Politics & Government

San Joaquin Valley mayors meet with peers to confront common problems

Fresno, California, Mayor Ashley Swearengin, flanked by Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Sly James, left, and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, at the White House on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016.
Fresno, California, Mayor Ashley Swearengin, flanked by Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Sly James, left, and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, at the White House on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016. AP

Turlock, California, Mayor Gary Soiseth knows how to work a room. Sometimes, it starts with silence.

“I never go into a conversation, whether it’s here or in Afghanistan, where I do all the talking,” Soiseth said.

This week, among hundreds of customarily voluble elected officials convened at the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ annual winter conference, Soiseth is getting plenty of practice on both ends of the conversational spectrum.

A former civilian agricultural adviser in Afghanistan’s Wardak and Kandahar provinces, Soiseth is one of three San Joaquin Valley mayors attending the conference. It’s a place for the pursuit of multiple agendas, not all of them written down.

For Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh, the three-day conference that ends Friday was a chance to talk about issues such as securing federal aid for expanding the Altamont Commuter Express rail service and finding ways to help the homeless.

“We learned that the easiest funding to go after is funding for veterans who are homeless,” said Marsh, himself a veteran of the Navy’s submarine service.

For Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a regular participant in the annual conferences, the meeting was a chance to promote her hometown on a bipartisan stage. Swearengin, a Republican, was one of three mayors chosen to brief reporters at the White House on Thursday afternoon.

“Our partnership with the Obama administration has been pivotal in helping Fresno reverse the course of many decades of decline and to chart a new future for our city,” Swearengin said.

Flanked by the Democratic mayors of Boston and Kansas City, Mo., Swearengin touted high-speed rail, downtown revitalization and economic development, all work, she said, that has been helped by an administration that many in her party routinely decry.

Even on water, a sore point for California’s congressional Republicans, the Fresno mayor, who in 2014 lost a race for state controller, praised the Obama team’s focus.

For Soiseth, the conference started with a Mayors Water Council panel discussion Wednesday that went well beyond its scheduled hour and led to a succession of other sessions and informal get-togethers.

“I feel like I get a lot out of the meetings,” Soiseth said.

As is traditional, the mayors’ 84th winter conference included speeches by senators and Cabinet officials and a field trip Thursday to the White House for a presidential talk and reception. At the host Capital Hilton hotel, booths sponsored by the likes of Uber and Airbnb lured distracted passers-by.

“Meet renowned actor Christopher McDonald, aka ‘Shooter McGavin’ from ‘Happy Gilmore,’ ” pleaded one poster, sponsored by CGI Communications.

Mayors also pursued their own schedules. Hatching rail strategies, Marsh met with lobbyist Elizabeth V. Moeller, whose firm, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, was paid $90,000 last year to represent Modesto’s interests.

Turlock, too, has its own D.C. lobbying firm: Last year, records show, the city paid Townsend Public Affairs $60,000. Fresno paid Simon and Co. about $62,000 last year.

The 31-year-old Soiseth, showing a precocious knack for networking, set up meetings with other young or young-ish mayors at the conference.

“It’s our hope that we will create an official task force within the U.S. Conference of Mayors that specifically addresses issues that younger and newer mayors face,” he said.

On Thursday afternoon, Soiseth broke away to speak about politics and public service at Georgetown University, where he earned a master’s in public policy. One of the 30 or so students present was a former Army lieutenant Soiseth worked with in Afghanistan.

“One of the key messages I made was this: Even though there are many sacrifices in public service, there is no job that is more fulfilling,” Soiseth said.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark