I entered college in 1968. What a year! Is 2016 going to be as dramatic?
Here are six observations on Fresno’s political scene, which is heating up fast.
1.) Let’s go back to Doug Vagim’s news conference on Thursday in front of Downtown’s historic Water Tower.
The former Fresno County supervisor said he’s running for mayor.
Vagim spoke for about 15 minutes on issues. He’s no stranger to mayoral campaigns. He ran in 2008, getting 2% of the vote in the 11-candidate primary. Ashley Swearengin and Henry T. Perea advanced to the November runoff.
Vagim didn’t smile much during Thursday’s event. In fact, I didn’t see him come close to a grin even once. He concluded his formal remarks by expressing his disappointment with Power Talk 96.7, the local radio station that was co-sponsoring (along with CVObserver) a mayoral debate that night at Pardini’s in Northwest Fresno.
Fresno City Council Member Lee Brand, Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea and community activist H. Spees were the three candidates in the spotlight. Vagim wanted an invitation. He didn’t get it.
This was the context for an interesting exchange at the Water Tower between Vagim and Fresno Bee political reporter John Ellis. Here’s what I got on my tape recorder. Vagim talked over some of Ellis’ comments, making them unintelligible on my tape.
Vagim: “Pooh-pooh on 96.7 for not doing it (extending the invitation). Someone ought to put pressure on them. Because democracy is missing when they don’t invite all the candidates. Thank you for coming, and I’m open for questions.”
Ellis: “You got 2% in 2008. What makes you think you’re going to do any different?”
Vagim: “Well, were you around four years (ago)? Have you missed the last four years? Or were you up in that tower? Well, Measure G. You’re one of those guys who didn’t think I could do the water deal. Right? Yes sir, you wrote the water articles. The Bee wrote articles – ‘There’s no way he can do it.’ But we did it.”
Ellis: “You didn’t do it. (And) Mr. Hostetter over there, he wrote the articles.”
Vagim: “Well your paper did it. And by the way your editorial said ‘We agree with Vagim’ – after they finally came around. But it took how many months to come around?”
Ellis: “I just want to know how you’re going to get more than 2% of the vote, that’s all.”
Vagim: “Why don’t you go back to Mr. Brand, who asked twice. You want to come up with his statistics? Why only me? Or, are you picking a winner and a loser, too?”
Ellis: “I’m just asking you a question. You haven’t answered it yet.”
Vagim: “I just said – four years of hard work. Getting 55,000 people to turn out for a water rate initiative and having them count the vote when 400 (voted) before. You don’t think that means something? You’re pooh-poohing the people? That’s my answer.”
I couldn’t decipher Ellis’ response on my tape.
Vagim: “Don’t worry about it. The fact of it is you have to have a race. You have to open the starting gates before you can know who’s going to win or lose. My answer is I believe the people of this town know, and are thankful, that I saved them probably, collectively, a few hundred million dollars, when you collectively add up all the rates that they don’t have to pay.”
Ellis: “Are you going to get that message out?”
The two then talked over each other about campaign money
Vagim: “This is a different time. You live in the past. You need to come forward. You need to look at the presidential race. You need to look at the fact that the people are upset. The people are fed up. They’re fed up with the ivory (tower) class. They’re fed up with the Mandarin class. They’re fed up with those people who are caught up with lingo that no one can understand. They want plain answers. They want simple answers. And that’s what you’re going to get from me.”
Then someone else brought up high-speed rail.
2.) Full disclosure: I worked with Ellis for many years at The Bee. He’s one of our best political reporters – not just in the state, but in the nation. I once saw Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dave Barry go out of his way to shake Ellis’ hand.
Ellis asked a question that was both fair and pertinent to the campaign. Why does someone whose effort in 2008 had all the markings of a vanity campaign figure he’ll do any better eight years down the road?
Vagim, in essence, said the past three or four years have turned him into a star.
3.) Measure G and the (almost) Measure W were Vagim’s career resuscitators. Measure G was Mayor Swearengin’s attempt to privatize the city’s residential trash service. Measure W fell short of getting enough signatures to put new water rates to the same type of public decision, but generated a lot of buzz in the community.
I wrote a ton of stories for The Bee on Measure G and the water-rate fight. So it was that Ellis, at the end of Vagim’s news conference on Thursday, whispered to me: “Why didn’t you say something? He called you out.”
That Vagim did. But it’s all part of the business.
What I found fascinating – and disingenuous – in Vagim’s comments was his portrayal of himself as an “aw, shucks, I’m just Pa Kettle lookin’ for the truth” kind of political outsider.
Vagim would have you believe Ellis and I are part of the Ivory Tower crowd. We’re enablers of the Mandarin class whose bureaucratic agenda oppresses the common folk. Ellis and I need to stand aside as the Great Man rides in on horseback and gives the people the simple answers they have yearned for oh these many years.
I like to think I get along quite nicely with Doug Vagim. He has been of immense help to me on more public issues than I can count.
I’ve learned three things: 1.) Self-rule in a democracy as diverse as America’s is never simple; 2.) Vagim himself relishes that complexity; 3.) It is his capacity for nuanced thought on the Mandarin class’s own turf that makes him such a formidable foe to bureaucrats he doesn’t like.
My advice to voters: If mayoral candidate Doug Vagim gives you a simple answer to a public problem that any first-grader knows is a tough nut, then fight back as hard as John Ellis did on Thursday.
You, dear voters, don’t deserve condescension from your mayoral candidates.
4.) I was one of the panelists to ask questions at Thursday’s mayoral debate. Fresno Police Officer Association President Jacky Parks and Granville Homes President Darius Assemi joined me.
Several people after the debate asked me if I thought Vagim, a Republican in a non-partisan race, would poach a bunch of votes from one or more of the Big 3 candidates.
My answer: After listening to Brand, Perea, and Spees answer hard questions for two hours, I don’t think Vagim will take votes from any of them.
I can’t imagine the Fresno voter who would say: You know, there was a time I really liked one of the Big 3 and everything he stands for. Then Doug Vagim got into the race. Now I’m gonna vote for Vagim because Vagim gives me even more of what I like.
Vagim may be our next mayor. If so, I’m suggesting none of his votes will come from Fresnans who were die-hard Brand, Perea or Spees supporters in the first place.
5.) I hear the FPOA has hired a firm to conduct a mayoral poll. The poll should be done sometime this month. Then, and only then, will FPOA come out with its mayoral endorsement.
I also hear FPOA officials have already interviewed Brand, Perea and Spees – and that each of the interviews registered in distinctively different ways with union leaders.
6.) I got a phone call from Brand on Saturday. He wasn’t happy with a recent story of mine. It had to do with his proposed Economic Expansion Act, a bill headed to the City Council this week.
I had ventured an opinion at the story’s end. I didn’t think it a coincidence that the bill was coming to light shortly before the first public mayoral debate, a slugfest where Brand might have to explain his actions on previous economic plans – such as “Creating Prosperity in Fresno,” an initiative dear to Assemi’s heart.
Brand told me he had been working on his Economic Expansion Act for more than a year before unveiling it last week at a news conference.
Brand’s phone call made me think of a series of text messages I’d had with Perea in late January.
I had written about an effort by Perea at a Board of Supervisors meeting to give customers in county islands other options when it came to their trash haulers. It was a complicated story, and Perea had not yet thrown his hat into the mayoral ring. But I had left no doubt in the story that I smelled mayoral politics at the heart of what was going on.
Perea wasn’t angry. He just thought my story was rather odd.
You know what? Smart politicians are always thinking about position. They’re always thinking three, four, a half-dozen moves ahead.
Brand and Perea are smart politicians.
I stand by both stories.