Fresno mayor face of economic woes at White House forum

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 3, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin carried a heavy burden Thursday at a high-level White House jobs forum and brainstorming session.

One of only five mayors at the afternoon event, Swearengin was also the only San Joaquin Valley representative present. Alone among some 130 participants, Swearengin had to convey her region's persistent economic needs.

"It's very easy to get tied up in policies at the national level and not see how it works at the local level," Swearengin said, adding that "we want people to think of Fresno."

Swearengin said after the forum that it was "more hands on" than she expected. She said she was able to "jump in" with comments urging more investment in empowerment zones and job training, as well as urge Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in a one-on-one conversation to help with Valley water supplies.

"I was able to reinforce how important that was for the Fresno area," Swearengin said.

Formally called the Forum on Economic Jobs and Growth, but generally known as the White House jobs summit, the two-and-a-half hour program Thursday convened business owners, labor leaders, scholars and a smattering of politicians. They represented interests ranging from Google and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.

Participants called the program invaluable, while skeptics dismissed it as a glorified photo opportunity conducted amid double-digit unemployment. In October, national unemployment reached 10.2 percent.

"Jobs are not created in Washington by sitting around and talking about it," stated Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard executive now seeking the GOP Senate nomination in California.

Obama administration officials did not announce new policies or programs at the forum, which was scheduled on the eve of new unemployment figures being released Friday.

Instead, inside the ornately decorated Old Executive Office Building, next door to the White House, participants networked in a reception-like atmosphere before listening first to President Barack Obama and then huddling with his cabinet officers for smaller group discussions.

"What I'm interested in is taking action right now to help businesses create jobs right now, in the near term," Obama said in kicking off the program.

Swearengin subsequently met with about two dozen others in a session led by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Melody Barnes, the director of the White House's Domestic Policy Council. In part, Swearengin was carrying the message that small businesses need certainty about what Congress and the White House will be doing with taxes and business policies.

"The business community has stabilized, which is good news," Swearengin said. "However, they are hesitant to do any sort of expansion; they are frozen in place."

Some on Capitol Hill have called for a second stimulus bill, to follow up on a $787 billion package approved by the Democratic-controlled Congress earlier this year. Of the money spent so far, the Obama administration estimates $18.5 billion has come to California.

Swearengin neither endorsed nor rejected a second stimulus package, though she stressed that any federal funding should be locally targeted so it doesn't get siphoned away by state governments. Instead of new government spending, Obama has been emphasizing the importance of the private sector.

"Even with the best of intentions, we're going to have to be surgical and we're going to have to be creative," Obama said.

Arriving in Washington on Wednesday night, and departing for California less than 24 hours later, Swearengin said she used part of her time "offline" to chat with other officials about Valley issues, including the need for more reliable water deliveries.

Swearengin said she is not entirely sure why she was asked to join the mayors of Des Moines, Iowa, Allentown, Pa., San Antonio, Texas, and Detroit at the jobs forum, though she noted that the Obama administration "has done a lot of outreach" to cities, including her own.

"It's a terrific opportunity to raise the profile of Fresno," Swearengin said.

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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