Newsmakers come in all shapes, sizes, and impacts.
There are those who dominate headlines and social media for a spell before free-falling back into obscurity. There are those who — by virtue of talent, position, and personality — make lasting marks on a community. And there are those who occupy the space between the shooting stars and the real stars.
25. Vong Mouanoutoua — Clovis city councilman
Mouanoutoua came to the defense of renters everywhere after a resident described them as “riffraff” at a council meeting in January.
“I am a riffraff, because I rent. I think it is unfair to associate a zoning, or a term or medium, with crime (and) with bad citizenship,” he responded from the dais.
With California in the midst of a housing crisis, cities are under pressure to approve more development of all kinds. All Clovis leaders should side with Mouanoutoua to ensure that planning decisions aren’t based on stereotypes.
24. Silvia Lopez — farmworker
In May, the Fresno-based 5th District Court of Appeal granted a unanimous victory to Gerawan farmworkers led by Silvia Lopez who wanted votes cast in 2013 counted in a dispute over union representation.
The verdict: Gerawan employees rejected representation by the United Farm Workers union, 1,098 to 197.
Critics of Lopez paint her as a pawn of Gerawan’s owners. Lopez refutes such claims, saying that she represents “the rise of new farmworker movements to replace the old” such as the UFW.
Beyond dispute is that she successfully fought in court to have the votes counted. On Sept. 18, her goal was realized — dealing major defeats to the ARLB and the UFW.
23. Elizabeth Heng — congressional candidate
The daughter of Cambodian refugees captured the imagination of national conservatives. She forced social media giants Facebook and Twitter to backtrack from bans on her campaign ads. And she aired a funny campaign ad featuring a Jim Costa look-alike walking in red high heels à la Nancy Pelosi.
Heng also forced Costa to take the defense of his congressional seat seriously. Campaigning as if his political life were in peril, Costa won by 15 percentage points in the 16th District.
A big question: Will Heng, a former congressional staffer, take a second stab at elected office in the near future or disappear into the background?
22. Miguel Arias — Fresno city councilman-elect
After he’s sworn in, Arias will be the Reggie Jackson of the city council, the straw that stirs the drink and someone Mayor Lee Brand’s staff will have to account for in many political equations.
You can expect Arias to steer the council to more left-friendly positions on labor, immigration, and environmental issues in his first term — and be highly involved in identifying a liberal to challenge Brand’s 2020 reelection bid.
21. Garry Bredefeld — Fresno city councilman
The northeast representative came out hard against the parks sales tax and also opposed Brand’s alternate idea of a tax that would raise millions of dollars annually for parks and public safety.
In addition, he fought hard to speed up approval for projects and businesses that could potentially increase the city’s general fund via sales and property taxes. Bredefeld’s chief proposal was a “money-back guarantee” that the Planning Department would meet established timelines for signing off on projects.
Brand fought the proposal, preferring to await the recommendations of the Business Friendly Fresno 2.0! task force that he appointed. The task force has yet to publicly announce what it has come up with.
Expect Bredefeld to renew the money-back guarantee fight early in 2019 and get backing from councilman Luis Chavez, who also wants City Hall to tackle fixes for Fresno’s 4-year-old General Plan.
20. Jim Patterson — 23rd District assemblyman
Patterson had the best 2018 of any Republican in Sacramento as a high-profile watchdog on California’s troubled high-speed rail project and problems at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
More than that, he found Democratic allies in his continuing quest for accountability in state government — something that’s hard to do in the Capitol’s hyper-partisan atmosphere.
Patterson easily won re-election in November. He will continue to make headlines as one of the state’s leading conservative voices.
19. Jim Yovino — Fresno County Schools superintendent
Yovino’s dream of opening a school where future engineers take classes alongside future welders and construction workers became a reality in August.
Either option is a winner, and education experts around the country are looking closely at what unfolds at CTEC over the next few years.
If it fulfills Yovino’s expectations, the school could become a model for other communities looking to engage students with cutting-edge curriculum and elevate their workforce.
18. Joaquin Arambula — 31st District assemblyman
Accused of misdemeanor willful cruelty to a child, Arambula made the media rounds to give his version of events. He simply spanked the bottom of a daughter who had been acting out, he said.
Instead of appearing contrite, Arambula came off as trying to portray himself as a victim.
The story became even bigger when Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said the child’s injuries were elsewhere on her body.
Arambula’s criminal case will keep him in the headlines in 2019 as well.
17 – 15. Debra Rush, Jerry Dyer, Lisa Smittcamp — crackdown on human trafficking
Rush, a co-founder of Fresno-based Breaking the Chains, teamed with police chief Jerry Dyer and district attorney Lisa Smittcamp to spread the word that human trafficking isn’t a victimless crime. Together, they made it more difficult for human traffickers to operate in Fresno.
Moreover, they helped increase national awareness about how pimps — many of them gang members — recruit young women into prostitution, psychologically and physically control them, and destroy their lives.
They also helped expose the fact that websites hosting sex-trafficking ads facilitate human trafficking.
In April, President Donald Trump signed a bill giving federal and state prosecutors greater power to pursue websites such as Backpage.com and Craigslist. The bill also enabled victims and state attorneys general to file lawsuits against those sites.
14. Melissa Hurtado — 14th District senator
The former Sanger city councilwoman flew under the media’s radar until stunning incumbent Andy Vidak and helping the Democrats achieve a supermajority in both chambers of the state Legislature.
But a passion for knocking on doors and listening to residents’ concerns is what ultimately enabled her to become, at 30, the youngest lawmaker in Sacramento.
The challenge ahead for Hurtado is balancing constituent needs against the liberal marching orders of the Senate’s Democratic leadership.
13. Ashley Swearengin — CEO of Central Valley Community Foundation
The former Fresno mayor continues to have a high profile. In 2018, she unsuccessfully pushed for a local parks tax and also traveled extensively in the state and across the country to talk about philanthropy, economic development, urban planning, and social justice.
Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom appointed Swearengin, a Republican, to his transition team, and she continues to command respect from political leaders and activists on both sides of the aisle.
Swearengin will have an important role in 2019: bringing together supporters and opponents of the parks sales tax to put a sales tax supporting parks and public safety on the 2020 ballot. Certainly, that is Mayor Lee Brand’s goal, and it’s difficult to imagine a combined tax coming to fruition without Swearengin’s involvement.
“Philanthropy is especially important and transformational in under-resourced communities like Fresno.”
— Ashley Swearingen gives a shout out to #SC2! #AtlanticOpportunity #SharedProsperity pic.twitter.com/BCga90AtRR
— Erika Poethig (@Erika_Poethig) October 15, 2018
12. Jose Ramirez — World Boxing Council junior welterweight champion
The powerfully built 140-pounder became the first Fresno area world champion to successfully defend his belt when he put his previously unbeaten opponent, Antonio Orozco, on the canvas twice en route to a unanimous victory at the Save Mart Center.
The 22-0 Ramirez is among the most popular sports figures in the Valley. He’s among a handful of professional boxers who can sell out a large arena and he only figures to get better over the next few years.
The former Fresno State student also is hardworking, humble, and charitable — qualities that enable him to inspire young and old alike.
There is talk of Ramirez stepping up one weight class to face undefeated WBO welterweight champion Terence Crawford (34-0) in 2019.
Whatever Ramirez decides and whomever he faces in the ring, boxing fans throughout the world will pay close attention.
— Top Rank Boxing (@trboxing) September 15, 2018
11. Ashley Werner — Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability senior attorney
Werner speaks for the powerless and strives to ensure that Fresno City Hall and developers follow the law.
So much so that city councilman Steve Brandau called Werner and her organization “poverty pimps” during a vote on the Caglia family’s proposed 2 million-square-foot industrial park in January.
Score one for Werner. She got under Brandau’s skin.
Some conservatives congratulated Brandau for assailing Werner, and he was so proud of himself that he tweeted ” ‘Poverty Pimps’ tried but failed to stop South Fresno industrial complex.”
But Werner, representing a group of south Fresno residents, sued to overturn the city council’s approval of the project. And state Attorney General Xavier Becerra intervened in the lawsuit in June, saying that he wants to make sure land-use laws are followed.
The bottom line: City Hall and developers are on notice that they can’t ram through projects without following the law and providing mitigation for negative impacts on residents.
10. Bob Nelson — Fresno Unified School District superintendent
Nelson’s positive attitude and ability to earn the trust of teachers enabled the district to avoid its first strike since 1978 in January.
Nearly a year later, the relationship between Fresno Unified leaders and the Fresno Teachers Association is strong. With mutual trust and respect, both sides are focused on improving student performance.
But Nelson will have his hands full in 2019. Two trustees retired from the board and a third was knocked out of office in the November elections. It’s already clear that the new board will hold Nelson accountable for quickly improving special education programs, fixing problems in the purchasing department, and producing more accurate budgets.
9. Andrew Janz — congressional candidate
Had the Fresno County prosecutor knocked longtime incumbent Devin Nunes from his perch in the House of Representatives, he would be No. 1 on this list.
With financial backing from donors all across the nation, Janz gave Nunes his toughest fight since first being elected in 2002.
He also energized local Democrats and increased their visibility in the Valley, where conservative Republicans long have held power.
Will Janz run again?
I believe he will. Right now, he’s assessing the possibilities — one of which is challenging Brand for Fresno mayor.
8. Lee Brand — Fresno mayor
Fresno’s unemployment fell to record lows in 2018, reflecting the mayor’s focus on job creation and a strong national economy.
Brand already has raised more than $400,000 for his 2020 mayoral campaign and the first report in 2019 likely will show more. The mayor’s shock and awe fundraising is an attempt to discourage challengers.
Speaking from family experiences, Brand helped convince Gov. Jerry Brown to increase funding to help homeless people.
But two of the mayor’s endorsed candidates in city council races, Tate Hill and Brian Whelan, lost by big margins. And the city council passed legislation that legalized recreational marijuana, not just medical marijuana as Brand had wanted.
In 2019, the mayor and his staff will deal with a city council that is liberal and more hands-on than the one he dealt with before.
7. Jim Costa — US 16th District representative
The veteran Democratic congressman from Fresno had four big accomplishments in 2018: helping usher the farm bill through the House, providing the framework for much of the federal legislation improving Valley water prospects, winning re-election, and showing that bipartisanship isn’t dead in Washington, D.C.
Costa is part of the bipartisan Problem Solvers caucus, which extracted concessions from Rep. Nancy Pelosi in exchange for their support for her return as House speaker. For example, Pelosi agreed to limit her tenure as next House speaker to a four-year maximum.
With the Democrats in charge of the House, Costa’s influence will grow on important Valley issues such as water, immigration reform, and infrastructure funding.
6. Jeff Tedford — Fresno State football coach
The question for Tedford after his attention-generating turnaround of the Bulldogs in 2017 was, “Hey, coach, what are you doing for an encore?”
The answer: a program-record 12 victories, two victories over Pac-12 teams (UCLA, Arizona State), a Mountain West title, a Las Vegas Bowl title, and the program’s first victory at arch-rival Boise State since the Broncos became a major-college program.
Unlike some coaches, Tedford doesn’t seek the spotlight. He’s a football lifer who focuses on recruiting, developing his players, building team chemistry, and game-planning.
The Bulldogs go into 2019 having to replace many key contributors to their 2017-18 success. Unlike his predecessor, Tim DeRuyter who also won big his first two seasons at Fresno State, Tedford has the experience and the ingenuity to keep things rolling in a positive direction.
5. Clint Olivier — Fresno city councilman
That wasn’t the case for this former Marine and newspaper/television reporter.
Olivier, a libertarian, continued to work on his city council alliances in his final year in office to legalize marijuana in Fresno. He also led the ballot campaign that convinced Fresno voters to approve taxing marijuana businesses.
Ten years from now, Olivier may or may not be a politician. But, by then, we will be able to gauge the results of Olivier’s determination to end Fresno’s failed war on marijuana and instead embrace the approach adopted by California voters in 1996 and 2016.
4. Joseph and Mary Castro — Fresno State president, first lady
Together, they’re rewriting the manual for leading a California public university.
Unabashedly progressive but possessing a wide streak of Valley pragmatism and an expectation of hard work and accountability by all in their orbit, the Castros successfully forged ahead on their mission to elevate the university and the region in 2018.
It wasn’t easy. The Randa Jarrar controversy became a giant headache for the president. There were emergency meetings, internal debates about free speech, and close examinations of CSU rules and union contracts. And many big donors promised to close their wallets if Joe Castro didn’t fire Jarrar — ASAP.
But the president prevailed by holding campus and community meetings. He met critics face-to-face, absorbed their anger, and explained what he was and wasn’t allowed to do. He also told many upset boosters what, in his view, was the right thing to do and followed that course of action.
It helps, of course, that Fresno State is nationally recognized for its innovation and excellence at educating first-generation college students.
3. Randa Jarrar — Fresno State English creative writing professor
She bashed former first lady Barbara Bush inside of an hour of Bush’s death in April: “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who along with her husband, raised a war criminal.”
Jarrar continued the Twitter barrage for five hours, at times taunting those responding to her.
She also said she was “happy the witch is dead” and couldn’t wait for the rest of the Bush family to meet their demise. In addition, she represented the student crisis hotline at Arizona State as being her personal phone number.
A national debate on free speech and academic freedom ensued. Jarrar, who was on leave from the university, became a lightning rod for upset conservatives — igniting a bigger uproar than Fresno State lecturer Lars Maischak’s “Trump must hang” tweet did in 2017.
Her medical leave over, Jarrar returned to Fresno State in September accompanied by police and friends. She taught a class of 25 students behind locked doors and then took media questions.
“What I love about Fresno is the community and the literary community,” she said. “Angela Davis is a hero of mine. This is the land that freed Angela Davis.”
2. TJ Cox — US 21st District representative-elect
The Fresno engineer, businessman, and politician taught the media a Truman-esque lesson in November in his race against Rep. David Valadao.
Presumed by many media outlets to have lost the race on election night, Cox dominated the ballots that remained to be counted and knocked the three-term incumbent from office.
In a recent interview, Cox, a Democrat, said that he was confident of prevailing in a district with a large Democratic edge in voter registration. In fact, he said, his final vote tally (57,239) was almost exactly what his campaign had predicted beforehand.
With votes still being counted more than three weeks after election night and periodic updates showing Cox gaining ground, the race went from a local to a national story. Adding to the suspense of the count was the question of how many seats the Democrats would gain in the House.
Finally, on Nov. 28, with a 529-vote lead, Cox declared victory.
How did he do it?
Cox said that a relentless door-to-door effort contacting voters and informing them of Valadao’s votes attacking Obamacare and siding with President Trump on other issues did the trick. He also said that having previously run for Congress (a losing effort against George Radanovich in 2006) taught him how to better connect with voters.
1. Devin Nunes — US 22nd District representative
Did you expect anyone else?
The Tulare congressman commanded attention in Washington, D.C., and in the Valley with his full-throated defense of Trump and his partisan handling of the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian actors in the 2016 presidential election.
Nunes battled the mainstream media, locally and nationally. He chose to talk only to those outlets that were fawning in their coverage of him and he refused to hold town hall meetings — even though years before he characterized Democratic lawmakers who shied from town halls as gutless.
Nunes marched to his own drummer in 2018, just as he always has and just as he will do again in 2019. No one gets to decide if they play ball with Nunes. He decides if he wants to play ball with you.
Though he will remain in the national spotlight as a Fox News favorite, his legislative power has been completely stripped by the Democrats’ takeover of the House.
The question is, how far will the Democrats go in their quest to embarrass both Trump and his loyal ally?