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Swearengin's future tied to successes as an endangered species: a GOP mayor

Byline1

Mayor Ashley Swearengin in a mere two months leaves City Hall and heads for a new career in the local non-profit sector.

But that isn’t stopping some political writers in the national media from speculating about Swearengin’s future on a much bigger stage than Fresno.

Steven Malanga in the latest issue of “City Journal” has a superb 4,000-word article whose title says it all: “City Hall GOP – A new generation of Republican mayors focuses on pragmatic solutions, not ideology.”

Malanga digs into the challenges of Republican mayors governing in an arena that is increasingly a Democratic stronghold – big cities. Malanga’s essential point: The success of a handful of results-oriented Republican mayors suggests that America’s urban centers can be a growth market for the GOP.

Malanga, a senior editor at “City Journal,” develops this idea by exploring the efforts of Republican mayors such as Kevin Faulconer of San Diego, R. Carey Davis of San Bernardino and Richard Berry of Albuquerque.

Swearengin and Fresno have a prominent role in Malanga’s story.

First, though, Malanga takes the reader on a brief tour of big city political reality.

“As recently as 15 years ago, Republican mayors ruled in half the nation’s dozen largest cities, with reformers Rudy Giuliani in New York and Richard Riordan in Los Angeles leading the way,” Malanga writes. “Today, among America’s Top Ten cities in population, only San Diego has a Republican mayor. Politico calls urban Republicans ‘perhaps the nation’s most severely endangered political species.’”

Malanga says political experts point to the growth of Democratic-leaning populations to explain, in part, the GOP’s big-city woes. The national party also hasn’t been of much help to Republican mayors, Malanga adds.

“Even so, Republican mayors haven’t completely disappeared from urban America,” Malanga writes. “They currently govern 27 of the country’s 100 biggest cities, including Jacksonville, Fort Worth, and Oklahoma City. And these mayors stand out from their Democratic counterparts in a significant way. While many of the most visible Democratic mayors—Bill de Blasio in New York, Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles, and Rahm Emanuel in Chicago—have spent most of their careers in government and politics, many GOP mayors have backgrounds as entrepreneurs and business executives, coming to politics later in life. That has doubtless helped give city hall Republicans their focus on the practical issues of local government: balancing budgets, securing public safety, and ensuring that the garbage gets picked up and potholes get filled.”

Malanga notes that many Democratic mayors pursue more grandiose agendas, such as fighting inequality and climate change. The result is a stark contrast in the governing styles of Republican and Democratic mayors. Democratic-leaning voters in big cities suffering through steady decline under the Democratic Party yoke may soon wake up, Malanga suggests.

Needless to say, Republican mayors adept in handling big city problems and wooing Democratic voters have – or should have – a bright future at the state and national levels where common sense governance is at a premium.

Malanga spends only 500 words on Swearengin. (City Journal editors, on the other hand, know that page design is often more important to a story’s success than words. It is Swearengin’s smiling face that graces the online story I read.)

Those 500 words tell a tale familiar to Fresnans.

“Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin jumped into politics with a management background when she took on the task of running a city of 520,000 residents, California’s largest inland metropolis,” Malanga writes. “Now one of California’s most popular local Republicans—frequently mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate—Swearengin is credited with helping to rescue Fresno from fiscal disaster.”

Malanga describes Swearengin’s career in the private sector and adds a Swearengin quote from her 2008 mayoral campaign: “I think about being the mayor of Fresno as being the CEO of the public’s business. The public has entrusted city hall with its resources to cover essential services. And I think a lot of the disenfranchisement that we see among the voters today is because many of those essential services are being overlooked.”

Malanga gives a shorthand version of Swearengin’s 2008 victory over then-City Council Member Henry T. Perea (a Democrat with strong support from the city’s unions) and her easy re-election in 2012. Malanga’s fast-paced review of Swearengin’s successful efforts to keep Fresno out of bankruptcy court is first-rate.

There’s no mention of Swearengin’s predecessor at City Hall – Alan Autry, a Republican. To go one step further, Autry’s predecessor also is a Republican – Jim Patterson, now an assembly member. Sunny Jim gets no mention, either. This is no knock on Malanga’s story – to dip into the Autry and Patterson eras would have ruined the story’s pace.

Malanga ends his section on Swearengin with two key details.

Swearengin’s rescue of Fresno’s finances, Malanga writes, “prompted the vice president of the California Republican Party, Marcelino Valdez, to label her ‘the golden child of the party right now.’”

And Swearengin in 2014 ran what Malanga calls a “notable” campaign for state controller, “winning 46 percent of the vote in a state where Republicans make up just 28 percent of the electorate.”

Full disclosure: I think “City Journal” can do no wrong. I’ve been reading its online stories for years. “City Journal” was of immense help to me during my years of covering Fresno City Hall for The Bee.

“City Journal” writers tackle their craft in much the same manner that the Republican mayors profiled in Malanga’s story tackle big city governance: Common sense and courage first, ideology and partisanship last.

Malanga toward the end of his story raises a point that Swearengin’s critics in the Fresno GOP might at least consider: “…to govern effectively with the limited powers of municipal government, it’s sometimes necessary to depart from the national party script on issues like taxes and climate change.”

Everything in Malanga’s story supports the value of collaboration (or realpolitik) when sitting in the chief executive’s chair at City Hall.

“City Journal” is based in New York City. It’s only appropriate that Malanga ends his story with a look at how former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani did his job.

“The core of Giuliani’s philosophy on urban governance could be a model for today’s Republican mayors,” Malanga writes. “He argued that local government should be responsible for delivering basic services well but that a city’s residents also should be accountable for their actions and their destiny, and not expect government to take care of them. He once described his job by quoting from the ancient Athenian oath of fealty, in which leaders pledged to ‘transmit this city not only not less, but far greater and more beautiful, than it was transmitted to us.’ That’s a pledge that a new generation of GOP mayoral hopefuls might well campaign on—and govern by.”

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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