesn’t get headlines nor does it excite most voters, but it’s important and it’s enabling Fresno to withstand the pandemic’s economic devastation. So is Brand’s collaboration with state and federal officials to obtain significant COVID relief funding. Last month, the city’s unemployment rate stood at 8.5%, compared to a statewide 8.2%. There was a time when double-digit unemployment and a rate twice that of the state’s was the Fresno norm.

Brand’s Humble Roots Made Him a Mayor for All of Fresno

When Brand ran for mayor and talked up about growing up in southeast Fresno, left-wing critics said that he was pandering for votes from people of color. Brand’s candor certainly helped his campaign, but there was nothing phony about the sharing of his experiences. His childhood was chaotic, and he made mistakes that sent him to juvenile hall. To this day, Brand has never forgotten his past and he identifies with people struggling to get ahead.

The city’s credit rating has gone from junk to blue-chip, $40 million in interest charges for taxpayers and ratepayers have been eliminated through bond refinancing, $36 million in loans from the enterprise fund have been repaid, and the city has a substantial reserve fund. Long story short: City Hall no longer spends like a drunken sailor.

That empathy fueled his drive to complete former mayor Ashley Swearengin’s efforts to implement a much-needed rental inspection program and crack down on slumlords. It also powered programs to reduce homelessness by addressing the causes instead of merely the symptoms. And, it led to his creation of a community police advisory board, his support for police reform, and ultimately the hiring of Oklahoma City’s Paco Balderrama as Fresno’s first Hispanic police chief.

Sometimes, however, Brand’s fiscal conservativism overrode his social empathy, as happened when he opposed the 2018 parks sales tax —much to the consternation of one of his biggest boosters, former Mayor Ashley Swearengin.

Although the tax didn’t receive two-thirds voter approval, an appellate court ruled this month that the tax passed. Brand reacted like the political pragmatist he is.

“As far as I am concerned, Measure P is now a done deal,” he said. “The real question is, how will this affect the renewal of Measure C? Once you get to a certain level with sales taxes, there is voter resistance.”

Measure C, the countywide transportation tax, is set to expire in 2027.

Brand also ignited an uproar when he named Andy Hall as the interim successor to retired police chief Jerry Dyer following an extensive community listening tour. Many suggested that Brand had punted on the selection, leaving it to the next mayor.

“I took a lot of heat for that,” Brand said. “But we learned from our community meetings that people wanted a new chief from outside the city and we ended up with Paco, who is really talented and will be one of the best chiefs we’ve ever had.”

The wisdom of going with the veteran Hall for a short term has been born out. Under Hall, the department’s detectives quickly identified and arrested the suspects in one of Fresno’s worst mass shootings. And the field of police chief candidates was much stronger the second time around.

The selection of Paco Balderrama as Fresno’s next police chief was announced on Dec. 8, 2020. (GV Wire File)

‘I didn’t want to be 75 and battling things at City Hall’

I asked Brand why he didn’t seek a second term, especially after amassing a huge campaign fund for a re-election bid.

“It was a combination of things,” he said. “I felt I had done as much as I could and I didn’t want to be 75 and battling things at City Hall.”

Brand’s lame-duck year has been the toughest of all.

“This is the most challenging time,” he said. “The pandemic, the economic collapse, our racial reckoning, and wildfires. But we stood together — my administration and a council with six Democrats and one Republican — to take on the pandemic and help Fresno get through this.”

Pandemic politics and Trumpism further drove a wedge between Brand and his already fracturing base of Republican supporters. Though Brand had fixed Fresno’s municipal finances — like every mayor before he failed to instill a business-friendly culture at City Hall. When the pandemic hit, his strongest critics portrayed him as weak, anti-business, and unwilling to stand up to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Thank goodness, Brand didn’t cave to the critics. A mayor’s No. 1 job is public safety and Brand recognized that. He has acted quickly and decisively throughout the pandemic. To his credit, he refused to sacrifice lives and hasten community spread on the altar of keeping gyms and waffle shops open.

As mayor, Brand’s lack of charisma created a political vacuum that others exploited. All of his predecessors in Fresno’s strong-mayor system (Jim Patterson, Alan Autry, Swearengin) had strong personalities and a gift for soundbites. Focusing on legislation, balancing budgets, and job creation, Brand paled in comparison and rarely commanded the public’s attention. Nor could he convince voters to elect his endorsed candidates to the city council.

Brand’s Advice for Dyer

Many politicians sell dreams or tilt at windmills. Brand concentrated on reality and moving the needle. He celebrated tumbling unemployment numbers and using financial incentives to land businesses like Amazon and Ulta. He leaves office believing that the arrival of Southwest Airlines will accelerate the city’s economic recovery from the pandemic.

Brand’s advice for successor Jerry Dyer?

“Stay true to your word. Don’t hold grudges and don’t create division because that doesn’t serve the needs of the city. Remember that no matter what you do, it’s impossible not to make mistakes. We need healers, not partisans.”

Lee Brand, left, will hand the mayoral gavel to Jerry Dyer in early January. (GV Wire File)

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