Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin was far from her own domain Wednesday morning when she dropped in for a breakfast meeting with local farmers at the Turlock Perko's restaurant. Her greet and meet with members of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau was designed to promote her candidacy for state Controller in this part of the Valley less familiar with her political accomplishments.
Swearengin, 42, is seen as the GOP's best hope for capturing a statewide office in solidly blue California. If elected, she would replace Democrat controller John Chiang who is being termed out after eight years.
Dressed in a red business suit, Swearengin passed out campaign cards and introduced herself to a table of local farmers and explained why she is a better choice over Betty Yee, an Alameda Democrat sitting on the State Board of Equalization who won the June primary.
Al Rearick asked Swearengin if she was a Republican or Democrat, to which she followed up with "Does that matter to you?" The lifelong registered Democrat replied, "Yes." After some laughter, Swearengin noted that she has only served in non-partisan offices "so all I know is to work with everybody and try to bring people together. I want us to grow jobs and I want government to work well."
Swearengin said that she sees the job of controller as "probably the most influential position in state government second only to the governor." She explained that as controller she can use her power to address the "fiscal health of the state" and the California business climate. The mother of two said she would strive to pay down debt, and focus on the future with stable budgets and planning infrastructure needed for long-term economic growth.
She advocates an annual economic competitiveness audit that identifies steps California can take to attract and retain businesses and the creation of a one-stop tax portal for small businesses. Swearengin also wants to see an audit committee to oversee the office of controller, sort of a watcher of the watchmen.
Born to a Texas pastor who brought his family to Fresno when she was a teenager, Swearengin has been applauded for helping to turn around economic conditions in Fresno. Swearengin was elected as mayor of Fresno - the state's fifth largest city - in 2007 and re-elected with 75 percent of the vote in 2012. Capitol Weekly named her one of "California's 10 Best Mayors." Republicans credit Swearengin with helping to turn Fresno's economy around.
"It was like bailing water out of a boat and building a new ship all at the same time," she said. "It was crisis management but done while focusing where we wanted to be in the future."
As mayor, Swearengin said she enacted budget cuts, privatized non-essential government services, partnered with private organizations for parks and recreation programs, rewrote a 60-year-old development code and created the Business Friendly Fresno initiative to streamline the business process.
With TV looks and a good record to run on, Swearengin faces an uphill battle as a Valley politician to raise the funds necessary to get her message to the voter-rich Bay Area and Southern California which typically determine who wins statewide races. However, because she is not a social conservative, Swearengin may find an appeal with big city voters and independents.
Political pundits like Allan Hoffenblum believes Swearengin can only win if she "does everything right" and Yee does "something wrong." He cited the GOP 28.4 percent party registration in the state.
"We're getting great feedback from voters, from the donor community, from the media and feel very good about our prospects," said Swearengin. "I think this office is overlooked and it's been a long time since the public and the spotlight has been shown on what's going on in this office and I think the office can do a lot more for this state to really drive fiscal health as well as job growth in our state. I just don't think the office has been used in that fashion for quite some time. But if you consider, it's the CFO of the state."
Ceres resident Chad Condit, an Independent, said he is supporting Swearengin - calling her the underdog - because she represents the Valley and would give it long overdue attention.. The son of the former congressman and a former congressional candidate said he became acquainted with Swearengin when he was working with Gov. Gray Davis' office.