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In victory, Team Arambula forced to reckon with its own spin

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Six thoughts on Tuesday’s special election in the 31st Assembly District:

1.) Joaquin Arambula, the Democrats’ top candidate, held his evening celebration at Mezcal Lounge on Van Ness Avenue in Downtown. The two TVs were turned to CNN’s coverage of the Wisconsin presidential primary.

Apparently there was no live TV coverage of a solitary special election in an obscure corner of California. The 8 p.m. closing of polls came and went with little obvious notice by the swelling crowd of Arambula supporters.

The live music was excellent. The buffet took a steady pounding. Everyone seemed to know everyone.

Finally, at about 8:25, word spread fast: Arambula in absentee ballots had more than 51%, with Republican Clint Olivier in the 42% range.

Everyone knew Olivier had to be the one with well over 50% of absentees to have a chance.

Suddenly everyone was talking louder. A victory party was on.

2.) I left Mezcal and walked to The Republican on Kern Street, site of Olivier’s party.

Olivier was on the phone as I walked in. He was in mid-sentence, but I caught his reference to “… Assembly Member Arambula.”

I wouldn’t be breaking any bad news in this place.

Olivier finished the call and headed out the front door. I chatted briefly with CVObserver colleague Alex Tavlian, then called it a night.

Olivier, Fresno’s District 7 council member, was on the sidewalk smoking a cigarette.

“I wish you the best, Clint,” I said.

“Thanks, George.”

I took a few steps, then Olivier called out to me.

“See you on the City Council beat.”

3.) With all 188 precincts reporting, Arambula has 15,094 votes (52%) to 12,211 for Olivier (42.1%) and 1,646 for Democrat Ted Miller. There are 91 write-in ballots.

The Elections Department still has about 5,000 absentee and provisional ballots to process. The next report should come Friday afternoon.

Olivier doesn’t have to catch Arambula. He simply has to get Arambula’s total under 50%, forcing a June 7 runoff. From Olivier’s perspective, a vote for Miller is as good as a vote for him.

Of the 5,000 uncounted ballots, about 2,100 are provisionals (for example, someone would cast a provisional if there’s uncertainty about whether she’s registered). All provisionals don’t end up being valid.

Bottom line: Olivier’s got a tough row to hoe.

4.) The Arambula party at Mezcal featured local celebrities.

Joaquin’s parents, Juan and Amy Arambula, were there, of course. Juan and Amy have long and varied careers in local civic affairs.

I saw community activist/lawyer Patience Milrod; community activist/former City Council candidate Mike Wells; civil rights lawyer Chris Schneider; labor leader Dee Barnes (the city’s white-collar union); labor leader Marina Magdaleno (the city’s blue-collar union); former Fresno City Council Member Dan Ronquillo.

Ronquillo is running for the Fresno County District 3 supervisorial seat. He represented downtown Fresno during his eight years on the council dais.

“Remember how I used to be known as ‘Downtown Dan?’” Ronquillo told me. “How soon they forget.”

He has a point. Ronquillo did push hard for downtown back in the day.

But I always viewed Ronquillo as “Industrial Park Dan.” He was tireless when it came to advocating for more and better industrial parks.

5.) I also bumped into Rich McIntyre at Mezcal. He is Arambula’s campaign manager.

I was busy with the sign-in sheet at the front door when McIntyre walked by. We had never met.

“So, you’re George Hostetter,” McIntyre said.

There’s a greeting that means trouble. Sure enough, trouble came.

But not at first. McIntyre had read my recent CVObserver story about the 31st AD race. I had speculated whether Arambula’s campaign strategy revealed a conflict between state and local Democrats.

McIntyre said he wanted to know my thinking. We strolled away from the front door and talked. People milled around us.

In a nutshell, I had viewed this special election as the perfect opportunity for the Democrats to have their cake and eat it too.

The 31st AD seat has been in Democratic hands for 40 years. The Democrats have a huge lead in registered voters, a margin growing by the year. The Democratic Party candidate wins the seat every two years by 20 to 30 percentage points. The 31st typically is a ho-hum race.

At the same time, local Democrats loathe Olivier for a variety of personal and policy reasons. They would love to see him gone forever from City Hall.

I thought: This special election to fill the vacant 31st seat is a crazy time. The June primary is nine weeks away. The November general election will have the 31st seat up for grabs again. The Democrats already have a 51-28 lead in the Assembly. Special elections, with their low voter turnout, tend to favor Republicans. General elections in presidential years, with a juiced-up voter turnout, favor Democrats. Why don’t the Democrats feign intensity in this special election, send Olivier to Sacramento with a Pyrrhic victory, then crush him in November at the same time they get one of their own in the District 7 seat?

There’s no downside to this scenario if you’re a Democrat.

My story speculated whether local Democrats had sized up the situation the same way, but were being outranked by state Democrats who cared only for their needs in Sacramento.

I tried with McIntyre to keep this explanation short and light-hearted. McIntyre would have none of it. The essence of his message was that Democrats play hard to win every time they take the field. They give short shrift to any electoral strategy more complex or far reaching than that.

Sounds good to me, I said. But, I added, think of the 73,000 residents of Olivier’s District 7.

“You gave them Olivier for another 33 months,” I said as McIntyre walked away.

McIntyre turned on me. He told me to plant my lips on his posterior.

“Can I quote you?”

“No.”

Then McIntyre repeated himself.

“Kiss my ass.”

McIntyre’s been around. He knows everything’s on the record with a second (and gratuitous) “kiss my ass.”

6.) Before heading to Mezcal on Tuesday evening I took a stroll through “Jeff.”

Reporters back in the old days referred to the neighborhood of Lowell and Jefferson elementary schools as Lowell-Jeff. It’s a decent-sized neighborhood on the north edge of downtown, stretching from Broadway on the west to Highway 41 on the east.

The two schools have long served as community anchors – Lowell on the west side, Jefferson on the east. The addition of Yokomi Elementary School in the middle has pretty much retired the “Lowell-Jeff” brand name. Now it’s simply the Lowell Neighborhood or the Yokomi Neighborhood.

The only reporter I know (besides me) who still calls it “Lowell-Jeff” is The Bee’s Bill McEwen.

“Jeff” is a smaller area than Lowell and Yokomi. “Jeff” is bounded by 41 on the east, Belmont Avenue on the north, Fresno Street on the west and Divisadero Street on the south. The local Democratic Party headquarters in on U Street, just a stone’s throw from “Jeff.”

“Jeff” can be a rough-and-tumble neighborhood. A woman walking in an ally in “Jeff” was attacked by dogs early Tuesday morning. She is in extremely critical condition.

“Jeff” is home to a lot of people. The population density on the north side of downtown must be high to justify three elementary schools within a 15-minute walk. There’s not much demographic diversity in “Jeff.” Based on my walk, just about everyone is Hispanic.

And “Jeff” needs a lot of revitalization. City Hall’s few remaining code enforcement inspectors should take a drive through “Jeff.”

It was shortly past 7 p.m. when I started my walk. I wasn’t killing time. Near as I can tell, “Jeff” is part of both Council District 7 and the 31st Assembly District. My goal: See how many “Arambula” and “Olivier” yard signs were in “Jeff.”

I didn’t have time to walk every inch of every street. I walked north on Mariposa from Divisadero to Belmont, took Belmont to Fresno Street, headed south to McKenzie Street, then made a right on U and went back to Divisadero.

It was getting dark when I started. I kept an eye on front yards. I looked up and down each side street.

I didn’t see a single “Arambula” or “Olivier” yard sign. I didn’t see any “Arambula” or “Olivier” stickers or handbills. “Jeff” was the far side of the moon as far as the 31st Assembly District race was concerned.

The Bee’s John Ellis has reported that the Arambula and Olivier camps spent close to $1.5 million on the campaign. Voter turnout was 17%. I’m betting voter turnout in “Jeff” wasn’t close to 17%. Why would the campaigns spend time and money on “Jeff”?

I finished my walk and made it to Mezcal in time to incur Rich McIntyre’s wrath. I’d had the temerity to recognize that a vote for Joaquin Arambula was the same as a vote to keep Olivier in his District 7 seat.

I didn’t come up with this notion. I got it from the Arambula campaign.

The essence of the Arambula message was built around Olivier’s track record. The local media were full of such stories. Arambula said Olivier as a council member was not merely incompetent and irresponsible, but downright dangerous to the health and safety of District 7’s 73,000 residents.

Arambula in debates said the best proof is the Summerset Village Apartments near-disaster.

Olivier fought hard against these claims. But there can be no doubt that Arambula made them.

McIntyre’s comment itself didn’t faze me. No sportswriter who survived Jim Sweeney would cringe at McIntyre’s silly schoolyard taunt.

But I didn’t expect the contempt of state Democrats for District 7 residents like those in “Jeff.”

The Arambula campaign spent more than a million bucks to deliver this message: “District 7 voters, Clint Olivier is such a rotten, horrible, evil District 7 council member that we insist you keep him in District 7 for another three years.”

Rich McIntyre boiled that message down to three words: “Kiss my ass.”

Wonder if we’ll get a repeat in November.

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

2 Comments

  1. George, we probably will. Both the major political parties are contemptuous of voters. If they respected the voters they wouldn’t run the attack ads and do all the mud slinging they do.

  2. Great story. Loved your writing. Sad to see your logical views met with ignorance and nasty comments. Glad you got the last laugh.

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