Bridging the divide?

Mayoral candidate Henry T. Perea speaks on diversity, division and uniting a community:

Image    Perea is young, clean-cut, and Catholic but has a penchant for mild cursing (I’ve omitted the expletives from the article…sorry). He’s a bit of a walking paradox, no question about it.

             Despite his youth, he’s had more political experience than his mayoral opponent Ashley Swearengin. He spends his working hours with the movers and shakers of Fresno, but says he’s most comfortable at a neighborhood barbecue or hanging out in a local Tower cafe for fun. He’s embraced labor and business after mediating a hard-won truce between these disputing giants. He’s won the favor of some conservative religious groups and continues to garner support despite his refusal to advocate for Proposition 8. He recognizes the importance of mundane infrastructure issues such as fixing sidewalks, but is equally willing to donate to cultural arts events as well. However, these are not sell-out compromises or inconsistencies in his mind; they are marks of the burgeoning city mediator and facilitator he obviously wants to become.

                In contrast to his seeming contradictions, thirty year old democrat and city council member Henry T. Perea has presented a very safe campaign platform in order to reach as many voters as possible. His concentration remains tri-fold: jobs, the environment and crime, sure bets in the hearts and minds of the average Fresno voter. Yet, Perea insists that he is committed to connecting with all groups in Fresno and believes that this doesn’t have to be a divisive pursuit. He says that divided factions in Fresno have more in common than anyone would imagine. Though he doesn’t have an expansive history of mediating between conflicting groups or digging deep into city pockets for cultural events, the positions he’s taken do attest to this standard of leadership and he has committed to doing more.

                The stance Perea recently took on Prop. 8 predictably elicited some strong opposition from both sides. Perea stated that he believed that the definition for marriage was a union between a man and woman, but refused to support Proposition 8 based due to the fact that he saw it as a "civil rights issue". This statement was offensive to members of the religious right for obvious reasons, but some members of the LGBT community also balked due to the  the anti-gay sentiment of Perea’s personal belief. Supporters of the LGBT community also questioned how committed Perea would be to supporting LGBT interests and events locally.  Perea holds that he simply wanted to emphasize his religious beliefs while drawing a boundary between his personal feelings and his role as a community leader. He responded, "The answer for me [on Proposition 8] is no. The problem I have with Prop. 8 is that we are seeking an amendment to the state’s constitution. You’re creating a new class of people to discriminate against. To me, that is unacceptable and is not the purpose of government. The purpose of government is to create opportunity for people. It’s up to us, as individuals, to take advantage of that responsibility in different ways, but government can’t close the door."

                Beyond the concerns of upholding the state constitution and basic tenets of civil rights, Perea says he identifies with the struggle LGBT people are dealing with personally. "I have a hard time coming from a minority community where generations before me had to fight hard to get where they are today," he explained. Among others, he consulted with his conservative, Catholic grandparents when trying to resolve this issue for himself. "I talked with my grandparents, who are very religious, and even they were conflicted. We grew up in a very strong Catholic home." Perea says his grandparents had reservations, but had to concede that the question of equal opportunity presented an obstacle to a definitive anti-gay resolve. Perea saw an undeniable connection between the bigotry his family had faced as Hispanic immigrants and the bigotry faced by LGBT people seeking equal marriage rights. He also realized how cultural acceptance had benefited his family and their community. "I asked my grandfather, would you have ever thought that one of your grandchildren would have the opportunity to run for mayor, let alone, be one of the front-runners? He just kind of looked at me and said, ‘That makes sense’. I said, ‘Exactly’. The point is, we have our personal beliefs, whoever we are, on social issues. But, then we have to ask the next question. Are we going to legislate on behalf of those personal beliefs and infringe on someone else’s rights? My grandparents have gone through it, my parents have gone through it, and that’s opened the doors for me. So the last thing I want to do is shut the door on anybody else."

                Perea also asserted that he can’t relate to many of the status-quo defenses for supporting Prop. 8. "I’m comfortable enough in my skin and my marriage that I don’t believe that gay marriage threatens my marriage or traditional marriage," he said. Despite the political rhetoric, Perea insists we need to take a more logical approach to our differing view points. When faced with the Proposition 8 issue he had to make the decision on his own. After discussing the issue with politicians, family and friends, there was no clear pathway. For him, it came back to the role of the government. He explained, "Before I came out publically against Prop. 8 I even talked to a group of friends at a barbecue and I got mixed opinions. I had to ask myself, ‘Does the state have the right to deny any group of people the rights that others enjoy?’ The answer had to be no."

                Over the years, Perea has been faced with less difficult versions of this choice. Though the Prop. 8 stance called his own religious beliefs into question, the issue of equal partner benefits was a more clear-cut decision for him. "Two years ago, it was brought to my attention that we had some city policies in place that kept city employees from extending their benefits to their partners. Those basic rights were not available to same sex couples. I was surprised it didn’t get more press or wasn’t more controversial, but we reversed it. "

                In light of Ashley Swearingen’s recently reversed stance to support Prop. 8, Perea contends that he’s held a more consistent stance on gay issues than his opponent. He also notes that this could work against him in the upcoming November mayoral race. "The way Swearingen flip-flopped can say a lot about the politics of where we are in the city. We’re going to find out on Election Day if this was the gamble." He added that his opponents will use this to work against him in the upcoming election. "I would anticipate some covert mailers to go out to certain households reminding people of my stance." Perea additionally acknowledged that this position brought criticism from LGBT supporters."I’ve gotten a call or two from people saying, ‘Why couldn’t you leave that first part [marriage is between a man and woman] out?!’". He added laughing, "I was just thinking, I can’t win for losing here!".

                Perea also received calls from religious groups who have worked towards his election, but says that the calls weren’t inflammatory or coercive. "When I took my position on Prop. 8, I’d been endorsed by certain members of the clergy and I got calls. But they weren’t threatening calls. They were saying, ‘You know Henry, we really disagree with you and wish you would reconsider, but you are where you are, we are where we are, and that’s okay.’ But, a lot of these churches represent and preach in inner-city neighborhoods. So, they’re willing to say, ‘we’re not going to let this get in between real progress’. The deal breakers for them are issues pertaining to poverty or the fact that there are no jobs in their community."

                Regardless of his marginally supportive stance on Prop. 8, Perea has been characterized by some gay activists and journalists as apathetic and uncooperative on gay issues in the past. Journalists from Community Link had reportedly tried for several years to set up a meeting with Perea to discuss the LGBT community. This was primarily prompted by a complicated permit controversy with the Pride Parade. Perea claimed to have no memory of the journalists’ attempt at contact and responded, "Getting permits from city hall is hard for everybody. I don’t want to speculate that we have a current administration that may not be that friendly to certain groups or that they will divert those groups from getting a permit. I won’t go there, but I will say that just getting permits at City Hall is a real pain. When we [Perea’s mayoral administration] get in there we really want to streamline the permit process. Whether it’s a film festival or a parade or whatever that might be, you’ll know there’s one person to call and it’s done."

                In regard to gay cultural events, Perea now wants to expand city sponsorship and support. He identifies the primary impedement to sponsorship in the past as a reluctance on the part of the city to contribute to Reel Pride. "I’m going to change the city system in terms of the city being a more active sponsor of all cultural events. I think the challenge we face today is that cultural events are not sponsored by the city for one reason only: the current administration does not want to give city money to Reel Pride. The comments he’s (Mayor Autry) made, and anyone else has made have been made in open session. Because they don’t want to give to this group, they say that we can’t give to anybody." Perea says he wants to tear down that barrier.  "I’m going to reverse that and make sure the city of Fresno is going to fund everybody because I do think the city of Fresno should be financial sponsors for different groups and cultural events."

                Though he has not been a large-scale supporter of cultural events in the past, Perea emphasized that, as a city council member, he only limited his support due to financial constraints. "Through my council budget, which isn’t very large, I’ve sponsored Rogue, Fresno Filmworks, and Jamaica My Weekend, but usually at smaller levels. I got a packet from Reel Pride, and that’s expensive. Some people told me, ‘You should really advertise with Reel Pride. People will see your name there’, but I got the advertising packet and I thought, ‘I can’t afford this’. Even at the lowest levels (for advertising sponsorship) it was $1,600. I’d like my name to be in there and do a little campaigning too. That aside, I’m definitely going to be there for the opening night. I’m going to change." (Correction: Reel Pride donor contributions start at $250 dollars. Advertising contributions start at $500 and include a pre-screening slide and printed program advertisement. Please go to reelpride.com for more sponsorship information.)

                If Perea makes that change and attempts to promote a more inclusive agenda, what will stand in his way? He says, "Nothing is going to truly change until our politics change, and in this election, I think my opponent and her supporters are going to work hard to remind certain voters of three things: that I’m a democrat, that I support working families and three, my position on Prop 8. I think there is going to be a very strong stealth campaign on that. I’m starting to see evidence of that as I go to speak to different rotaries and different political groups; I’m starting to get planted questions out there." Perea emphasizes that stealth campaigning (persuasive material disseminated to assumed supporters only) is not uncommon during or after an election. The primary problem with these political techniques is that the issue is never exposed to general public scrutiny or criticism. He believes that these strategies serve to divide the community further and stand in the way of progress.

                Perea says that emphasis on common ground will actualize a more tolerant, inclusive, productive community and that communication needs to be overt and plentiful. Throughout his career as a city council member and as a mayoral candidate, he’s become increasingly aware of how broad Fresno’s interests truly are. He asserts that an effective city leader needs to embrace diversity as a resource rather than regard it as a disadvantage. Under the right conditions, Perea believes the eclectic nature of Fresno can become one of its finest attributes. He asserts that a diverse community can fuel a diverse, thriving economy and progressive, creative leadership. "It’s about being inclusive and those are the positions we’re going to take. We going to unite the city and stop perpetuating the divides, whether it’s a North versus South attitude, business versus labor, now it’s traditional marriage versus same-sex marriage, or whatever divided groups we encounter. We have over 88 cultures represented in Fresno, over 109 languages spoken in our city. We don’t need leadership that will represent one side of town or one view. We need to listen."

                It does not appear that Perea has one specific strategy or quantifiable plan for creating greater communication between groups and giving marginalized groups a voice. He seems to be in the formative stages of working out a guiding philosophy on how to approach those differences. He says, "The first thing you have to do is create trust. Different communities are going to have to say, ‘[Perea] may not agree with us on any one issue, but at least we know we’re getting a fair shot’."

                When I asked him specifically about his perceived failure to respond to constituents,  he stated that responding to all concerns or requests via email and phone was problematic. "Fresno is an interesting city because we’re half a million people. We’re large enough that we can start demanding a way of thinking that’s in line with modern cities, but at the same time, we’re small enough where we demand direct accessibility to our elected officials. Ideally, this is the way it should be, so I try to answer as many emails as possible. But, I could spend all day responding to emails and then I wouldn’t be able to do anything else." Perea admits that improvement regarding city official accessibility is needed but that it’s not a matter of adding staff positions. He contends that it will come down to making clearer designations regarding who responds to various concerns and defining how they will respond to those concerns. "People need to be able to say, ‘There are representatives [of the mayor] who I can go to, and if it doesn’t get done, then I can call Henry and say, Hey, Henry, your people aren’t responding.’ As public officials, we have an obligation to get back to every citizen directly, but that’s not always possible."

                Perea adds that he’s consulting with Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco to generate some more cutting edge concepts to promote constituency communication and representation. "The Mayor [Autry] has started a tradition of an Open Door Day and that’s a good idea, but I think I think a more modern approach would be a coffee tasting for people in different areas. We’ve been talking [Perea and Newsom] about this issue of access and they’ve [Newsom’s administration] been having these events where you can come have coffee with the mayor. You get a chance, in a more informal setting, to just talk about issues. We would just go to local coffee shops and just talk. These are the kinds of things we need to do to promote more direct access and it would just be up to you to decide whether you want to come or not."

                Changing the face of the governing body to ensure more direct representation of Fresno’s diverse community is another proposed focus for Perea. "You have to create a city administration that looks like Fresno. It should be truly reflective of all different ideas, of all different backgrounds, of all different political parties and create true representation. As I go around and talk to different groups, they always say, ‘Henry, it just looks like the usual suspects on all the same fifty committees. They’re all the same people that hold positions at City Hall. When is the city going to inject some change?’ This isn’t just in terms of the folks that represent the gay and lesbian community, but it’s Latinos, African Americans, Southeast Asians. It’s also determined by generations. We’ve been looking at how we can incorporate more of that next generation in leadership roles in City Hall. It’s about changing some of the ‘good ol’ boys’ out of the system and bringing some fresh blood and new ideas."

                He admits this change, among others, will invite some resistance, but according to Perea, this is nothing new for him. "It might not be easy, but I’ve dealt with this [dissention between opposing groups] for the last six years. A city leader has to be decisive, but at the same time you have to take into account that we are a democracy, and we are living in a city that is so diverse. I think everybody has the same goals, but we all have different ideas on how to get there. We have to decide how we’ll get there together."

*Final note: For those of you who have not read the previous opinion article regarding the mayoral race Swearengin’s camp refused to be interviewed. When I initially sensed her camp’s  reluctance, I agreed to make extensive accomodations. I agreed to submitting interview questions beforehand (which I did) and expressed a willingness to modify or even drop questions to secure the interview. I spent a good deal of time on the phone with a campaign representative, assuring them that I only wanted to fairly represent the facts. I was turned down. At a later date, I extended the offer for Swearengin to comment once again (after Perea agreed to an interview), but they politely declined. Perea apologized for not getting back to us sooner due to a busy schedule and freely granted the interview.

 

 

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