Here’s my New Year’s prediction: 2018 will be the year of Esmeralda Soria.
First, we’ll see how she handles the spotlight as president of the Fresno City Council.
Then, we’ll see if she wins a second term as District 1’s representative (or, more likely, if she even attracts serious competition).
Finally, we’ll most likely start getting hints at her options for higher office.
Events begin on Thursday morning when Soria succeeds District 7’s Clint Olivier as council president. There will be a vote, but that’s strictly for show. The council long ago decided to rotate the one-year job sequentially according district number.
District 2’s Steve Brandau will become vice president.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to be able to lead this council,” Soria told me last week. “I believe that the council since I’ve been in office has done a tremendous amount of work to address the multitude of challenges that the city faces every day.”
Soria will be only the second woman council president since Fresno went to the strong mayor government in 1997. Cynthia Sterling in 2009 was the first.
“I think it’s important for our community to see women in positions of leadership,” Soria said. “I know we’ve recently seen a woman mayor (Ashley Swearengin, 2009-2017). But I think it’s important that new generations see that women have the ability to be in leadership positions and lead our cities, our state and our country. I’m excited that there will be young women that can potentially see me as a role model.”
Soria won the District 1 seat in November 2014 after a hard-fought campaign against Cary Catalano. The city’s elective offices are non-partisan in theory, highly partisan in reality.
Lee Brand, the District 6 council member in 2014, won the mayor’s race in 2016. He’s a Republican. Soria is a Democrat. The responsibilities of governing in a diverse city where alliances shift incessantly have nudged both toward the center. But they’re hardly ideological twins.
I asked Soria if she and the Mayor can get along.
“Yes – I’ve been working with him for the last three years,” Soria said. “I believe that we have a very good working relationship. Just recently we worked on a big project, the McKinley/Blackstone (mixed-use) development, which wasn’t easy. We got the votes that we needed. I believe it was because the Mayor and I were working together. We both understood the importance of collaboration. If we want to get things done for the city of Fresno and the people we represent, we must look beyond party lines and do the real work it’s going to take.”
Soria in her career has been a lawyer, activist and policy advisor (to former City Council Member Henry T. Perea when he was in the Assembly). But none of that is the same as being one of seven legislators in a city of more than a half-million people.
“I’ve grown tremendously,” Soria said of her three years on the council. “I believe I have improved in my policy-making ability. I’ve seen a lot of projects come through the council – projects I have been able to make better and policy I have been able to make better.”
One of her cardinal rules – don’t shirk your duty to those staff reports, no matter how thick.
“I read everything,” Soria said. “It’s important to read even the fine print because the devil is in the details. It is the lawyer in me. I can say proudly that, because I have done my homework, there were times where I have made policy better for the residents of Fresno. When I believe something isn’t going in the right direction, I will take my position.”
Anyone who attends council meetings on a regular basis knows the “Soria Grilling.” A staffer goes to the council chamber’s public microphone. A spiffy new project or initiative is proposed. The beneficial impact on the public is promised to be enormous. Trust us, the staffer says. To which Soria replies: “What kind of public outreach have you done?”
Soria’s point isn’t simply that Fresnans may have a different view of the issue than staff. She knows that government process tends to be insular because it’s all so complex. In a city as diverse as Fresno, democracy doesn’t work if City Hall stays in its cubbyhole.
“There is still room to improve” on outreach, Soria said. “I believe that, as council president, that is one way we reach out appropriately and give people access to City Hall. My motto when I was running for the council and since I’ve served on the council has been ‘if you can’t come to City Hall, City Hall will come to you.’”
Toward that end, Soria routinely hosts morning coffees and evening meetings throughout her district. Constituents share their concerns, offer ideas and occasionally vent their spleens.
Such get-togethers, Soria said, “have worked.”
Soria will run for a second term this year. If there’s a serious, well-funded opponent out there, I have yet to hear the name.
“I am excited about continuing to serve,” Soria said. “There is still a lot of work to be done in District 1 and the city of Fresno. We are sitting here in the Tower District. To me, the Tower District is a core part of the city. In a way, it is our mini-Downtown. It needs more attention and more economic development. If I am again given the opportunity and the privilege to represent the people of District 1, I will continue to work hard on their behalf to bring more resources and prosperity to District 1 and the city.”
The council president makes about $5,000 more than the regular annual council salary of $65,000. The president earns it. The most difficult task is keeping council meetings moving along smoothly and swiftly while making sure everyone – council colleagues, mayor, city manager, staff, The People – gets to participate.
It’s no knock on our wonderful government to suggest that can be like herding cats.
Said Soria: “I’ve seen in my three years the different ways a council president can help make the meetings more efficient and ensure that there is decorum between fellow council members and even with the public because we know that it can get out of hand. I’ve taken in those lessons. I will continue to improve on them.”
Soria and I met at The Revue, a coffee shop in The Tower. Half of the Tower is in District 1, half in District 3. District 1 goes as far north as Shaw Avenue and includes a big portion of “Forgotten Fresno,” the relatively new suburbs west of Highway 99.
The Tower is one of the top options in Fresno when movers-and-shakers want a low-key spot to strategize. I sat in a corner of The Revue for a few minutes while Soria finished a meeting with three others.
One of them was Eleni Kounalakis, a Democrat who served as ambassador to Hungary for President Obama and is running this year for lieutenant governor of California.
Perhaps Kounalakis wants Soria’s endorsement. Perhaps Kounalakis was recruiting Soria. Perhaps Kounalakis and Soria just love The Revue’s coffee and pastry.
So, I asked Soria as we parted ways, are you going to stick around for the full four years of your second term on the Fresno City Council?
Said Soria: “Right now my focus is on the council. I see myself serving my term. We’ll go from there.”