Aerial view of the City of Fresno. Photo by Ron Reiring via Flickr Creative Commons
By Hannah Brandt
Mayoral elections are always important, but this is particularly true in Fresno where we have a strong mayor system, conferring more power to this position. It is also significant because one of the candidates is the recently retired Fresno Police Chief of 18 years, Jerry Dyer. He was one of the longest-serving police chiefs in California history and is a former president of the California Police Chiefs Association. Dyer’s tenure as chief saw three mayoral administrations: Alan Autry (R) who was elected in 2000, Ashley Swearingen (R) who was elected in 2008, and Lee Brand (R) who was elected in 2016.
Dyer’s agenda involves “job training for veterans, creating opportunities for students and ending the homeless crisis.” He goes on to say he will “expand vocational training and establish after school programs that keep kids safe and off the streets.” While Swearingen was in office, he supported her efforts to privatize the sanitation workers in Fresno through Measure G, a move that was criticized by labor unions, including the Fresno Police Officers Association. Under Mayor Brand’s tenure, Dyer was opposed to Measure P, which was an initiative to create more parks in South Fresno where many neighborhoods suffer from pollution and lack green space. He opposed it because he said the money was needed for the police department.
His record includes allegations that he committed statutory rape on a 15-year-old when he was a 26-year-old police officer and that he posed in a photo holding a noose, both in the 1980s. As chief, he was accused of leading a police force with a pattern of discrimination against people of color, immigrants, and people with disabilities and/or mental illness, allowing his officers to use excessive or lethal force on civilians, holding back transparency and independent oversight, lacking compassion for the transgender community, using tracking equipment to surveil and target activists as well as in schools, advocating for the criminalization of homelessness, covering up the murder of a whistleblower police officer, involvement in a massive police drug ring that sent one of his former deputies to prison, and discrimination against police officers of color. Even his resignation prompted outcry because of claims that he handpicked his interim replacement.
For many in Fresno, Dyer has represented many if not all of the problems in the system. Because of his record, the idea of him becoming mayor is a concern for many woman and girls, people of color, people from the LGBTQ community, those who have family members or friends who have been killed by Fresno Police, those who are or have been homeless, as well as those who have been involved in social justice movements. Contrary to some national and statewide media reports, there has been an active protest movement against various forms of injustice in the Fresno area for many years.
In addition to these issues, people have had concerns that Dyer has been using less than scrupulous tactics in his mayoral campaign. During his tenure as chief, he was often criticized for using children as public relations pawns. In an effort to promote the police department’s so-called community based policing, it was common to see media reports of Dyer smiling with kids, at FPD sponsored events enjoying ice cream and playing in bounce houses. Since these parties did not seem to match the department’s policies, especially those in low-income communities of color, it has been considered suspect to many.
People say they have noticed similar strategies in Dyer’s current run for mayor. Despite, heavy criticism from the African American community for his record on policing, people have spotted billboard signs in Southwest Fresno, the once redlined, continually under-resourced neighborhood where the majority of African Americans in Fresno live, depicting a Black bus driver saying she supports his candidacy.
Local African American newspaper, The California Advocate, included a full-page color advertisement by Jerry Dyer for mayor near the front of its Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. edition in January. After beginning this article, The California Advocate actually endorsed Jerry Dyer, a move that left many in the community confused or angry. It is also notable given that there are three African American candidates running for mayor in the race. The editor, Mark Kimber, received many complaints on Facebook when he shared the endorsement there. It was on the front page of the February edition which you can see below.
On Me News Media, which calls itself Central Valley’s Urban News and Current Affairs Spot online, covered a Black History Month event put on by the African American Historical and Cultural Museum of the San Joaquin Valley. It was celebrating Jerry Dyer in Clovis, a heavily White suburb of Fresno where African Americans often say they do not feel safe. You can see the details of that from screenshots of their recap on their website below. These decisions raise eyebrows, especially considering Dyer’s cautions against criticizing his record and refusal to answer any questions about the serious allegations against him by multiple news sources.
In addition to Jerry Dyer, there are six other candidates in the mayoral race. The most high-profile opponent is a Democrat, Andrew Janz, a local prosecutor who in 2016 ran against another controversial Republican figure, Congressional District 22 representative and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes. Janz won the support of Democrats throughout California because in previous years Nunes rarely faced opposition from the left. And the challenge was robust. Although Janz ultimately lost, he attained national recognition for taking on such a staunch ally of Donald Trump.
In his previous campaign against a conservative in a district that primarily encompasses rural areas, Janz ran as a tough prosecutor. While this garnered support among moderates in the Democratic Party, it did not play well with folks who identify as progressive in the city of Fresno, especially those concerned about mass incarceration and policing. This time around, Janz has tried to appeal more to progressives and centrists. He is part of the Voter Protection Project, a team focused on voting rights, as well as an advocate for Advance Peace, an initiative that began in Richmond, Ca. to end gun violence in urban neighborhoods. Although activists from Southwest Fresno have stressed the need for Advance Peace, Dyer has criticized its methods and mayor Brand has vetoed proposals to implement it.
It is hard to get specifics about Janz’s record as a prosecutor. He is listed as Deputy Prosecutor 4 in the violent crimes division of the office of the district attorney, Lisa Smittcamp. Most cases that are publicly accessible are DUI cases, although he has worked on a few more high-profile cases. His boss, Smittcamp, and her family are recognized for being conservative and friendly with Jerry Dyer. In fact, when Dyer announced his candidacy for mayor, Smittcamp was by his side. She has also claimed to be completely independent of the Fresno Police Department and that Dyer and Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, have no direct impact on her office’s work.
According to a law librarian, most district attorneys want to be independent of the police and sheriff’s departments in order to do their work. They also said that the district attorney has a lot of direction over their attorneys, especially those who are newer, like Janz. Being listed as Deputy Prosecutor 4 means he is likely the newest in the office. For a mayor, people often say they want someone who has a fresh perspective, will listen to others and be collaborative but is also not easily manipulated. Many people are looking for someone with a lot of experience, often in elected office.
Actually none of the candidates have ever held a citywide elected office. Janz’s position is appointed. Jerry Dyer was appointed police chief in 2000 by Republican former mayor, Alan Autry. Autry immediately followed Jim Patterson (R) who currently holds the 23rd district seat in the California State Assembly and is running unopposed for reelection. The other candidates are Bill Gates, Floyd D. Harris, Brian Jefferson, Richard Renteria, and Nikolas Wildstar.
Bill Gates is not who you think, although the candidate took his name because of the more famous individual. He is the owner of Micro Private Security and an immigrant from Egypt whose given name is Nabil Samuel. His experience in business is what has prompted him to run for office as he thinks he can encourage outside investment in the Fresno area by wealthy patrons. Gates is running as a Republican.
Floyd Harris Jr. is a community advocate and civil rights activist who is the assistant pastor of New Light for New Life Church of God in Southwest Fresno. He is also the founder of the Fresno Freedom School, a program that teaches young people in Southwest Fresno how to grow, harvest and cook fruits and vegetables. Additionally, it is focused on empowering African American youth. Harris is a Democrat who has held elected positions on the West Fresno school board (now part of Washington Unified School District) as well as the board of the ACLU of Northern California, Fresno chapter. He is running as “the alternative to the law-and-order candidates, Dyer and Janz.” As mayor, Harris says he would continue the work he has done for more than twenty years on issues from racism and homelessness to policing and education.
Brian Jefferson is currently homeless and an advocate for big changes in Fresno. He is running for mayor because he wants to create new initiatives that help others who are struggling with poverty as he has. As mayor, Jefferson says he would improve the situation for small businesses, transportation accessibility, and take on Fresno’s racism and the “great divide between wealthy and lower-income people.” He is running as a Democrat.
Richard Renteria should be familiar to frequent voters because he has run for mayor before. He ran in 2016 against current mayor Lee Brand, Henry R. Perea, H. Spees and Doug Vagim. Renteria is a Democrat who places government transparency high on his to-do list, as well as infrastructure and public safety. He also wants to revitalize the Fresno transit system and improve the situation for Fresno’s renters.
Nikolas Wildstar recently moved to Fresno from Orange County. In 2018 he ran for governor as a Libertarian. He is running for mayor of Fresno as a Libertarian, as well. He wants to create more bike trails in Fresno, as well as tackle pollution, increase housing for the poor but also incentivize more landlords to rent in Fresno. Additionally, he wants to reduce taxes, which he advocates to encourage upward mobility.
There have been several forum discussions or debates, put on by groups as distinct as GV Wire, the media organization owned by the wealthy developer, Darius Assemi, to one put on by young people from the Youth Leadership Institute. The largest one was sponsored by several non-profit organizations, Fresno Building Healthy Communities, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, the ACLU of Northern California, CAIR of Central California, Faith in the Valley and Jakara. It was called Mayor 4 All and it attracted hundreds of community members to St. James Episcopal Church in Fresno.
While all the candidates were eventually included in the later forums and interviewed by local media, those who were not the two expected to have a chance of winning often felt marginalized by articles like this opinion piece by Fresno Bee writer, Marek Warszawski. Those who had not filed fundraising reports were not initially invited to participate in the Youth Leadership Institute forum. While the Mayor 4 All forum says that it did not endorse any candidates, it was originally listed as being hosted by Andrew Janz and the event link went to his campaign website. While that may have been an error, it seems unlikely.
It is common for lesser-known and less-experienced candidates to be dismissed in elections throughout the state and nation, at all levels of government. Most of us have been guilty of it at one time or another. That does not make it right. It is appropriate for us to ask whether these judgments are sometimes made, even unintentionally, on factors of wealth and social status, as well as race, sexual orientation, gender and/or gender identity. We can all stand to be more inclusive and compassionate, as well as better educated about all forms of discrimination in voting.
Although Fresno now has a Democrat majority on its city council, it has not had a Democrat mayor since Karen Humphrey in 1993. The city has had a conservative at the helm for so long many people either do not remember it or were not alive to witness it. Because the stakes are so high for those in Fresno who have not felt served by the leadership, both Republican and Democrat, there are strong feelings all around. The important thing is to make your voice heard at the ballot box.
You can still register to vote in Fresno County. You have until tomorrow, March 3 at 8 p.m. to go to any vote center in the county and cast your ballot or drop off your vote-by-mail ballot. You can still mail your vote-by-mail ballot as well, as long as it is postmarked by tomorrow, March 3, 2020.