Election night belonged to Lee Ann Eager and Damon Kurtz.
Granted, the Fresno County Economic Development Corp.’s chief executive (Eager) and the Fresno Police Officers Association’s president (Kurtz) weren’t on the ballot. But Eager and Kurtz showed me on Tuesday that they know what will determine Fresno’s future.
The City Council candidates who survive the June 5 primary would be wise to take the counsel of Eager and Kurtz before hitting the fall campaign trail.
The primary isn’t over as far as City Hall is concerned.
Of course, there was never much drama in the District 1 council race. Incumbent Esmeralda Soria, the current council president, ran for re-election unopposed. Getting 50% plus 1 of the vote to avoid a runoff was a snap.
“The hard work by my team over the last four years paved the way for me to have a less stressful primary this time,” Soria said at her Tuesday evening election party at El Patio Mexican restaurant in the Tower District.
Soria finished the 2014 primary just a few votes behind Cary Catalano. The general election wasn’t all that close – Soria won by five percentage points.
And there’s not much doubt about which two candidates will advance to the runoff in Districts 5 and 7.
District 5 incumbent Luis Chavez leads the four-person field with 41% of the vote. Paula Yang is comfortably in the second spot at 36.5%. Jose Barraza is a distant third at 17.3%.
And in District 7, Brian Whelan (38.6%) and Nelson Esparza (38.2%) are far ahead of Veva Islas (22.9%).
But it’s a nail-biter for the second spot in District 3.
Miguel Arias is easily the top vote-getter at 30.1%. But only 14 votes separate Nos. 2 through 4. You’ve got Daren Miller at No. 2 (14.6%; 420 votes); Tate Hill at No. 3 (14.3%; 411 votes); and Craig Scharton at No. 4 (14.1%; 406 votes).
Fresno County Registrar of Voters Brandi Orth (who, with a 40,000-vote lead, is all but assured of re-election) says on County Clerk website that about 40,000 absentee ballots and about 7,300 provisional ballots remain to be counted. The next update will be posted at 3 p.m. Friday.
Those 47,300 or so ballots come from across Fresno County. It’s safe to say that many, if not most, have no connection to Fresno City Council races. Sure, there could be enough votes in there to switch the final positions of Whelan and Esparza (currently separated by just 10 votes). There might even be enough to push Yang past Chavez, or at least significantly close the gap.
Not that it matters all that much to the candidates. The key is to get to November.
But it’s safe to say that Miller, Hill and Scharton each hopes that somewhere in those 47,300 votes is enough support to get him into the ring against Arias.
Fresno voters generally don’t care much for primary elections. That habit continues in 2018. With 100% of the precincts reporting, the turnout as of Wednesday morning was 15.8% in District 1, 11.2% in District 3, 13.1% in District 5 and 11.9% in District 7.
The final percentages are sure to rise as the late ballots are counted. Still, it’s pretty amazing that District 3 candidate Miller with just 420 votes is poised to make the runoff election for one of the seven legislative seats in the nation’s 34th largest city.
I made it to a handful of election night parties.
“I’m feeling excitedly anxious,” Esparza said.
Esparza’s party was held at the home of a supporter who lives just off Van Ness and near the Dakota Avenue irrigation canal – Old Fig. I noted that Whelan lives a just a few long football throws from the party’s site. I asked Esparza if that was one of the reasons he and his team picked this particular spot for the party.
Esparza said with a smile. “He (Whelan) lives somewhere around here.”
Whelan’s party was at the Downtown Club. The mood struck me as a bit somber. The early absentee ballots had been counted and Esparza was only 39 behind Whelan.
“I’m optimistic,” Whelan said. “The message I was telling – getting people engaged in the neighborhoods, getting people engaged with public safety – resonated with people across a wide array of political views.”
Scharton and some of his supporters gathered at Los Panchos Mexican restaurant at Fulton and Tulare streets in Downtown. Scharton and I talked about election statistics, Internet campaigning and the techniques of neighborhood revitalization.
But on this night, Scharton said, “the only data that matters is the voters. We’ll see how it goes.”
Luis Chavez spoke to reporters in front of his home on Huntington Boulevard, in the shadow of Roosevelt High School. The early returns had him in first place. Those same returns showed impressive support for Yang.
“It’s a totally different race in November,” Chavez said. “I do very well in November in Southeast Fresno – I hit 60% last time. I’m very optimistic we’ll do very well in November if we have to go to November.”
The Arias party was part of a larger affair at El Patio in The Tower that included Soria and incumbent Assembly Member Joaquin Arambula.
Arias said he and his campaign team “are excited that the residents of District 3 really responded to our campaign message. We made it a point early that all four corners of the district were represented – that they were spoken to, that we knocked on the doors: The Tower District, Downtown, the Central Unified area and West Fresno. I think the voters responded to that.”
I wasn’t the only person making a non-partisan tour of election night celebrations. It was in that spirit that I bumped into the EDC’s Eager and the FPOA’s Kurtz at separate parties.
Eager told me she plans to head to Washington, D.C. later this month. She’ll spend a week pitching Fresno County’s assets and virtues to foreign-based companies looking to either plant roots in America or expand their existing operations here.
This economic development convention is an annual event. Last year, Eager said, two companies contacted at the convention ended up coming to Fresno County and more than a dozen prospects are still interested.
At this year’s convention, Eager said, she is slated to confer with 44 companies that have expressed a specific interest in Fresno County.
Investment was also on Kurtz’s mind, but from a different perspective.
The ranks of sworn police officers are growing; Mayor Lee Brand’s two-term goal of 1,000 cops remains valid in the current budget climate. The contract stresses from the Great Recession appear, at least for now, a thing of the past. But, Kurtz told me, the Police Department is hurting when it comes to basic hardware – cars and radios and things like that. The department needs modernized tools of the trade, and more of them.
Kurtz knows City Hall politics. He knows public safety isn’t the only interest making such a claim. The Parks Department has a new master plan that’s long on dreams and short on money. And pothole repair always polls well.
Is Fresno in the near-term looking at renewed debate on something along the lines of Council Member Oliver Baines’ long dormant Measure R idea? That would be a hike in the sales tax to fund the “restoration” of key municipal service levels.
Kurtz would only say that all the players in this complex issue are well aware of the stakes and the political pressures. A lot of talking is going on behind the scenes.
Jobs, infrastructure, quality of life, budgets. Lee Ann Eager and Damon Kurtz had no time on Tuesday for celebratory back-slapping.