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Swearengin wrapping up tenure with all eyes on her future

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Dec. 27 was Ashley Swearengin’s last full Tuesday as mayor of Fresno. In theory, she was on vacation. In reality, she put in a full day of work.

“Our focus has been on running through the tape,” Swearengin told me by phone on Wednesday – the “tape,” obviously, being a metaphor for her very last second as chief executive of California’s fifth largest city.

Swearengin’s eight-year sprint to transform Fresno is almost over.

I’ve been thinking about all the ups and downs of those two terms. My conclusion: Any mayor who worked so hard for so long isn’t likely to spend her last week in office trolling at the mall for post-Christmas bargains.

So, I dropped by City Hall to chat with Miguel Ramirez, the city’s communications coordinator.

“I’d like to see the Mayor’s scheduling calendar for Tuesday,” I said.

“Let me see what I can do,” Ramirez said.

The result was Wednesday’s phone interview with the Mayor.

“It’s been an extremely busy end of the administration,” Swearengin said.

The big show came on Dec. 15 when the City Council held its final meeting of the year. Swearengin and City Manager Bruce Rudd delivered an agenda that took six hours to tackle. Historic action involving water, jobs, Downtown revitalization and Blackstone Corridor redevelopment was taken.

“That gives a sense of all we’ve put through in the final months of the administration,” Swearengin said. “I’m really proud of where we are and what we’re handing over to Mayor-Elect Brand.”

District 6 council member Lee Brand succeeds the termed-out Swearengin next week. Brand on Wednesday told me he plans to be officially sworn in by City Clerk Yvonne Spence at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 3. District 6 council member-elect Garry Bredefeld said he will be sworn in at 11:30 a.m. the same day.

District 5 council member-elect Luis Chavez will be sworn in on Jan. 3, as well. Current District 5 council member Sal Quintero’s resignation is effective that day. Quintero has been elected to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors.

The ceremonial oath of office will be administered to the new mayor and appropriate council members (including District 2’s Steve Brandau and District 4’s Paul Caprioglio, who won second terms in the June primary) on Thursday, Jan. 5, in the Council Chamber.

“I’m also on vacation next week,” Swearengin said. “But I’m obviously coming in on Thursday for the ceremony.”

Swearengin’s schedule on Tuesday (Dec. 27) included meetings with District 3 Council Member Oliver Baines and several community leaders from Southwest Fresno.

The noon hour was spent with District 1 Council Member Esmeralda Soria.

“We had lunch as kind of a ‘close out of the administration and our time working together’ (meeting),” Swearengin said. “We had a few ideas of things we might like to take on together next year in my new role and her continuing role on the council.”

Swearengin in January will become president/chief executive of the Fresno-based Central Valley Community Foundation.

“I also had a conference call to brief for a conference I’m participating in in late January with Secretary [Leon] Panetta,” Swearengin said. “He and I are convening bipartisan leaders from around the state to talk about political and governance reform across the country.”

Panetta was Secretary of Defense in the Obama Administration and chief of staff for President Bill Clinton.

(At about this time in our phone conversation, I could hear someone enter Swearengin’s room. It was her husband, Paul. “I’m talking to George Hostetter,” the Mayor said. “It’s my final George Hostetter interview.” I’ll bet a Kit Kat it’s not.)

Swearengin’s last full Tuesday as mayor ended with an organizational meeting for a possible agriculture/technology summit in early 2017 and yet another one-on-one meeting with a community leader, this one from a local nonprofit.

What was discussed at all these meetings with community leaders? “Projects” was the best I could get out of the Mayor.

The upcoming conference with Panetta sounded interesting.

“California Forward is organizing a one-day conference bringing together business, civic and political leaders from around the state to look at political and governance reform,” Swearengin said. “At that time I’ll be a former mayor, but I’m likely going to be involved with California Forward on a go-forward basis. I really appreciate the work they do on the economic summit (an annual event hosted by the nonprofit) and trying to bring about good, reasonable, common sense political change for California. So I volunteered to be a part of this event. It’s a thought-provoking day-long event. I think it’s something important for the Central Valley and in my new role over at the Central Valley Community Foundation. It’s certainly something that can be helpful to the work we’ll try to take on at the foundation.”

We seemed to be at a key point in our conversation. I tried to sum up things for Swearengin: Two-term big city mayor is about to leave office; her city makes significant progress on many fronts during her tenure; she prepares to lead a pivotal philanthropic foundation in one of America’s most challenged regions; she is a key player in a network of power brokers with national influence.

Mayor, I said, it looks like you’re in the perfect position to continue shaping important public policy in Fresno, and extend your proven talents to areas far beyond our city limits.

“While we’ll certainly do everything we can to improve the economy and the quality of life in Fresno, we want to expand that to include the six-county area,” Swearengin said. (The foundation serves Tulare, Kings, Fresno, Madera, Merced and Mariposa counties). “That’s the focus of the foundation – raising the profile of the region, trying to attract additional philanthropic investment from outside of the region into this area, as well as working with donors to provide them with opportunities to invest in good causes in the Valley.

“It’s a different role in many respects, to be sure, than I played as mayor. But there are some similarities. As mayor of Fresno, my job has been to try to raise the profile of the city, to try to attract additional investment, to try to lift up what is working here, and to find ways to put funding together to see things continue. In some ways, I see that role as similar in moving over to the foundation.”

The Mayor knew full well what I was driving at – politics and her future career in that brutal but fascinating world.

“I’m very clear that my focus is philanthropy,” Swearengin said. “But when you look at statewide foundations and national foundations, it’s pretty common to see policy and philanthropy sometimes get tied together. Smart philanthropy is always looking for ways to leverage its investment.”

Swearnein gave me a rhetorical example of the delicate relationship between public affairs and private giving: A donor with deep pockets has a passion for public education. But the donor doesn’t like the direction of the local school system. The donor keeps her money in her bank unless one of two things happens – the school system changes to meet the donor’s demands or the donor betrays her principles.

I thought to myself: Mayor, you’re proving my point. In moving to the foundation, you’re jumping from one political frying pan into another.

“For philanthropy these days, the aim is to be strategic and smart and get every outcome possible for every dollar invested,” Swearengin said. “This often times does look like partnerships with appointed and elected officials, and working together with a broad spectrum in the community to really move agendas forward.

“And, of course, the agenda at the foundation is to improve the quality of life for the residents who call the Central Valley home. So, it’s a common model, I would say, particularly with community foundations which are nimble and really can reflect easily and quickly the passions and the interests of the residents and the donors from that immediate area.”

Swearengin during her eight years at City Hall has shown herself to be nimble, as well. She knew how to make alliances to further the People’s interests, even if she didn’t always like some of her allies. Ashley Swearengin on the job always put duty first.

So, I asked the Mayor, did she place a call shortly after Nov. 8 to President-Elect Donald Trump, congratulating him on his stunning victory over Hillary Clinton.

Swearengin, like Trump, is a Republican.

“I did not. I did not expect that that call would go through,” Swearengin said with a laugh. “But, look, it’s a time of change, right? It’s a time of transition. It’s been really interesting to be in the same election cycles as presidential elections. I remember 2008 waiting to see if I was successful (in her mayoral campaign against Henry T. Perea) at the same time we were watching the TV screens (of) Senator Obama and Senator McCain. I remember half the folks at my watch party were rooting for one side of the aisle and the other half were rooting for the other side of the aisle. Then to be in office for eight years with one administration and one president and then to be transitioning out at the same time that president is leaving and everything is changing. I think it is exciting. I like change. I like hard work. I like seeing the results of that hard work. I also like change and taking on a new assignment and a new direction. So, I think it’s a fun time.”

I told the Mayor that I had to disagree with her. I said Trump and his team would have very much appreciated receiving from the mayor of Fresno what has to be one of the oldest and most respected drills in American politics – the offering of post-election congratulations by someone lower in the pecking order to someone at the top of the pecking order (the latter controlling immense amounts of money that can either go to a certain city or not go to a certain city.)

“I don’t know about that,” Swearengin said, again with a laugh. “A lot of people are working very hard on this transition, and I wish them all the best. Like I said, I like when change is in the air.”

It’s a funny thing about Swearengin’s track metaphor – “running through the tape” – to describe her final weeks in office. She has also enjoyed plenty of victory laps. Supporters, admirers and the media have heaped plenty of praise on her. She’s sure to get an emotional send-off at the Jan. 5 council meeting.

“I feel a sense of overall appreciation and tremendous satisfaction and gratefulness for what we’ve accomplished in the last eight years,” Swearengin said. “The people of Fresno gave me the opportunity to do the work. I have absolutely loved every minute of every day. It’s a satisfying feeling to get to the end of this run.”

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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