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In first stop, Perea digs in on history, homelessness, high-speed rail

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Henry Perea on Thursday kicked off his campaign for Fresno mayor by heading into what figures to be the toughest territory for him – north Fresno.

Public safety, economic development and water storage were key themes in his after-lunch remarks to the North Fresno Rotary Club at TorNino’s banquet hall.

Perea got the invitation weeks ago, when his main claim to public importance is his job as Fresno County District 3 supervisor. That changed last week when he surprised no one by announcing his mayoral candidacy.

Fresno City Council Member Lee Brand and community activist H. Spees are also in the hunt to succeed the termed-out Ashley Swearengin as Fresno’s chief executive. Both have considerable support in north Fresno. Perea has had a long and successful political career thanks to his clout in central and south Fresno.

Speaking without notes and relying on only a few PowerPoint graphics, Perea opened with what on the surface was a simple review of county operations.

The county has nearly 7,400 employees and a budget of $2.6 billion. It provides vital “safety net” services to nearly one million people living in an area covering 6,000 square miles.

But even without mentioning his newest job quest, Perea obviously was sending a campaign message – I can lead – to potential voters.

Some eight years ago, Perea said, he (as board chairman) and his fellow supervisors saw the Great Recession coming. The board told department heads to prepare “recession-level budgets.”

The Great Recession hit everyone hard, Perea said. But the cuts to county services and employment rolls were minimized due to the board’s foresight.

Perea apparently thought it imprudent or unnecessary to add that City Hall spent three years of the Great Recession struggling to avoid bankruptcy.

Looking ahead, Perea said, the county is “prepared. We’re going to continue to provide the level of services our residents demand.”

Yet, everything in life is cyclical, and the near future quite likely holds another recession, its severity anyone’s guess at this point. Perea said government’s response when revenue dries up is 1.) raise taxes, or 2.) “grow the pie.”

By the latter, he meant a dynamic local economy that, by its energy, puts more money in everyone’s pockets without raising taxes.

The supervisors, Perea said, favor the “grow the pie” option. A stronger public-private commitment to effective industrial parks in one option. Perea means sites with much of the infrastructure already in place.

Speed counts when courting big employers with big construction needs, he said.

Perea also said the county quietly added a multi-million-dollar job-training offer to the local incentive package aimed at getting Nordstrom to build an e-commerce fulfillment center in Fresno.

“Who wins?” Perea said of “grow the pie” thinking. “You all win.”

Perea in the course of 20 minutes also spoke of the Temperance Flat dam effort (which would add 1.3 million acre feet of water storage) and the new $89 million county jail coming to downtown (additional drug/alcohol counseling services at the jail could put a significant dent in crime).

Perea had a smooth transition from prepared remarks to the question-and-answer period.

“I am running for mayor,” he said with a slight smile.

The answers to two questions, in particular, gave us a hint of the Perea campaigning style.

The first was about homelessness.

“I wish I could tell you there will be an end to homelessness,” Perea said. “I don’t think we’ll ever put an end to homelessness. But I think we can do better.”

The truly down-and-out deserve our empathy and our help, Perea said. Those gaming the system merit a sharp warning. Those that continue to undermine the social order must bear stern consequences, he said.

“We owe the taxpayers a different Fresno than what we have today,” Perea said.

As a side note, let me add that there were about 60 people in the audience. Several in the back of the room chatted rather loudly among themselves during the first few questions. The room was silent, except for Perea’s answer, when the homelessness question was asked.

The last question came from a man near me: “What do you think about low-speed rail?”

The question got some laughs. Perea is a well-known supporter of high-speed rail.

Floating in the air, invisible to all but understood by anyone who has followed local mayoral politics, was the “turnout” effect. South and central Fresno precincts tend to run blue – Democratic. North Fresno precincts tend to run red – Republican. The mayor’s office is nonpartisan in theory, highly partisan in fact. Perea is a Democrat. Brand, his main challenger, is a Republican. North Fresno in the past has determined the mayor’s race not because it has more people but because it sends more people to the polls.

Perea must 1.) build support in north Fresno, or 2.) improve turnout in central and south Fresno, or 3.) do both.

Perea on Thursday didn’t stumble.

“At some point,” he said, “the debate must end and it’s time for implementation. Until something dramatic happens, high-speed rail is coming.”

Perea briefly and eloquently summarized high-speed rail’s promises. He reviewed the value to Fresno of landing the bullet train’s maintenance facility. He looked ahead to the day that high-speed rail becomes a national reality.

“Shame on us if we don’t position ourselves as the high-speed rail capital of the nation,” Perea said.

Perea was done. The Rotarians applauded. Perea thanked them. The Rotarians applauded again.

Homelessness and high-speed rail – Perea didn’t sugarcoat his message on either issue.

In Campaign 2016, you get serious or you go home.

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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