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Bill McEwen

Is Mayor Brand Free to Lead, a Lame Duck, or Both?



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Last year produced the election that knocked City Hall off of its right-leaning political axis, propelled it sharply left, and made “patience” a word for a bygone era.

Portrait of GV Wire News Director Bill McEwen
Bill McEwen
Deliberative, consensus-building Mayor Lee Brand saw the handwriting on the wall and decided not to seek a second term.
His thinking?
By taking himself out of the mayor’s race, he’d no longer be “the target of disruption every week” by councilmembers. He could focus more attention on the city’s needs instead of fundraising.
That makes sense, but politics operates by its own calculus — one in which common sense doesn’t always figure into the equation.

Mayor’s Decision Could Advance His Agenda, But Clock Is Ticking

I put the question to Fresno State political science professor Thomas Holyoke: Is Brand now free to lead or is he a power-leaking lame duck?
Sorry to disappoint those of you who have been brainwashed into an either-or mindset by the talking heads of Fox News and MSNBC, but Holyoke provided a nuanced answer.

Portrait of Fresno State political science professor Thomas Holyoke
“On the upside, Lee is right. He doesn’t have to make decisions now based on political considerations, and he doesn’t have to raise money anymore.” — Thomas Holyoke, Fresno State political science professor
“On the upside, Lee is right. He doesn’t have to make decisions now based on political considerations, and he doesn’t have to raise money anymore,” Holyoke said.
“But on the downside, your levers of power gradually diminish until the time you leave office. A politician is truly only free when he’s not a politician anymore.”

Brand Will Put His Shoulder into These Efforts

The mayor told me his top priorities include:
— Bringing stakeholders together and rallying the community behind a November 2020 vote on a sales tax for parks, public safety, and public works.
“To get that passed would be transformational for Fresno,” Brand said. “And it would be my crowning achievement. Then I’ve made this a better city than the one I inherited.”
— Selecting, in consultation with city manager Wilma Quan, the city’s next police chief.
“I heard everybody’s comments during the community meetings and I will go with the best person,” Brand said. “The chief of police has a huge role. In many respects, it is as important as the city manager’s job. We will do our best to find that person to inspire confidence. Our police department has learned a lot. There have been no major incidents since the Dylan Noble shooting (in June 2016). Can we get better? Yes.”

— Rolling out the Street 2 Home program that aims to comprehensively address Fresno’s rising homelessness. Street 2 Home is a partnership with Fresno County and the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care. While funded with federal and state dollars, it also calls on nonprofits and the business community to join in addressing the problem.
— Continued job creation that provides more opportunities for residents to move off public assistance into jobs with benefits.
— Funding and passing ordinances crucial to making the human trafficking crackdown Brand announced in March a success. A key component is cleaning up (or demolishing) rundown motels on Parkway Drive.
— Making Fresno a “business friendly” city that combines high standards with more efficient processing of business and development permits. That’s a tall order. Since Fresno went to the strong-mayor system in 1997, Brand’s three predecessors made this a priority as well, only to meet with limited success.

Arias Will Figure in Brand’s Successes and Failures

Just weeks into his first term, Fresno City councilman Miguel Arias emerged as a force to be reckoned with. Expect him to support the mayor when their interests align. The rest of the time, he’ll be a thorn in Brand’s side.

Photo of Miguel Arias
Mayor Brand “wants a legacy of better financial footing. But when are we going to fundamentally improve our neighborhoods?” — Councilman Miguel Arias
“Lee’s a very good statesman who doesn’t allow rhetoric or a polarizing agenda to invade his decision-making,” Arias said. “There are priorities I would help him carry the water with the city council.
“But we have our own priorities, too — affordable housing, deteriorating parks, and structural problems in funding public safety. You will see us take significant actions to bring those to a close.”
Arias and other councilmembers already are attacking Brand’s proposed 2019-20 budget — especially its projected 10% reserve of $34 million.
“He wants a legacy of better financial footing,” Arias said. “But when are we going to fundamentally improve our neighborhoods?”
Arias also is trying to wrest control of the 2020 sales tax discussion after Measure P failed in 2018. On Thursday, the council will consider his proposal to start a parks and public safety committee. Unlike the mayor, he’s not yet convinced that public works projects need additional local taxpayer taxes.
And on the job creation front, there will be a tough fight over the wisdom of using Brand’s tax incentive agreements to lure more distribution and fulfillment centers.
It would be my crowning achievement. Then I’ve made this a better city than the one I inherited.” — Mayor Lee Brand on his goal of passing a sales tax for parks, public safety, and public works in 2020

Mayor’s Race Will Still Influence Council Decisions

With police chief Jerry Dyer running for mayor (and rolling toward his scheduled retirement in October), it’s naive to think councilmembers won’t reflect on the impacts — good or bad — their votes might have on Dyer’s candidacy and those of his rivals.
In fact, you also have a councilman, Luis Chavez, running for mayor. Be assured he’s looking for “wins” from council decisions that will pump up his campaign.
And then there’s councilman Nelson Esparza, who is supporting Fresno County prosecutor Andrew Janz for mayor.
For Brand to check off everything on his wish list, he must adroitly navigate the politics of a City Hall soon to be in the full heat of other people’s mayoral campaigns.

Bill McEwen is news director and columnist for GV Wire. He joined GV Wire in August 2017 after 37 years at The Fresno Bee. With The Bee, he served as Opinion Editor, City Hall reporter, Metro columnist, sports columnist and sports editor through the years. His work has been frequently honored by the California Newspapers Publishers Association, including authoring first-place editorials in 2015 and 2016. Bill and his wife, Karen, are proud parents of two adult sons, and they have two grandsons. You can contact Bill at 559-492-4031 or at Send an Email