Swearengin Vying to Be California Controller After Fresno Rescue

Ashley Swearengin is vying to become the first Republican since 1975 to serve as California’s controller after keeping the state’s fifth-largest city out of bankruptcy following the financial crisis.

With votes still being counted from last week’s primary election, the 42-year-old mayor seeking to steward the world’s 10th-largest economy is the only Republican in a statewide race who’s leading Democratic challengers. Under state law, the top two finishers move on to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

“She is a city mayor so she is an executive -- that gives you a strong persona to put across in a statewide race,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, who was a speechwriter for former Republican Governor Pete Wilson. “She can point to things she has done in Fresno, which will have appeal on both sides of the aisle.”

Swearengin drew more statewide votes in the primary than Neel Kashkari, a Republican who won the right to challenge Democratic incumbent Jerry Brown for governor of the most-populous U.S. state. She leads Democrats John Perez, a former state Assembly speaker, and Betty Yee, a member of the state Board of Equalization, and Republican David Evans, a certified public accountant.

“She’s just got something,” said Jim Brulte, chairman of the California Republican Party. “She connects with people.”

If Swearengin prevails in November, she would become the second woman since Kathleen Connell, a Democrat elected in 1994, to serve in the post. Houston Flournoy, who lost to Brown in the 1974 governor’s race, was the last Republican to hold the controller job, leaving the office in 1975.

Financial Crisis

Swearengin was elected mayor of Fresno, in the fertile San Joaquin Valley, in 2008 at the height of the financial crisis that hobbled the largest U.S. financial institutions and led to municipal bankruptcies from California to Rhode Island.

“I see a position that has many of the same tools, many of the same authorities and responsibilities as what I’ve experienced here as mayor,” Swearengin said in an interview, speaking of the controller’s office. “It’s precisely the type of work that I love -- managing the fiscal state of the agency so that there’s stability, so that the private sector can invest and create jobs.”

In the June 3 primary, Swearengin secured 929,959, or 24.9 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results posted yesterday on the Secretary of State’s website, with about 329,000 ballots still uncounted. Yee trailed with 809,417, followed by Perez at 806,409 and Evans at 787,453, according to the office, which has until July 11 to certify the results.

Diluted Voters

Kashkari, a political newcomer who ran the federal bailout of the U.S. banking system, collected 779,908 votes in the primary for governor.

Swearengin’s campaign contributions are dwarfed by those of Perez, who collected $463,377 in the two months ending May 17 and had $1.8 million in cash on hand as of May 22. Swearengin received $287,441 in donations and had $70,198 in cash on the same date, according to data submitted to the Secretary of State.

Douglas Herman, a strategist for Perez’s campaign, said Swearengin is leading Perez because Democratic votes were diluted between him and Yee, the other Democrat in the race.

“There are a couple of things that are going to ultimately make John Perez successful in the fall,” including “a significant Democratic registration in this state,” Herman said.

About 43 percent of California voters are registered Democrats, compared with 28 percent Republicans, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

‘Shortcuts’ Party

In the past 12 years, Republicans have become “a party of shortcuts in California,” Whalen said. “We’re running first-time candidates up and down the ticket, instead of somebody getting elected to a local office, working their way up the ladder and then running for a statewide office.”

Other first-time Republican candidates include Meg Whitman, now Hewlett-Packard Co.’s chief executive officer, who ran against Brown in 2010, and Carly Fiorina, a former HP chief executive who sought the U.S. Senate seat in California held by Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, the same year. Whitman and Fiorina were both defeated.

As controller, Swearengin said she’d use the office to bring transparency to the state’s budget and special-fund spending, and see that unfunded liabilities are fully reported to the public. “We need a solid look at what our financial goals need to be over the long haul,” Swearengin said.

Job Growth

She said she’d use the controller’s ex-officio membership on 81 state boards and commissions to encourage job growth.

Fresno, about 160 miles (260 kilometers) southeast of San Francisco, is an agricultural center producing grapes, almonds, tomatoes and peaches. With a population of about 506,000 that’s 47 percent Hispanic, its median household income is $42,276, compared with the state’s $61,400, according to Census data.

The city averted bankruptcy, Swearengin said, by shrinking staff and privatizing some public services, as revenue began recovering.

Swearengin was born in 1972 in Fort Worth, Texas, and moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Colorado Springs, Colorado, before arriving in Fresno in 1987. She earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1994 from California State University, Fresno, and a master of business administration degree there in 1997. She worked as the university’s director of community and economic development and later co-founded the Regional Jobs Initiative, an effort to address unemployment.

She and her husband Paul, a sportscaster and minister, have two children.

“Bankruptcy is in the rear-view mirror,” said Bruce Rudd, Fresno’s city manager. “We will be talking a lot this year not about bankruptcy, but how much we put into reserves. If we’re able to get to a $25 million reserve, she will have completely changed the philosophy of the city of Fresno as far as how we deal with our finances.”

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