Four of Fresno’s city council seats are up for re-election this year. While these are technically non-partisan races, many city issues are often decided along party lines. The stakes are even higher in one particular district that's currently held by a conservative, and is a district where voters in the last presidential election supported Hillary Clinton. Valley Public Radio’s Laura Tsutsui reports, the candidate who wins this seat could end up deciding the future of city politics.
Months before the June 5 primary, candidates for Fresno City’s District 7 are increasing their campaign activity and holding events through the area. One popular location to rent out is Sam’s Deli. Known for its sandwiches and meat and cheese selection, it’s where District 7 city council candidate Nelson Esparza asks to meet for an interview.
Since its inception in 1996, District 7 has been represented by two Democrats, followed by Republican Clint Olivier. This year, Olivier is termed out and three candidates are vying for a chance at the seat.
The city council overall is currently represented by four registered democrats and three republicans. Should the District 7 race be won by a democrat, the city council could end up with an even stronger majority of liberal voices, and a potential to overrule a conservative mayor.
Nelson Esparza is a Fresno County Board of Education Trustee. He’s one of two Democrats running for the District 7 seat, and he hopes to create economic development in the city.
“I think we should be able to have a council member who can pick up the phone calls from the constituents to take care of the trees, take care of the roads,” Esparza says, “But not lose a larger focus of a larger vision of where we’re moving towards.”
Esparza has been endorsed by the Fresno County Democratic Party.
The other liberal candidate in the race is Veva Islas. As the founder and director of Cultiva La Salud, she has built her platform on improving the health of the community.
“This district, as well as the district below it, has some of the highest rates of chronic diseases in Fresno, when we think about diabetes, heart disease, cancers,” says Islas. “What we've been focused on are those policies and systems that help to promote healthier lifestyles.”
Islas points out that the district is landlocked by surrounding districts, so change has to come from working with what resources the district already has.
District 7 has an interesting shape and central location because it was pieced together from the existing districts to create an amorphous ‘L’-shaped area. The district boundaries touch Downtown and central Fresno, and the Sunnyside neighborhood.
The one Republican candidate, Brian Whelan says that he’s running to bridge connections within the diverse neighborhoods.
“The goal is really to empower people to be the captains of the ship. I think that police can’t be everywhere and it’s us, the citizens and the neighbors, that need to realize that we need to get a little more involved,” says Whelan, a local attorney. “My goal is to give people the opportunity to have their voices heard, to give people a channel to have a direct connection to city hall.”
With three different candidates running, it’s likely two of them will compete in a runoff election after the primary in June.
District 7 incumbent Clint Olivier is one of the three conservative voices currently on the city council. In this district where the majority of voters hoped to elect Hillary Clinton in 2016, Olivier says he tries not to focus on partisan politics.
“The one thing that really cuts across all racial, economic, education lines is the desire for public safety,” says Olivier. “They want their street to be clean when their kids walk to school, and that’s universal.”
Olivier has endorsed fellow republican Brian Whelan for the seat.
One former District 7 councilman, Henry R. Perea agrees, too, that party politics aren’t productive in city councils. He says both the district and city at large need less of it.
“What they need are people who are moderate in their political thinking,” says Perea. “Where they can look at a public policy not necessarily from the lens of the party but through the lens of what’s best for the people that live in the district.”
Perea was the first person to represent District 7 and is a Democrat. He has endorsed Nelson Esparza for the seat.
City council positions are technically non-partisan, but Fresno State political science professor Jeff Cummins says that party affiliation still matters in the election, even if it’s not printed on the ballot.
“It's almost always known what party that the candidate is affiliated with,” Cummins says. “The local party organizations will endorse the candidates. So, if you have an organization behind you like a political party or other community organizations as well, that helps a lot in local races where it comes down to name recognition and knocking on doors.”
Right now the city council overall is moderate. If the District 7 seat went to a democratic candidate, then the council could comprise of five Democrats and two Republicans. It takes five votes to override a mayoral veto, and considering the current mayor is a Republican, this could make the city council more powerful.
The primary takes place June 5.