The special election for Fresno City Council District 2 is scheduled for August 13. Former councilman Steve Brandau vacated the seat after being elected to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors.
The Sun’s Daniel Gligich sat down with candidate Mike Karbassi to discuss the race. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Daniel Gligich: Why are you running for city council?
Mike Karbassi: I was born and raised just down the street from here [his Persian rug business at Bullard and West]. We haven’t had a councilman represent District 2, northwest Fresno, in 20 years that’s actually from the neighborhood. And I say that because I give my phone number to everybody. It’s in all my literature.
When someone calls me and they’re concerned about graffiti, or a home break in they’ve had, or people speeding through the neighborhood or by a school zone – it’s personal because that’s the school I went to. Or this is where my family had it’s business. I’m running because I’m a hard worker, and I think that our district needs someone who is going to focus a lot on constituent services.
You guys cover a lot of the sensationalism that happens at City Hall, and we need an adult there to calm things down, not showboat and just focus on taking care of the district. And then working with the other guys to take care of the city. I’m running to work. I’m a hard worker, and that’s why I’m running.
DG: Can you tell me about your background and experience?
MK: Grew up on Sierra and Marks and went to Malloch Elementary, and then Tenaya and then Bullard. Then we moved.
Our district has Central Unified, Fresno Unified and Clovis Unified, so I ended up going to Clovis West for my last three years. Then Fresno State, and got a business degree. I think I’m the only Fresno State grad in the race too.
I have a business degree in management with an entrepreneurship option. I really enjoyed my time there. I’ve wanted to go back forever, but I just got busy with work. You’ve got to pay for all the expenses you have. My family started a business a few years before I was born, and the rug store has been here for 40 years.
I also had my own business. I had a restaurant for three years, and that was in northeast Fresno. The restaurant business is a very difficult business. If you can make it in there, you can make it in anything. I thought, ‘Yeah, I can do the restaurant part time and still do this business.’ That’s not the way it works. The margins are so small, and you have to really work your butt off. It really taught me that I do have a strong work ethic, but I also had to deal with the city to get a conditional use permit. I had to deal with the state, and they want to say they want you to be making money, but they don’t. They just pass regulation to regulate. I love my employees. I’d pay them $50 an hour if I could. I just can’t, because it always comes down to customers.
So to circle back, that business and this business – the only reason why we survived [is] because of strong customer service, and that’s what I take to this race. That’s why I give out my cell phone number. If you need your councilman out there, this is the guy you see at the grocery store. I’m going to be out there.
And I’ve had a few people call me already, and we’ve had some issues because we don’t just have an open seat, we have a vacant seat. There’s no councilman now. I have a list of things to work on.
DG: How would you deal with the issues of homelessness and crime?
MK: Growing up in northwest, I’ve never seen the number of homeless that we see now. And it’s all over the city, but I’m really concerned about the effects in our neighborhood.
Let’s talk about the homeless issues right now. We have more money than ever coming in. The mayor’s done a great job of raising money from League of Cities, and we’re giving it to all the support services like WestCare. And that’s fantastic.
Here’s the problem though – we just had a 23 percent increase in unsheltered homeless in Fresno, and that number doesn’t include those that are couch surfing, such as homeless college students. It doesn’t include people living in their car. So I suspect it’s actually higher.
What are we doing? We have this “No Camping” ordinance, and I know it’s controversial, but I think we have to use it. I get people camping in front of here. They’ve defecated in front of the store. How am I going to sell a carpet, pay my mortgage, take care of my family? I have a responsibility to do that too as a business owner, as an employer. So do our residents.
So here’s what we have to do. I met with H. Spees. I met with Preston Prince. I’ve met with even Kevin Faulconer, mayor of San Diego. San Diego has actually had some success. He was in Fresno. I got to have dinner with him. It was great. And he told me about what they did.
Ultimately, for those that aren’t stuck with mental health issues and drug use, the people that– something bad happens, whether it’s a family problem or they can’t find affordable housing or they fight with the landlord. How are we going to help those folks immediately? That’s an easier fix. The goal is not to subsidize them. It’s to get them back on their feet. So we’ll start from the very end. They’re on their own feet, great, self-sustaining.
Then there’s Bridge Housing in the middle, because the moment someone goes homeless, it costs like $60,000 per year for the taxpayer. Whether it’s housing first, or it’s [an] affordable housing voucher program – I know it’s taxpayer-funded, but it is fiscally conservative compared to them being on the street because it costs us money.
But here’s the big step – we’ve got to enforce the ordinance. So how do we do that? We do what Modesto did. We find sites throughout the city, maybe in the county area, and we work with the county, and provide sanctioned homeless encampments. So our homeless task force can go out there, talk to them, give them rides, take them out there. It’s a well-lit, low taxpayer cost. You’ve got port-a-potties, handwashing stations, maybe portable showers.
That way all those groups we’re giving money to – the people are sitting there. They can go out to these sites and actually identify the homeless. That’s the easiest solution because we already pay for housing and services. They’re just sitting there. Connect those folks to the VA.
The trouble is mental health and people on drug use. And that’s where you get into the crime area.
Property crimes have skyrocketed in northwest. Smash and grabs, auto vandalism, home break-ins, porch thieves, mailbox thieves, identity theft – it’s out of control. So we have to enforce this “No Camping” ordinance. We have a responsibility to do that. And we can’t be soft on crime.
I’m the only candidate in this race who signed a pledge called the Safer Fresno Budget Pledge. If the budget doesn’t include any more cops, I’m not going to vote for it. This last budget, I wouldn’t have voted for it.
Now if I had been there I’m sure I would have been able to work with the mayor and the other council members to find funding for at least a few additional police officers or CSOs. We’re not going to be able to add 20. We don’t have the money for that, but we have the money for five. We can do that. We need more beat cops. We need more officers on the street. I have the endorsements of the sheriff, of the police chief, of FPOA [Fresno Police Officers’ Association].
They know that I’m committed to knowing their issues. They also know that I’m level-headed, and I can build the consensus we need to get that done. No one’s going to be more aggressive on crime. Especially because this is where I grew up. Growing up here, we left our garage door open and the door unlocked. It wasn’t a big deal. That changed in the ’90s, the crime wave. I think that’s when Winchester was chief. And of course they did a great job, and that calmed down.
But we’re back again. I live in a cul-de-sac, and it doesn’t matter where you are. Even Herndon and Milburn – great area, you’d think it’s safe, and you’ve got some guy with a machete who’s on a Ring doorbell cam trying to break into someone’s home. This actually happened about a month ago. And that resident is pretty upset. I don’t blame her.
That’s my biggest responsibility, the safety of our businesses and our homes and our families.
MK: I’m against using taxpayer dollars to fund a program that hasn’t actually worked. You don’t pay bank robbers not to rob banks. I’m not going to pay a gang member to follow the law.
Now, Mr. [Aaron] Foster, who’s lost two kids – I don’t question the fact that he’s very heartfelt. He genuinely wants to bring down gang violence, and I love that. I just disagree on paying people that have made a choice to join a gang. My fiancé, who’s a teacher now, she actually was a recipient to the PAL Program as one of the kids. She loved it. We got rid of DARE. We don’t have DARE anymore unfortunately. It was better to have it then not have it.
We have one of the best chaplaincies in the country right here in Fresno. They actually go out to 42 Fresno Unified Schools to first graders, because they’re still impressionable. One thing they do is they listen to the kids, and it’s secular if anyone’s concerned about the religious aspect of it. They teach them coping mechanisms, because the home life has changed a lot, unfortunately. This is reality. We can’t ignore it. They teach them about career goals. What do you want to be when you grow up? And the other biggest point is they leverage the badge so they know that an officer – and they’re not officers, they’re all volunteers, but they have the badge – is a friend. It’s someone you go to when you’re in trouble. And it’s a lot easier to teach a child that then try to convince someone who’s made so many bad choices.
What would be great is if we had CSOs. So the community service officers, we used to have like six per district, and they go out there. Response times are a problem. And I’ve seen it myself. I’ve done a lot of ride alongs. And what you learn is – officers, they’re very protective of their beat. So each district has a beat. We have I think seven beats in northwest. They know their neighborhood. They know their business owners. It’s very territorial for the officers, they want to protect their area, but they’re getting called out to priority zero and priority one calls. They don’t have enough bodies.
The CSOs though – let’s say there is a car vandalism. They will actually come out and talk to the resident and listen to the resident. We have a lot of seniors in our district. They don’t know how to use the computer. It’s really frustrating for them. So if we had more of that, let’s say in southwest, or the central, or southeast, it’s more interaction with someone in uniform. And it’s a positive interaction, that helps. I think there’s a lot of things that we can do with what we have.
But I will not support giving money to gang members. That’s just not going to happen. We’ve already weakened out state laws. And that’s part of the reason why we have more violence, because people are being let out early. So I think people need to accept that and understand that.
Singing kumbaya will not save someone’s life.
DG: What issues specific to District 2 need to be addressed?
I’ll tell you my top three issues – this was all based on the last seven months walking door to door. It depends where you walk in this district to learn what the issues are.
And there’s some issues [that are] the same over by Starr Elementary as it is at Herndon and Milburn. Or it’s the same over on West Shaw as it is even in Pinedale. It just depends on what you’re talking about.
So public safety is number one for everyone. Property crimes are out of control. That is the biggest issue I hear at the door. And then you hear about homelessness as well quite a lot. But the bigger thing on people’s minds is public safety. Homelessness, they just want to see us actually move people along and get them the help they need, but also reduce the garbage being left in our neighborhoods and the property crime and having them in front of businesses. They want someone who’s going to be aggressive.
Steve Brandau was a warrior, whether you like his politics or not, whether you like him personally or not. And I do like him personally. He’s very thoughtful, he’s a hard worker. And you couldn’t pull the wool over his eyes. People of northwest expect nothing less. They want a warrior.
A big issue for us though, and this actually impacts the rest of the city – Veterans Boulevard. So if you’re at the Herndon and Polk area, it’s going to be an overpass. It’s $120-130 million project, overpass over the 99, over Golden State into the west area. And that’s where the new development is going to happen in Fresno. It’s this west area. Not just Fancher Creek and southeast. That’s very unique to District 2. I would love to have that done. It has to be fully funded. We’re almost there. We keep pushing back the date. I’d love to be able to work with other Council members and our Congressional delegation and just push and push and push, because from day one 35,000 cars are using it. It’s actually going to help public safety, because it’s going to help our officers navigate the district. It’s very hard to go east-west in Fresno, especially when you’re in the north end.
We talked about property crimes being up, economic development, especially in that west area, creating jobs.
We have some neighborhoods where there used to be county islands. They don’t have sidewalks, and people understand that. They don’t have street lights. That’s a big priority for me. That hasn’t been done. So when you have someone who’s from the neighborhood – I’m like Columbo. I work hard. I will be annoying, or whatever you want to call it, until we get it done. And we’re going to get it done. I want those street lights for those neighborhoods because it’s a safety issue. We have sidewalks that are really messed up. We don’t have enough safe routes to schools. We have kids going through dirt fields. Even on Herndon, trying to walk to school, it’s just a field.
Those are some of the issues you need to address in northwest Fresno.
DG: Are there any issues that you think you’ll make an immediate impact on if elected?
I’m working right now with the private sector, and of course it will be much easier to leverage once I’m a councilmember, to get these [homeless] encampments put together.
The mayor has this beautification project. We can hire some of these people who don’t have work that are homeless and work with the private sector to clean up some of their properties. To give them jobs. At least offer it. That’s one of the first things I want to do out the door.
The other thing is, I would love to pass an ordinance, and this is no disrespect to any of the elected officials now, but if you’re going to resign to run for another office – we need to really discourage that because this special election is costing us about almost a quarter of a million dollars. That’s two police officers right there. So I’d love to pass an ordinance where if you’re going to resign to run for another office, you resign immediately. That way we can have both elections at the same time, or you pay for it if you want out of your campaign funds. Those are just some of the issues.
The day after the election I’m going to be walking doors again because I have a list of things – people have a lot of infrastructure concerns they have.
Some neighborhood streets need to be paved. They haven’t been paved in 30 years. And this is an area where we pay a lot of taxes. People want service for that. And also the Mayor needs help on the council. He needs a little bit more, we don’t want to weaken the strong mayor system. I know there’s a move to do that. I’m against that. I think that there’s a reason why we have code enforcement under the city manager. We have enough to do as councilmembers, we don’t need that going under the city attorney.
DG: Given that the special election leaves the winner with a short term, do you have any concerns about the short amount of time before you’ll have to face reelection?
MK: We’re running to win outright. That’s why we started early, but you never know. If we don’t win in August, it’s going to be November. Hopefully we’re in the runoff. Then you have to wait until December because it has to be certified. And then you’re back on the campaign trail.
The charter allows you to appoint a councilmember if it’s less than a year left of the term. Well this was way more than a year, and Steve stayed on with us a little bit longer. That’s why I’m talking about resigning at the same time, then we’ll have an election, it’s all done. I’m ready for it.
It’s going to be a marathon. I’m the hardest working candidate. I’m the one most people have met at the door. This is my third pair of shoes, and the soles are pretty worn. That’s what you have to do. People need to know you’re willing to work for them.
If you want to get elected to be a big shot, you’re going to do a big disservice to the community. I’m actually going to have to leave here to work at City Hall. We need someone who’s willing to make the sacrifice, and I’m willing to do that. I’m ready for the marathon. That’s the nature of the job. You want to serve, you have to work for it.
DG: Is there one issue that is a priority for you?
MK: The one thing that really gets me fired up is the treatment of our officers. I don’t like it when politicians are willing to call 911 when they need help personally but throw an officer under the bus.
We won’t tolerate any kind of corruption or any kind of breaking of the public trust, whether it’s a politician or a police officer. And we all know that. And especially in my district I have a lot of officers that are retired or active. They live here, men and women who make the sacrifice. I think it’s important to have someone who’s willing to be calm, let things settle, do the due diligence, do the research, and then stand up for our law enforcement. That’s my biggest issue.
But if there’s one thing that separates me from everyone else, it’s constituent services. I’m the only one that gives out my cell phone number. I don’t know why they won’t do it. People are really nice. They’ll call when they need help. I’ve already had folks call me, and we’ve helped them. It feels great. It feels good to help folks. And when they know they can count on you, that’s a good sign. The biggest difference with me. I don’t just talk about constituent services, I’m doing it right now because we don’t have a councilman. So that’s going to be separating me from everyone else. We’re going to be very very focused on being accessible.
When you call, you’re going to get someone who’s going to listen to you, and then we’re going to work on the problem.
DG: Is there anything else you would like to say?
MK: We don’t talk a lot about economic development. We talk about being business friendly, but there are steps we have to take to do that, because opening businesses creates jobs. It helps move everyone forward.
Our economy is doing well. We have a demand for services. We just just don’t have the money to pay for it. It’s not about raising taxes, it’s about growing the tax base. We all pay taxes, but we have to work to be able to pay them. So let’s create those jobs. And let’s think of the big picture here. The biggest thing I’m concerned about right now – we have a fractured council. Who we elect to this seat is going to change the entire dynamic.
I’ve got a thick skin. I’m not going to go up there to showboat. I’m going to go up there to work hard. And people are going to know Mike Karbassi has a work ethic. He is that warrior for District 2. I’m the only candidate that’s going to be able to count to four. The other candidates, they’re all nice people, but you have to know how to work with other people. I’ve already built relationships with Gary Bredefeld in District 6 and Luis Chavez in District 5. And sometimes they can be opposites.
It’s a non-partisan race for a reason. We have to put all that stuff aside. We don’t want to be Sacramento. We don’t want to be Washington. And guess what? We’re getting there.
We need to calm things down and get to work.