Steve Brandau is sitting pretty – politically speaking, that is.
Here’s my take on the Fresno City Council member.
The June primary is over, and Brandau easily won a second term as the District 2 (Northwest Fresno) representative. Other than write-ins, he ran unopposed. He got more than 97% of the vote.
This was a far cry from the 2012 primary when five candidates ran to succeed Andreas Borgeas (who left District 2 after one term to run for – and win – a seat on the Fresno County Board of Supervisors).
Pat DiCicco finished first in the 2012 District 2 primary with 25.3% of the vote. Brandau was second with 22.2%, nearly 400 votes behind. The real race was for the second spot in the November runoff – Randy Reed finished only 270 votes behind Brandau.
DiCicco – a member of the famous restaurant-owning family in Fresno – certainly had Brandau beat when it came to name recognition. Brandau touted himself as a small business owner (carpet cleaning). He was proud to be known as a member of the Tea Party. Whether the voters thought that to be a good thing remained to be seen.
Brandau pulled something of an upset in the November 2012 general election. He won with 54.1% of the vote, beating DiCicco by more than 2,100 votes. Brandau did it by hammering incessantly on issues, especially the need for prudence with the taxpayers’ money. Don’t forget, this was a time when City Hall (not to mention Wall Street credit-rating agencies) was publicly worried about bankruptcy.
Brandau took office in January 2013. So, too, did District 4’s Paul Caprioglio. Mayor Ashley Swearengin was sworn in at the time for her second term.
As far as the Brandau story goes, two things of note happened over the next three-and-a-half years.
First, Swearengin moved aggressively on her effort to remake Fresno. She brought to the council a new general plan that promised to revitalize older neighborhoods while putting the brakes on suburban growth. She pitched a new development code that left some prominent developers – Granville Homes’ Darius Assemi among them – shaking their heads in frustration. She got the council to embrace a version of mass public transportation – the controversial Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project.
On and on it went for the activist Mayor.
Second, Brandau wasted little time making a name for himself as a contrarian.
It probably helped that he became council president in 2014, only his second year in office. With this bully pulpit, Brandau wasn’t shy about expressing his displeasure with conventional wisdom. He preferred spending precious millions on upgrading the city’s conventional Fresno Area Express bus system rather than the new fangled BRT. He cast a jaundiced eye on the general plan’s insistence that we all live closer together (high-density life, as in San Francisco).
He saw no need for government to get between farmers who want to sell their land to developers and developers who want to buy the land at a fair price.
More importantly, Brandau found causes to champion. He believes private business (small, medium or large), not huge government, is the key to a vibrant and sustainable local economy. And he single-handedly turned street repairs into a crusade that now has considerable council support.
I sat down with Brandau last month in his City Hall office for a brief chat about his first term and what’s ahead. Here are some excerpts:
Question: You attended the grand opening of the Tang Yuan Seafood Restaurant on June 18. The restaurant is located in the shopping center on the northeast corner of Palm and Bullard avenues, not far from my home. Why did you go?
Brandau: “We’ve got a whole shopping center that’s being essentially renovated. The latest component is an upper end Chinese restaurant. I thought that was fantastic. And I thought it’s great that a shopping center that people normally drive by without thinking much about is now getting some fresh focus and attention. I wanted to support that.
“The next component in the shopping center’s revival is going to be a Chinese market. We have a couple of them in town, but not that many on the north end. So it’s going to be a market that caters to the Chinese market and anybody that wants access to Chinese ingredients. I think it’s cool. And on the northwest corner at Palm and Bullard is a teahouse. I’d never been to a teahouse in my life. I have a friend who said, ‘Let’s go there.’ And it’s amazing. It’s got one-of-a-kind deserts in Fresno. It’s got a good vibe. I think it’s predominately a hangout for young Chinese – Chinese hipsters. They pack the place.
“This guy (owner of Tang Yuan and the teahouse) got interested in renovating the shopping center at about the same time the Business Friendly Fresno task force (a Swearengin initiative) came out with their accelerated program, where they said we’re going to get really serious about pushing things through (City Hall) faster. We’re going to create fewer roadblocks. The timing was just about perfect. He was very happy about how fast things moved along (my note: local development consultant Al Solis helped, too). I think everybody’s really happy.
“The shopping center is on the rebound, and it’s not just small stuff. It’s big stuff. When I was sitting in the restaurant (at the grand opening), one of the people at my table said, ‘Isn’t it great that this is here and not at River Park.’ There are other places to go to and new things popping up all the time.”
Question: There’s a rebirth of business throughout the four corners at Palm/Bullard. The only big challenge is the old Walgreen’s site on the southwest corner. It all seems to be a response of market opportunities and entrepreneurial energy rather than lofty words in a general plan. Are you still a critic of the 2035 general plan?
Brandau: “I don’t think the market needs Fresno’s general plan to tell them where to go. The market figures all of that stuff out. At the same time, I don’t see this (the Palm/Bullard renaissance) as fighting against the general plan. It’s not way out on the edge of town. It’s in a well-developed neighborhood. But it’s not in Downtown Fresno, either. It’s not on Blackstone. It found its own location. And I know that new owner has a lot of businesses in Los Angeles. He’s a very successful person. He knows how to find the spots to put his businesses.”
Question: Are there business opportunities in the rest of District 2?
Brandau: “I think there are. Almost all of Herndon is getting developed. I’ve got people coming in all the time and talking about business opportunities on Herndon. That’s the far northwest part of town and there are a lot of spots people are looking at.”
Question: “What’s the future for the long-planned Veterans Boulevard project?
Brandau: “We’re working on it. And when we get it and the area’s specific plan, we’ll bring confidence to developers that the city is taking the area west of Highway 99 seriously. If we hadn’t suffered through the Great Recession for those four, five, six years, we’d probably already be in construction on Veterans. But the recession caused the money to pretty much stop. Funds are starting to trickle back in. We’re acquiring the land. We’re moving forward. It’s happening. Unfortunately for my folks west of 99, it’s not happening fast enough.”
Question: Let’s move to the condition of Fresno streets. Are we in a “roads” crisis?
Brandau: “It’s a much bigger crisis than what you’d know by what we spend (on street repairs). I push as hard as I can for more funding every time I can. I pushed hard last year. I pushed hard this year.
“When I pull up to a stop sign, I look down at the road. I see big cracks. I know it’s just a matter of time before that road turns to junk because of the weather and the heat and the rain.
“We need about $20 million annually to maintain our roads in the city of Fresno. The mayor is struggling to give us another million. So, that shows you the size of the crisis.”
(Swearengin’s FY 2016-17 budget calls for more than $9 million in spending on paving, concrete work, street maintenance and pothole repairs – a 36% boost from last year’s budget.)
Question: As they did last year, your council colleagues at June budget hearings embraced your motion to spend an extra $1.05 million on street repairs. That’s an additional $150,000 for each council infrastructure account, money spent at the council member’s command. Critics of the council infrastructure accounts have called them “slush funds.” Is the council infrastructure account the best way to spend a big portion of street-repair funds?
Brandau: “I like doing it this way because, at least for this portion of money, I know my district will be on par with every other district. If I don’t do it like that, the money tends to gravitate to other areas of town where the Mayor’s got her priorities. That’s fine – she’s the mayor. She can have her priorities. But I want to know for sure that streets in Northwest Fresno are getting resurfaced. Sometimes they get a full replacement, sometimes they get a slurry seal. Whatever it takes. It gives me the flexibility to go into some neighborhoods in Northwest Fresno and know sure I’ve got ‘x’ amount of dollars.”
(Brandau said the streets he selects for repairs come from a high-priority list compiled by the Public Works Department. In that way, he said, he’s not playing favorites for political purposes. “A lot of families get their streets overlooked. So, I’m going in to help them,” he said.)
Question: I’ve gone through Fresno’s 1958 general plan. The 2035 general plan – which you voted against – is so much more elaborate and idealistic. What happened to city planners?
Brandau: “I’ve gotten into knockdown drag-out arguments with this general plan and a lot of the other centralized planning that this Administration is doing. A person could say, ‘Gosh, a person could easily get sidelined in this deal.’ The truth is I feel I bring a common-sense approach when it comes to spending money.”
(At this point, Council Members Oliver Baines and Esmeralda Soria enter Brandau’s office. He’s wanted for a meeting on the new budget. Brandau promises to be there in five minutes.)
“Oliver walking in here is timely because we work great together. We come from different views. The way we look at government can be different. But we come together and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to fix things in Fresno. You bring your stuff and I’ll bring my stuff and we get things done.’ I don’t think most people realize it, but that’s the reality.”
Question: You’ve done a lot in your three-and-a-half years on the council. The days when you were chasing Pat DiCicco on the campaign trail are long gone. Do folks underestimate you?
Brandau: “Yeah, they underestimate me. I’m a carpet cleaner. I look like Mr. Clean. I’m a carpet-cleaner, right? All of that stuff. And I love it. I’m so glad they underestimate me. Because it allows me to build relationships and work hard.
“One of the first things I did when I became a councilman was to say, ‘Heck, I can go fix street lights. I can put a light bulb in. I’m not afraid of those boom trucks.’ And the people of North Fresno went: ‘Hey this is an average guy. He’s trying to help us here.’ And when I advocate for things like the streets they drive on every day, people say, ‘Tax dollars and streets – that’s a good combo.’ I think I’ve earned their trust. They know I’m going to bring a common sense approach to the things that we need. When it comes to the real philosophical stuff like the general plan, I try my best.
“I might not get my way with all of it. But the people know I’m still there for them. And at the end of the day, even if it’s just me being critical of Bus Rapid Transit, it might cause people to pause and say to themselves, ‘Perhaps we’d better cross all our t’s and dot all our i’s. Because if we don’t, Brandau will be on the radio hammering us.’ So even there I’m a part of the debate.”
I began this story by saying Brandau in mid-2016 is sitting pretty in the world of local politics. What did I mean by that?
Look at the City Hall landscape. We’ll have a new mayor in six months – District 6 Council Member Lee Brand or County Supervisor Henry R. Perea. It’s still anyone’s race. But Perea, thanks in part to strong support from city unions, got nearly 45% of the vote in the primary, almost 14 percentage points more than Brand. Perea is the definite favorite to succeed Swearengin.
Perea, a staunch Democrat in a one-party state, will be facing a lot of Union IOUs if he’s elected. That almost always mean generous labor contracts.
The City Council itself is changing politically.
That Soria sits in the District 1 seat is due in significant part to the support of Perea and his son, Henry T. Perea. District 3’s Baines, halfway through his second term, is a Democrat with a legitimate shot at higher office in 2018.
Caprioglio is a Democrat with conservative leanings, but his gentle manner convinced city unions to decide against putting up a District 4 challenge in the June primary.
District 5’s Sal Quintero will resign this year to take a seat on the county Board of Supervisors. His successor almost certainly will have liberal-progressive leanings.
Former City Council Member Garry Bredefeld is the heavy favorite against Jeremy Pearce in the District 6 runoff (Bredefeld had 49% of the vote in the primary, compared to 25.1% for Pearce). Bredefeld may live in the conservative northeast part of town, but anyone with a good memory (think back to the Downtown stadium controversies of 1990s) will undoubtedly recall his fondness for spending the public’s money.
And while Clint Olivier – generally a pro-business libertarian – has another two-and-a-half years as District 7’s representative, he seems to have fallen into a deep funk since losing a bid for a state Assembly seat.
All this is a huge opportunity for an elected official at City Hall who views the spending of taxpayer money with caution, who thinks there are limits to what a government should attempt in the way of social engineering, who cherishes liberty and personal responsibility.
That someone very likely could be a lone voice over the next four years. That someone would be on the losing end of many fights. But that someone, if he has courage and conviction and tact, would be heard loud and clear throughout the city.
You know what I’m saying – contrast is the essence of vision.
I’m guessing that someone will be Steve Brandau. Like the risk-taker who built the Tang Yuan Seafood Restaurant at Palm and Bullard, Brandau over the next four years could be a leader who sees Fresno with a different set of eyes.
Question: Have you given any thoughts to your political career in 2020?
Brandau: “I get asked that question all the time. It’s going to sound like I’m just saying this, but I’m not – I don’t plan like that. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing and see where the chips fall. I could be interested in a number of different things. I’ve seen how it works with my friends – you almost have to be in the right place at the right time. There’s a little bit of luck involved. If the timing isn’t right, if the openings aren’t there, it might not happen. But sometimes it all lines up. So, I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing and see if it all lines up.”