Fresno mayor, controller candidate is a bright spot for California GOP


Mayor Ashley Swearengin held up a binder containing a $1-billion budget proposal for her city, which was on the brink of insolvency when she was first elected six years ago.

Now, there is a small but growing reserve fund, debts are being paid off early and services, slashed during the darkest times, are slowly growing again. The picture on the binder featured sunlight breaking through ominous weather and a rainbow over the Fresno skyline.

“We have been through the storms; we have seen clouds and rainy days; but it is in fact what’s produced the rainbow,” she told about 120 women dining on taco salads at a Republican luncheon here Thursday.


It’s also one of the reasons, besides her polish, regional popularity and fundraising ability, that Swearengin is considered a ray of hope for California’s Republican Party. Widely regarded as the most viable GOP candidate for statewide office this year, she is running for controller.

“Republican optimism is an endangered commodity in California, but … she has the potential to raise enough money to be competitive,” said GOP strategist Rob Stutzman.

In fact, many in the party had hoped she would run for governor, and if she had, she would be clobbering the GOP front-runners in that race, Tim Donnelly and Neel Kashkari, Stutzman said.

“She’s the most established Republican politician on the ballot,” he said. “She has much more experience as a politician than the two men running for governor as the front-running Republicans.”

Even Democrats, who say she has no chance of winning this year because of the state’s blue tilt and the typical lack of success for statewide candidates from the Central Valley, give Swearengin positive marks.

“She’s bright, she’s attractive, she’s a good television performer, she’s mayor of what is a major city in California,” said Democratic operative Garry South.


Swearengin, 41, moved to Fresno with her family as a teen, attended a local high school and Cal State Fresno, then worked on a series of efforts to help area businesses and improve the region’s chronic unemployment.

In 2005, she joined the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, a public-private working group created by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

She was elected mayor of the state’s fifth-largest city in 2008, and handily won reelection in 2012 with 75% of the vote.

Republican voters here give her credit for repairing the city’s finances, reducing its payroll and increasing city workers’ contributions to pension costs — even when they vehemently disapprove of her support for the high-speed rail network backed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

“She had a lot of work to do as our mayor.... She’s done a good job cutting and working with what we have,” said Susan Abbott, 61, of Fresno. “Of course, some of us don’t agree with her on high-speed rail, but she’s done a good job.”

Swearengin has vulnerabilities — she backed a water rate hike, has been criticized for a lack of transparency in her governing style and, although well known in GOP and business circles, she is largely unknown to voters outside the Central Valley.


And although the city’s finances are better, they are still dire. Stopping by the Fresno County & City Republican Women Federated Club on the day the budget was presented to the City Council, Swearengin repeatedly emphasized that the city needed to remain vigilant and cautious.

At times, she sounded like she was channeling Brown, who also has fought efforts to use the state’s sunnier financial situation to fund a major expansion of state programs.

“We’re out of crisis mode. But we still have a lot of work to do to become truly financially sustainable,” she said, warning against any temptation to “gorge” after a period of belt-tightening.

Because as mayor she has focused on fiscal issues, she is not viewed as a partisan ideologue. She has not been a conservative social warrior who would draw the ire of much of California’s electorate in a statewide job.

Her controller campaign has not raised much money — $284,000, with enough outstanding bills that she is effectively in the red — but many expect that to change if she gets past the primary, as expected.

Her prospects then would probably sour considerably, however; pundits on both sides of the aisle expect a repeat this year of the Democrats’ 2010 statewide sweep.


But both say that this year almost certainly will raise her profile, whether for a U.S. Senate bid in 2016, when she will be termed out as a mayor, or for another statewide run in 2018. And Fresno residents have long expected her to move on to greener pastures.

“She’s been very effective; she’s very personable; she’s very in-tune, in touch,” said Sandra Burton, a Republican who is a retired county employee.

“I remember,” Burton said, “when she came to one of the first meetings when she was running for mayor [in 2008], when she walked out, I said, ‘Are you thinking about running for governor, ever?’”