By Kevin Hall
Three candidates are vying to become the next representative for District 7 on the Fresno City Council. The one woman, Veva Islas, and two men, Brian Whelan and Nelson Esparza, will have raised and spent more than $400,000 on the June primary election alone, an unusually high amount in local races. Clearly, there’s a lot riding on this, but for whom?
For nearly eight years the seat has been filled by Clint Olivier, a white male Republican who has badly represented the interests of this inner city majority-minority district’s residents. He was preceded by Henry T. Perea, now a lobbyist for the Western State Petroleum Association who left the California Assembly early for the lucre of lobbying.
The city’s only district completely surrounded by the other six, the area is a microcosm of Fresno’s history of institutional racism and current crises of homelessness, decaying infrastructure, hazardous environmental conditions, militarized policing, and more.
Physically, its layout mirrors Fresno’s citywide make-up of mostly unfinished and neglected neighborhoods with the ever-present segregated wealthy enclave on its perimeter, in this case a tony section along Van Ness Ave. more widely known as Christmas Tree Lane and home to Whelan. It also includes McLane and San Joaquin Memorial high schools, Manchester Shopping Center, Community Regional Medical Center, and the Veterans Administration Hospital.
But the district’s most distinctive feature is perhaps its most deadly: freeways. Three of them – 41, 180, and 168 – cut through every neighborhood east of Blackstone Ave. All three were built long after the neighborhoods had been established; as a result these open pipelines of carcinogenic exhaust cut deep gouges through block after block of homes, schools, parks, hospitals, and businesses. Decades of continuous freeway construction have damaged two generations of young Fresnans and left tens of thousands breathing the fumes 24/7.
The district is also home to Bay Area slumlord Chris Henry’s Summerset Village, site of the 2015 wintertime catastrophe where more than a thousand residents went for weeks without heat, as well as the city’s newest poisonous playground at Martin Ray Reilly Park, which shares a fence line with Freeway 180.
Long-term, the city’s general plan calls for investment along Blackstone Ave. similar to the downtown effort, with an emphasis on apartments above retail along the street’s faux rapid bus corridor, rather than investing in existing neighborhoods. Yet Blackstone backers will be relying on the demographics of those same impacted populations to secure government backing for improvements outside of those heavily damaged neighborhoods. Esparza, at the behest of developers, is already pushing such a scheme.
In short, it’s Fresno politics at its worst.
Through a series of public forums, most notably ones hosted by the Black American Political Association of California’s local chapter and another by the League of Women Voters-Fresno, stark differences among the three candidates have emerged, more specifically between the two men who are philosophically aligned against the one woman (www.valleyclimate.org).
Whelan and Esparza both refused to support #BlackLivesMatter over #AllLivesMatter at the BAPAC forum in March, while Islas firmly embraced it. The two dudes also agreed at the LWV-F forum in April that homeless people need to be vigorously pursued and relocated by police, whereas Islas called for more emergency shelters, affordable housing, and wrap-around services. Esparza went so far as to propose special zones for “spatial” containment of people without homes.
And at every opportunity both men have made it clear they support a sales tax for more police over one for more parks, while Islas has described more parks as a better approach to improving lives and reducing crime.
The implicit and explicit misogyny and male privilege displayed by both men toward Islas is found in their respective motives for running and in their shared attitudes toward her. Neither man has once publicly called her “Veva” in numerous candidate forums. Esparza calls her “one of the other candidates in the race” but he regularly addresses Whelan as “Brian.”
Likewise, Whelan says “Nelson” at every debate but calls Veva “Genoveva,” which is her first name but which she isn’t known by; this is an extension of Whelan’s ugly attacks on her. In two campaign hit pieces as of mid-May, and there are sure to be more, the wealthy white attorney who moved into the western edge of the district a decade ago and filed to run for Congress weeks later, is calling Islas the carpetbagger and accuses her of lying to voters by not using her full legal name.
You see, Islas is married to Keith Hooker, so when Whelan writes about her as “Veva Islas-Hooker” on attack mailers, he is shamefully seeking to play off the slang meaning of her husband’s family name while, hypocritically, not using either her full legal name, Genoveva Islas Hooker, or more important, not recognizing her right as a woman to identify as she chooses, not as this ugly patriarch would have it.
Esparza is behaving no better. His repeated self-described motivation for running is to have a “bigger impact” in Fresno and beyond. A barely employed part-time community college economics instructor who likes to be referred to as a “professor” despite his lack of credentials, Esparza is looking to the city council seat to be his first full-time job – complete with on-the-job training!
He defeated incumbent, progressive Democrat Barbara Thomas in 2016 for Fresno County Board of Education, and four months after taking his oath of office announced his run for city council. For more on that, please read “Why I Said ‘No’ to Nelson Esparza.”
It is widely acknowledged within local Democratic and Labor circles this was the plan all along, and many Dems, including far too many women, have been supportive of this strategy of lying to voters simply to build one’s name recognition and to create a campaign account for stockpiling funds early. Esparza also lacks the courage of his convictions; he was too cowardly to return to the Central Valley Progressive PAC for a possible endorsement in this race, despite having received $1,000 from the group as recently as January 2017 for campaign debt retirement and $1,250 in 2016 for the Ed Board race.
Unchecked Male Privilege
Whelan and Esparza embody that ancient and most powerful tool of oppression: unchecked male privilege. Whelan, of course, layers on white privilege as evidenced by his phalanx of status quo supporters which includes the complete local lineup: Policy Chief Jerry Dyer, County Sheriff Margaret “Aunt Lydia” Mims, Mayor Lee Brand, incumbent Clint Olivier, every major developer, a statewide apartment association, and three well-moneyed unions led locally by extremely conservative Reeps – police, firefighters, and bus drivers.
But the two men share something more profound, particularly in contrast to Islas: they’re both spectacularly unqualified for the office they seek, whereas Islas is the first candidate in any Fresno city council race in many years who brings more than a decade of working in the community on issues of importance as the founder and director of Fresno-based Cultiva La Salud (“cultivating health”).
But that’s the traditional male way. They’re just winging it, relying on ideology and that all-too familiar air of confidence based solely on gender and the assumption they inherently know best the challenges faced by District 7 residents, without having ever done any community-based work. As a result, their would-be policy solutions are half-baked or, when detailed, reflect the interests of their financial backers not residents.
In stark contrast, Islas’s policy proposals are those of a long-time community expert with a master’s degree in public health. Her successes, often coalition-based, include getting Fresno schools to open their playgrounds on weekends; creating opportunities for small food vendors through improved city permitting and the opening of a shared commercial kitchen; and securing money for parks and trails through years of engagement through the Regional Transportation Plan, Parks Master Plan, and General Plan processes. You know, the real work of government not the glad-handing of campaigning.
Finally, the dynamic of male privilege and oppression is completed by Islas’s recognition that she cannot return fire at Whelan without triggering greater backlash and being targeted as the “angry brown woman” candidate by the Reeps and, in this writer’s opinion, will not publicly challenge Esparza on his history of lying to voters out of regard for him as a young man of color. You see, she could literally be his mom. Esparza identifies as the son of Black and Latino parents; Islas and her husband have a son of the same age and heritage.
In short, Veva Islas is too kind, too mature, and too dignified to adopt the anachronistic behaviors of her male opponents; rather, she possesses a depth of personal integrity the Fresno City Council needs now more than ever.
(This article first appeared in the June 2018 edition of Community Alliance.)