These Are the Stories that Rocked Local Politics in 2021
A Central Valley congressman says he is leaving. A new mayor enters City Hall in the middle of a pandemic. Fresno has a rocky road rolling out joints.
Politics are always local. From spats to survival, Politics 101 looks at the Top 10 local political stories of the year.
No. 1 — Devin Nunes Says He’s Leaving
Congressman Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, seemed to be a lock in Washington. Winning 10 elections to serve the Central Valley, Nunes served as a stalwart against what he called “fake news,” focused on national security, and seemingly was Donald Trump’s favorite congressman.
Perhaps the latter is the biggest reason Nunes announced he is resigning from Congress in early December to take effect at the end of the week — although he has yet to submit his official resignation letter. Nunes will assume a leadership role in Trump’s new media and technology company.
Nunes’ departure will trigger a special election in the first half of 2022 to fulfill the remainder of the term. It has led to speculation on who will run, and what dominoes may fall in Fresno’s elected offices.
No. 2 — Jerry Dyer Takes Over City Hall
Jerry Dyer had a 10-month run up before taking over as Fresno’s mayor in 2021. He entered at a time of COVID uncertainty, and questions about how to spend millions in federal relief funds, as well as deal with a city council dominated by liberals.
Dyer sometimes faced difficulty balancing his agenda with the council’s desires. However, he won universal praise for his “Beautify Fresno” project, which mobilized volunteers to clean up a section of town nearly every weekend.
The mayor also had some stumbles, especially over his handling of the Gay Pride flag in June. Dyer rejected a change in policy to raise the flag at City Hall for the first time, trying to steer the ceremony to a newly created zone at Eaton Plaza.
Eventually, Dyer relented, allowing for the City Hall ceremony that drew more than 500 people.
No. 3 — Newsom and Kingsburg Councilwoman Survive Recall Attempts
Fresno County wanted to get rid of Gov. Gavin Newsom. But, as a whole, the state overwhelming wanted Newsom to stay.
The Sept. 14 recall election saw 62% of the state vote “no’ on the question to recall Newsom. In Fresno County, 51% said yes.
Both the governor and several of the candidates visited Fresno County during the recall campaign. Larry Elder, Kevin Faulconer, Kevin Kiley, and John Cox tried to convince voters not only to recall the governor, but to vote for them as a replacement. Elder was the favorite in the county and statewide.
One of those campaigning for Newsom to stay was Kingsburg councilwoman Jewel Hurtado. She had to fight back a recall attempt of her own.
Recall proponents cited Hurtado’s liberal policies as the main reason to remove her. Coincidentally or not, the recall attempt started only weeks after Hurtado failed to convince the city council to hang a Gay Pride flag from City Hall.
Hurtado’s own stumble, a DUI arrest in June didn’t help. The recall never took off, as proponents did not collect enough signatures by the deadline.
Her DUI case returns to court on Jan. 11.
No. 4 —Rocky Roll-out for Cannabis in Fresno
Fresno is among the last of the “Toke-hecans,” as one of the biggest cities in California without a legal marijuana retailer.
Bureaucracy can be blamed for the slow roll-out. The city finally reviewed applications in 2021 and eventually named 21 preliminary license winners.
The process has led to four lawsuits thus far, with allegations of a vague and unfair process. Nonetheless, the first retailers could open up in mid-2022 — at least 18 months after stores were projected to start.
No. 5 — FBI Probe at City Hall
Ever since GV Wire reported in September that the FBI was looking into dealings at Fresno City Hall, things have been relatively quiet. Law enforcement and various city councilmembers have kept their lips sealed.
Reportedly, the feds are looking into city deals regarding the operation of Granite Park and the purchase of personal protective equipment.
The city council faced other legal entanglements, too.
During 2021, a legal settlement with Terance Frazier — real estate developer, operator of city-owned Granite Park, and then-fiancé of Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria (the two held a wedding ceremony in November) — was scuttled after a letter from Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp. Her office questioned whether open meeting laws were followed.
And, Fresno developer Cliff Tutelian filed a lawsuit against the city and Councilman Miguel Arias, alleging a “pay to play” scheme for a project on the Fulton Mall in downtown Fresno. That case is pending in the court.
In court papers, Arias has denied the accusations. He has filed an anti-SLAPP motion to remove him from the lawsuit. That motion will be heard in April.
No. 6 — Tower Theatre Sale Leads to Weekly Protests
Another Fresno battle touching on LGBT issues involved the Tower Theatre’s future. As a pending sale to Adventure Church is held up in court over a contractual issue, protesters have staged demonstrations every Sunday throughout 2021.
Among the objections: Adventure Church’s perceived intolerance of gays and an interpretation from protesters that zoning laws prevent a church from operating in the heart of the Tower District.
Counter-protesters, including the far-right Proud Boys, entered the fray. This led to yelling, pushing and shoving. Police reacted by erecting barricades and separating groups to different corners of Olive and Wishon avenues. Even GV Wire had trouble reporting on the story because of First Amendment-questionable police tactics.
The protests led to passive-aggressive comments from the city councilmembers representing the Tower District. The only official action that stuck is the city going to court to allow an inspection inside the theater. Court documents indicate the city is considering taking the theater or its parking lot through eminent domain.
A sidenote: Fresno PD fired veteran officer Rick Fitzgerald because of his ties to the Proud Boys. Fitzgerald protested his dismissal, saying the Proud Boys were neither a criminal group nor a hate group. He also said that he had severed ties to the Proud Boys after being a member for about a year.
No. 7 — Gavin About the Town
Perhaps because of the recall, Gov. Newsom visited Fresno and the Central Valley more times in a year in than any other governor in recent memory.
In July, he helped pick up litter at the Highway 41 on-ramp at Herndon Avenue. In October, he stopped by Sunset Elementary School to sign a series of education bills.
A February stop led to accusations of Newsom dining indoors (he just spent time to talk with the owner). A July stop earned Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer, a Republican, criticism for standing with Newsom.
By GV Wire’s count, Newsom visited Fresno at least six times in 2021, with several more in surrounding areas.
No. 8 — Redistricting Changes Election Maps for a Decade
It happens every 10 years, but the redistricting process in 2021 was different than in previous decades. For starters, the pandemic delayed U.S. Census data, which in turn delayed drawing new electoral maps.
Every governmental jurisdiction has to re-evaluate the lines, and in 2021, the public watched with a closer eye than before. Tensions boiled at the Fresno County Board of Supervisor process. Civil rights advocates bristled at the map supervisors eventually chose, calling it status quo.
The Fresno City Council was not immune to such accusations either. The city council’s use of protecting incumbents’ seats seemed to fly in the face of redistricting rules.
An independent state commission drew new lines for Congress, state Senate and the Assembly. The new maps will jumble the Central Valley’s representation in Washington and Sacramento, with some legislators being forced to run against another sitting elected leader, leave office, or move and run somewhere else.
No. 9 — Status Quo Clovis Election and a Sign Thief
For the final time in an odd-numbered year, the city of Clovis held an election for the city council in March. And, as usual, the incumbents won. Vong Mouanoutoua and Lynne Ashbeck easily found their way back to the dais, in a field of five (voters chose two on the ballot).
The election was marred by a bizarre incident when candidate Herman Nagra was accused of stealing signs. He was arrested and charged with two misdemeanor counts.
Court records show Nagra eventually accepted a deal from Judge Timothy Kams for 100 hours of community service.
The city of Clovis now moves to even-year elections, starting in November 2022.
No. 10 — New Clerks at City and County
Clerks at the county and city levels are unsung heroes.
The county clerk handles elections, a difficult task with the ever-changing laws about ballot access and distribution. Brandi Orth resigned her position in January, saying she needed to move to take care of her ailing mother.
James Kus, an Orth protégé in the office, was appointed. The county clerk is an elected position and Kus plans to run in 2022.
At the city level, the clerk handles meeting agendas and the endless paperwork that runs the city. The Fresno City Council fired longtime clerk Yvonne Spence in June, without publicly announcing a reason.
Sources told GV Wire that Spence’s performance in handling certain issues, such as the 2018 Measure P election and a bumpy roll-out of a new online agenda system, were factors.
The council named Todd Stermer as the new clerk in November.