The battle of endorsements in the Fresno City Council District 7 race is heating up.
Brian Whelan at a Thursday news conference got a lot of media mileage by trumpeting the separate endorsements of Police Chief Jerry Dyer and the Fresno Police Officers Association.
Whelan has already snagged the endorsements of Mayor Lee Brand and District 7 incumbent Clint Olivier (who is termed out in January).
But Nelson Esparza on Thursday showed he’s no slouch when it comes to securing powerful allies. Esparza at a more subdued press affair said he’s got the strong backing of a handful of labor groups with local connections, including Stationary Engineers Local 39, the city’s blue-collar union.
Thursday’s gamesmanship might suggest that the June 5 primary is a two-person fight. Actually, there’s a third contender – Veva Islas.
Let’s take this in chronological order.
Whelan held a noon presser at International Torque Converters, a business on Abby Street between Olive and Belmont avenues. The site is in the heart of both the city of Fresno and District 7. There’s a certain grittiness to the neighborhood. It’s probably fair to say that crime is a challenge for residents and business owners.
What better place for Whelan to showcase the support of Fresno’s cops?
Raffi Pilavian, International Torque Converters’ manager, was first to speak.
“I’m a proud supporter of Mr. Whelan,” Pilavian said.
FPOA President Damon Kurtz was next.
“We did an interview process,” Kurtz said. “We spoke to all of the candidates. In our opinion, Brian rose to the top. We know he is going to have strong backing and support for public safety, which is so important for our community.”
An endorsement from Dyer is gold in local elections.
“As the police chief for the city of Fresno, I fully understand the importance of having good elected leaders who support public safety, who support businesses and who support people that live in some of our neighborhoods that often times are neglected,” Dyer said.
“The very reason that I support Brian is his No. 1 goal – keeping our streets safe. That happens to be my No. 1 goal, as well. I believe that he is the best candidate for District 7. I’m absolutely confident of that (based) on conversations we have had. I know that our priorities are aligned with one another. I believe that the citizens of Fresno are going to support Brian in this election in a big way and send a very strong message that public safety – keeping our streets safe, restoring our neighborhoods – has to be the No. 1 priority for Fresno.”
With praise like that wafting through International Torque Converters’ machine shop, the candidate didn’t have to say much to clinch the victory.
“It’s with great honor that I have the Police Officers Association helping this campaign,” Whelan said. “The campaign is about lifting up the neighborhoods and the neighbors here in District 7, and trying to be a good steward.”
The expansion of District 7 Neighborhood Watch programs has been a priority of the Whelan campaign from day one. Whelan on Thursday said he would hold a campaign event focused on strengthening Neighborhood Watch later this month at Gazebo Gardens.
“One of the things that neighbors keep telling me is that they want to get more involved, but they are concerned about getting involved and how that will impact them if they report these different things that are happening in the community,” Whelan said. “I would like to be a part of empowering the community to address these very important public safety issues. I’m not going to wait to do that. We’re going to do that right now.”
The news conference lasted all of five minutes. But its impact in some circles was immediate. I had only a two-minute walk to my pickup. As I unlocked the door, a text message popped up on my phone. Esparza was at Sam’s Deli should I want to discuss the campaign with him.
I love Sam’s Deli. I couldn’t say no.
Esparza was seated at table on Sam’s patio.
“We’re going to win this race,” he told me. “As it now stands, there are thousands of working families in the district that I have not contacted, but re-contacted. I continue to forge my bond with those folks.”
What issues resonate with District 7 voters?
“Homelessness is definitely at the top the list, not only citywide but in our district,” Esparza said. “There’s also public safety and the maintenance and upkeep of our neighborhoods.”
The homeless challenge is a big issue at City Hall, too. Brand earlier this week joined another 10 of California’s big-city mayors in pushing Sacramento lawmakers to support AB 3171. The bill would spend $1.5 billion to help cities grapple with homelessness issues.
“When it comes to addressing the homeless issue in Fresno, folks I talk to admit they don’t have the answer,” Esparza said. “They look to the leaders of Fresno. Thus far, we’ve had fairly ineffective public policy in regards to the homeless population. Which is why we stand where we stand.”
The results of June 5 will pivot on hard campaigning and relationships, Esparza said.
“What it will boil down to is the fact that I did knock on most doors and talked to the most people and had the most authentic conversations with these folks, beyond the artificial campaigners,” Esparza said. “And that’s why the people are my friends, that’s why the people trust me.”
Of course, allies – especially those with deep pockets and access to lots of precinct-walking volunteers – will play a big role, too. Seated around our table at Sam’s were Michel Lopez of Sheet Metal Workers Local 104, John Henry Lopez of Plumbers-Pipefitters-Refrigerator Technicians Local 246 and Ruben Zarate of the Laborers International Union. All said their unions support Esparza.
Esparza said the Fresno-Madera-Tulare-Kings Central Labor Council is on his side, too.
Then there is Local 39, the city’s blue-collar union. Marina Magdaleno, Local 39’s business representative, was leaving the Esparza confab just as I walked in. Magdaleno and Local 39 are every bit as formidable in local city elections as FPOA. Just ask former Mayor Ashley Swearengin and anyone else who supported Measure G in 2013.
Magdaleno said Local 39 endorses Esparza. She said Esparza’s supporters are of a kind.
“We’re the working class, not the elitists,” Magdaleno said.
Esparza heard Magdaleno. I asked for his thoughts.
“I wouldn’t characterize this race as a dichotomy,” Esparza said. “I will tell you that folks supporting me, both politically and in my district, we are the working class. We are the middle class. Which is the bulk not only of this district and city but of our country. It’s the working families that are behind me.”
Hold onto your hats, Fresno. The 2018 District 7 race is going to be a wild ride.