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Perea vs. Brand battle begins departure from history

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History – the passion to shape history, to be more precise – will decide Fresno’s mayoral race.

That’s what I thought Tuesday as I drove to Henry R. Perea’s election night party in the Tower District.

We all know the scoop by now. Five candidates were fighting in the primary to succeed the termed-out Ashley Swearengin.

With all precincts reporting, Perea leads with 43.80%. Lee Brand is second with 31.93%.

H. Spees is third in the five-candidate race at 18.14%, followed by Doug Vagim (3.68%) and Richard Renteria (2.24%).

Late absentee and provisional ballots remain to be counted. But the lineup is set: Perea and Brand will duke it out in November’s general election.

Tuesday was nothing but hard work for Perea and Brand.

Perea spent most of the daylight hours on the Hall of Records’ third floor, where he joined his fellow County Supervisors in slogging through a typically tough agenda.

Brand tackled a similar governmental challenge, but did so at City Hall as he and the other six City Council members held the first of several hearings on the Fiscal Year 2016-17 budget.

Perea and Brand wanted to finish the day with 50% plus one of the mayoral vote, thus avoiding the runoff. Who wouldn’t? But that was hardly realistic thinking. Both candidates had plenty of dough in the coffers and extensive support networks. They had too many assets to suffer a rout.

Perea ran No. 1 in all the polls. The key question: Would Brand be close?

It’s not a matter of vanity.

The last two contested (in a serious manner) mayoral races are instructive.

Nine candidates sought to succeed the termed-out Jim Patterson in the 2000 primary. Alan Autry was first with 28.75% of the vote. Dan Whitehurst was second with 27.78%. Together, they pulled in nearly 57%.

In theory, about 43% of the voters who bothered to cast primary ballots were up for grabs in the November runoff. Both Autry and Whitehurst, separated by less than one percentage point, had to be confident heading into the fall.

As it turned out, Autry roared to an easy victory, beating Whitehurst 61.23% to 38.57%. Autry would serve two full terms.

Then came the 2008 mayoral primary. There were 11 candidates this time. Henry T. Perea (Henry R. Perea’s son) came in first with 27.49%. Swearengin was second with 27.11%. Together, they got almost 55% of the vote.

Same scenario as with Autry-Whitehurst eight years earlier: Razor-thin margin between the top two candidates, lots of primary voters up for grabs, high confidence in both camps heading into November.

Again, the fall campaign delivered an eye-opener. Swearengin pulled away to a comfortable victory with 54.35% to Perea’s 45.40%.

Come January, Swearengin will have served two full terms.

The 2016 primary proved to be much different than the 2000 and 2008 primaries.

For starters, Perea and Brand got nearly 75% of the vote. That’s darn close to being a trial run for the November runoff. And it leaves (again, in theory) only a quarter of the primary voters up for grabs.

General elections draw more voters than a primary, even if the marquee match isn’t Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump.

Then there’s the nearly 12-percentage-point difference between Perea and Brand. Any way you look at things, that’s a big hurdle.

I began my Tuesday evening journey with a visit to Brand’s party at The Elbow Room in Fig Garden Village. It was about 8:30, a half-hour after the polls closed – still early. Still, the mood in the banquet room was rather subdued.

It was no secret at City Hall that Brand wasn’t expecting to top Perea on Tuesday. Rather, Brand was counting on a late surge to substantially erase what had been a double-digit deficit in the polls.

If the first reports from the county Elections Office (absentee ballots) had been, say, Perea 40% and Brand 38%, then joy would have reigned in the Brand camp. The early evening mood at The Elbow Room would have been boisterous. Glasses full of adult beverages would have had a workout.

I walked into a room full of brave faces.

Brand gave me a quick rundown of the early numbers: Perea in the 43% range, Brand around 31%, Spees about 17%.

“No. 1, we wanted to make it into the runoff,” Brand said.

“People have made up bigger differences before,” he added.

Then Brand came to the essential point.

“I’m talking to H. tomorrow,” he said.

Again, it’s been no secret at City Hall (or in the Perea camp) that Brand and Spees were leaning toward an unofficially official pact: Whoever came in third would give the full weight of his support in the fall campaign to the other guy. Bottom line: Stop Perea!

My next stop was The Painted Table in The Tower.

Now this was an Election Day Party! The place was packed, and more people were elbowing their way in. I walked through the front doors and there on my left was Georgeanne White, Autry’s chief of staff for eight years and Swearengin’s chief of staff from Day One. Off to my right was the Mayor herself, busy with a TV interview right in the middle of this political scrum.

Perea was off to one side, chatting with Fresno Police Officers Association President Jacky Parks. Former City Council Member/Assembly Member Mike Briggs strolled by, pausing to shake Perea’s hand and offer a kind comment.

It was going to be a long and cheering night for Perea. We talked for only a minute or two.

“Our message resonated with the voters,” Perea said. “And we stayed positive the entire time.”

Then I asked the only question on my mind.

“Have you called Alan?”

“Autry?”

I smiled, but said nothing.

Perea was born into politics. He knew who – and what – I meant.

To cut to the chase, Perea as of 9 p.m. Tuesday said he hadn’t formally talked to former mayor about an endorsement for the fall campaign. But Perea said he probably will make that call.

Perea told me about his recent appearance on PowerTalk 96.7, the local radio station. He said the issue of general fund reserve balances came up. I find such topics to be compelling. I’m not sure about most voters.

In a nutshell, the Autry Era ended with something like $17 million in the general fund reserve. That quickly disappeared in the post-Autry chaos of the Great Recession. The Swearengin Administration and a Brand-led City Council have started rebuilding the reserve.

How Autry came to get that $17 million, why Swearengin chose to spend almost all of it, and the sources of the newly-rebuilt reserve are all politically technical questions of immense interest to big-name political insiders whose endorsements can, on occasion, carry weight with important niches of the general public.

Perea on PowerTalk was defending the legitimacy of Autry’s $17 million general fund reserve. In other words, he was polishing Autry’s mayoral legacy, a legacy that has taken a beating in recent years.

Perea told me he texted Autry during one of the commercial breaks something to the effect of “hey, are you listening? I’m defending you.”

Perea in our chat at The Painted Table then turned the tables on me. He asked a question.

“Why do you ask about Alan?”

“Historical narratives, Henry. What’s accepted never stays the same. Alan left office. Circumstances changed. Alan no longer had access to the media and the people to shape their assumptions of what he’d done. Others had that power. He got the blame. You were there at City Hall when Alan got started. If you’re elected mayor, maybe Alan sees that as a way to redeem history’s judgment on what he did.”

“I like your narrative,” Perea said as he moved on to greet a small army of happy supporters.

I live in a county island. I can’t vote for mayor. I’ve worked with Brand and Perea for years. I have the highest regard for both. Fresno is in excellent hands regardless of who wins in November.

My point here is touch on the potential significance of Tuesday’s election results and the blunt – shall we say “brutal” – nature of democratic politics.

By any measure, Perea is the strong horse in the mayoral race. The mayor of Fresno runs a billion-dollar empire and exercises immense power locally. People from various walks of life, strictly out of self-interest, like to bet on the strong horse.

Alan Autry was a very vocal backer of Spees throughout the primary. I saw plenty of TV ads with the two of them standing in front of City Hall. In fact, a strong case can be made that Autry’s support (dating all the way back to 2004) is responsible for turning Spees into a legitimate mayoral candidate.

I’m not so sure Wednesday’s Brand-Spees summit, should it lead to Spees’ unqualified support, will result in an 18 percentage point boost to Brand’s campaign.

Heck, I’m not so sure Spees would ever give his unqualified support to Brand. Not because Brand doesn’t deserve it. But because Spees is a realist. He has to do business here. Does he want to wake up in January 2017 knowing that he’ll soon need some help at City Hall and the mayoral candidate he had backed the previous November is now working fulltime at his property management company on Shaw Avenue?

As to exactly what about Autry’s mayoral legacy might need burnishing – I’ll leave that to another story and the upcoming campaign. Downtown stadium, reserve policies, labor relations, borrowing habits, economic development, minority outreach, charisma, revenge.

It’s all the stuff of building coalitions. And that’s the name of the game in Fresno politics.

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

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