Meet the Valley Leaders Who Will Impact You Most in 2023
By Bill McEwen
Coming off the November elections, there’s no better time than now to rank the Valley leaders who can make your life better — or worse — in 2023.
Here in reverse order is a baker’s dozen of elected and non-elected leaders who wield power.
13 — Matthew Grundy: Deputy Mayor, Fresno
Affordable housing is among Fresno’s most pressing issues, and Grundy is tasked with seeing that projects and initiatives move forward at a much quicker pace. He has the resume for the job, having been homeless and a record of success as CEO of the local Habitat for Humanity. In addition, Grundy works closely with Jerry Dyer in formulating the mayor’s “One Fresno” vision. This isn’t a job for the faint of heart. The city council — not the mayor — holds the power over housing and development. To succeed in his mission, Grundy must persuade a majority of councilmembers that he has the answers.
12 — Chuck Riojas: Union and Workforce Leader
As Fresno has gotten bluer politically, this building trades union leader has become increasingly powerful. Most important: he has used that power to not only help union members but also broad segments of the community. Riojas has expanded apprenticeship opportunities for women and for those trying to overcome early life mistakes resulting in incarceration. He has been able to convince elected officials of the efficacy of Project Labor Agreements — long opposed in the region —on big construction projects. Whether the subject is the trades, workforce development, or political endorsements, Riojas has a seat at the table locally and at the state level.
11 —Lee Ann Eager: Fresno Economic and State Transportation Leader
Lee Ann Eager
Best known as the longtime leader of the Fresno County Economic Development Corp., Eager’s professionalism and vision have helped the community bounce back from the job losses of the Great Recession and the COVID-19 Pandemic. Since landing the position in 2009, she has focused on inclusive economic growth throughout the county. An early recognizer of High-Speed Rail’s potential to turbo-charge the Valley economy, she is among the statewide leaders making the case to keep the troubled $100 billion project funded and on track. Appointed to the powerful California Transportation Commission by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2020, she is now the commission chair.
10 —Joaquin Arambula: State Assemblymember, 31st District
In back-to-back years, Arambula has flexed his clout at the state level to force local decision-makers to do right by their constituents. In 2021, Gov. Newsom signed Arambula’s AB 559. The law requires the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board to become more diverse and more responsive to community needs. Last September, Newsom signed Arambula’s AB 2030. That law creates an independent redistricting commission for Fresno County starting with the 2030 Census. Arambula’s motivation for taking away the power to draw lines from the Board of Supervisors was the fact that district boundaries had barely changed over three decades despite the county’s growing Latino population.
9 — Flo Dunn: President, California Health Sciences University
The longtime banking executive accepted the challenge of a lifetime in 2012 by agreeing to lead the effort to build a private medical school in the Fresno area. The herculean assignment was posed by the Assemi family, which had grown tired of the fact our region didn’t have a public medical school. The university’s College of Osteopathic Medicine is up and running, and the College of Biosciences and Health Professions was launched in January. Though there have been bumps on the journey, Dunn is committed to improving the health care outcomes of Central Valley residents by growing generations of future physicians and other medical workers.
(Disclosure: GV Wire Publisher Darius Assemi serves on the CHSU Board of Trustees.)
8 — Anna Caballero: State Senator, District 14
This nugget on Caballero’s 2022 campaign website says a lot about what motivates her to help Valley residents prosper: “When you grow up in a family of copper miners in Arizona, you learn about hard work, long days, and soil.” Because of that experience, the UCLA-trained lawyer and former Salinas mayor is the rare state Democrat who understands the importance of water and agriculture to the Valley while also advocating for farmworkers, women’s equality, and keeping communities safe. A savvy negotiator, she focuses on wins for constituents and doesn’t let perfection block progress. She often is the rare voice of reason in a fractured Legislature.
7 — Tom Richards: Developer and High-Speed Rail Authority Chair
Richards is the chair and CEO of Fresno-based Penstar Group, which develops and builds projects throughout California. He prefers to work quietly behind the scenes, but as chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, he has been thrust into the spotlight. Richards has shared his business expertise with many local nonprofits and public economic improvement initiatives through the years. He also led the creation of Terry’s House, a hospitality home for the families of patients in critical condition at Community Regional Medical Center. More than 9,000 families from 34 countries and 50 states have stayed there. It is named for his brother Terry.
6 — Ashley Swearengin: President/CEO, Central Valley Community Foundation
California political journalist Joe Mathews calls Swearengin “the unofficial governor” of the San Joaquin Valley. Now six years removed from being Fresno’s mayor, she continues to have great influence over Fresno’s quality of life — and will retain that influence for many years. The general plan that governs Fresno’s growth and revitalization is hers. The contract with the Fresno Irrigation District that sets the price for delivering water to new residences is hers. The CVCF provides many millions in funding to nonprofits annually. And she leads Fresno DRIVE, a deep-pocketed 10-year effort to enhance left-behind neighborhoods. On important issues, she has a big say in what happens.
5 — Jim Costa: US Congressman, 21st District
Even though the Republicans narrowly control the House, Democrat Costa remains positioned to deliver for the Valley on water, agriculture, transportation, veterans and women’s issues, and health care. In addition, he will continue to have a strong voice on foreign relations. Some of this retention of power is due to relationships built over his nearly two decades in the House. Some is because Joe Biden will be in the White House for at least two more years. But there’s also the fact that a conservative Democrat like Costa can help House Speaker Kevin McCarthy pass commonsense legislation opposed by Freedom Caucus members of his own party.
4 — Wendy McCulley: Fresno Unified Engagement/Partnerships Leader
McCulley refuses to take “no” for an answer and has the expertise to find the path to “yes.” Fresno Unified is tasked with the job of preparing students for success in the workforce or college even though many of its students live in frightfully challenging conditions. McCulley has degrees from Penn and Harvard and real-world business experience —complemented by a passion to do right for children. She founded the district’s successful African American Academic Acceleration program. And, last October, the new district foundation she leads landed a $20 million grant from billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. The next time Fresno Unified goes looking for a superintendent, she should be at the top of the list.
3 — ‘Team Jerry Dyer’: Fresno Mayor
OK, I’m cheating a bit. But the success or failure of any Fresno mayor also involves the city manager and city council president. Dyer will never win over some progressives, but the center-right mayor has consistently led with a “What’s Best for Fresno” attitude that has earned him praise from Gov. Newsom and President Biden. Meanwhile, it’s the city manager’s job to tend to the mayor’s punch list of projects and policies. Georgeanne White returned to City Hall last year in that position and gave the Dyer administration a boost. Meanwhile, the city council president has the power to make life miserable or smooth sailing for the mayor. Thus far, new council president Tyler Maxwell appears to be on the same page as Dyer on many issues. We’ll see if the honeymoon endures.
2 — Samir Sheikh: Executive Director, Valley Air District
While it’s true that Sheikh answers to his board, he and his staff are charged with improving the Valley’s air. It’s an assignment that has a huge impact on public health. Community activists and media outlets critical of Sheikh and the board for not moving fast enough ignore the tremendous progress made on his watch. For example, the air district and the California Air Resources Board have approved a strategy that will result in a near-complete phase-out of all Valley agricultural burning by Jan. 1, 2025. In addition, the district has won national acclaim for its efforts to reduce harmful residential wood burning. Sheikh is smart and innovative, and Valley residents are fortunate to have him in their corner.
1 — Kevin McCarthy: Speaker of the House
After it required McCarthy four days, 15 ballots, and numerous backroom deals to get the gavel, no one — least of all him — knows how long he’ll be the House leader. It might be a short reign like those of some ancient Roman emperors. Or, McCarthy could surprise, solidify his fractious membership, and survive until the 2024 elections. But, for as long as he is Speaker, McCarthy can deliver for the Valley like no one else who has gone to Washington, D.C. from our region. Whether he will use the Speaker’s immense power to help the Valley is unknown, however. He’s always been more interested in climbing the political ladder than in attending to local issues.