Forget the Blue Wave during the mid-term elections, the Fresno City Council balloting turned into a Brown Wave as voters gave California’s fifth-largest city a Latino majority of four.
During a Jan. 10 inauguration ceremony that dragged past two hours and featured mariachi music and Hmong dancers to reflect the city’s diversity, veteran Councilmembers Esmeralda Soria and Luis Chávez welcomed newbies Miguel Arias and Nelson Esparza to the seven-member council.
“If you look up here at the city council, this dais looks different than when this meeting started,” said Esparza, a UCLA graduate who teaches economics at Fresno City College. “For those of you wondering, the answer is ‘yes.’ This is the start of something for our city.”
Arias, who left a higher-paying job as communications manager for the Fresno Unified School District for his new gig, was voted council vice president.
If you look up here at the city council, this dais looks different than when this meeting started.
Fresno City Councilmember Nelson Esparza
Looking at a packed council chamber that included family members and supporters of the four Latinos who were sworn in, Arias noted “we recognize the pride that has been specifically expressed because the majority of this council looks like them and speaks their language.”
“That pride is the same pride that we feel for our parents and our families who have made a series of sacrifices that got us to today,” said Arias, who was sworn in by his daughter Anaii Zamora-Arias with help by his son Diego Angel Zamora-Arias.
“My parents, like millions of immigrants, arrived in this country with nothing. No money. No papers,” he added. “However, they had one thing more valuable: Hope. Hope for a better tomorrow, and a work ethic to ensure that we had a better opportunity.”
More importantly, Arias stressed that the council will “serve our African American, our Hmong, our Punjabi, our Muslim, our Democrat, our Republican, homeless, citizens, undocumented as if they were our own families because that is what our families taught us.”
“It is these values that will guide us as we seek not only to represent you at the decision-making table, but to invite you all to that table,” said Arias.
Soria, Chávez, Esparza and Arias duplicate what Henry R. Perea, Dan Ronquillo, Sal Quintero and Brad Castillo achieved in the late 1990s when they were part of a Latino majority.
Perea, who went on to join the Fresno County Board of Supervisors before losing a close battle for mayor two years ago, said it is only natural for the council majority to reflect the city’s demographic.
“It brings balance, I think, back to the council,” said Perea. “I think you will see more resources distributed more evenly around the city as opposed to what’s been happening the last few years.”
Perea cautioned people not to expect the Latino majority to work in lockstep on every issue.
“I think what they’ll find is the same thing we found on the council. You may have four of something as a majority, but you have independent minds up there,” he said. “You’re going to find people working together on issues where they have mutual interests, but on other issues they’ll go in different directions.”
Serving the city as a whole, he added, “is their main goal.
Ronquillo called the new council makeup “representative government.” But, he was effusive about the pedigree of the Latino members.
“These are really, really well qualified council people,” said Ronquillo, who used to represent the district now held by Arias.
Fresno is now the largest city in California with a Latino majority. Los Ángeles has four Latinos in its 15-member council; and, San José has five Latinos among its 10-member council.
Additionally, the Fresno council – although the seats are non-partisan – now tilts 5-2 toward Democrats when it includes Councilmember Paul Caprioglio. That gives them veto power against Mayor Lee Brand, who endorsed the opponents of Arias and Esparza.
That leaves Council President Steve Brandau and Councilmember Garry Bredefeld in the minority.
Ronquillo downplayed the partisan side of city politics, but said the previous Latino majority did its job well.
“The Latinos who were here did a great job, and often didn’t get the credit for stabilizing the government the way we went forward,” said Ronquillo.
Perea expects “an ebb and flow” from the new council.
“The councilmembers that are coming in are very sharp, they’re ready to work, and they have a good vision for Fresno,” said Perea. “I think they will carry the day.”
Esmeralda Soria, the first Latina to serve as council president, said the voters “spoke loud and clear, and I hope we are hearing their message.”
“I will make sure a priority for this council is achieving equity. Not equality, but equity and the resources and the allocation of them,” said Soria who was sworn in by her boyfriend, developer Terance Frazier. “We should be prioritizing our resources, especially in neighborhoods that have been left behind.”
Chávez, who was sworn in by Quintero, invited the Roosevelt High School mariachi and Hmong dance group Viv Ncaus Koom Siab perform as an example of “the diversity of the city.”
“We’re all one community,” said Chávez, who said during the campaign he will go back to education once his term is completed.
“There is a bit of renaissance going on in our city. For the first time in a long time, there is a lot more investment going on south of Shaw (Avenue),” he said. “I call it coming back to our roots. We are a city that shaped this region.”
Chávez believes this group of councilmembers “is going to shape what Fresno looks like for the next 20 years.”
How Fresno stacks up
On Thursday, Latinos gained a majority of the Fresno City Council with four. That makes Fresno the largest city in California with a Latino majority in its municipal body. How Fresno compares with the state’s 10 largest cities (listed by population):
▪ Los Ángeles: 4 of 15, plus the mayor
▪ San Diego: 2 of 9
▪ San José: 5 of 10
▪ San Francisco: 0 of 11
▪ Fresno: 4 of 7
▪ Long Beach: 2 of 7, plus the mayor
▪ Sacramento: 1 of 8
▪ Oakland: 0 of 9
▪ Santa Ana: 6 of 6, plus the mayor
▪ Anaheim: 1 of 7