Fresno’s most interesting newsmaker of 2014

was Darius Assemi

By The Fresno Bee Editorial Board
Dec. 31, 2014

Regardless of whether you respect, fear, admire or loathe him, there is no denying that Darius Assemi is trying to bend and build Fresno into his vision of what a big city should be.

Assemi was seemingly everywhere in 2014.

Cutting the ribbon on another downtown housing project. Speaking at the dedication of the Highway 180 Kings Canyon Expressway. Accepting a key to Fresno County at the annual State of the County address for his family’s philanthropic efforts. Hosting via his Creating Prosperity in Fresno group a town hall where the panel of experts criticized the city’s new general plan. Receiving an appointment to Fresno State President Joseph Castro’s Commission on the Future of Agriculture. Hosting post-election fundraisers to help victorious City Council candidate Esmeralda Soria and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson retire campaign debts.

Wait, there’s more.

He convinced the City Council to overturn a Planning Commission decision not to allow 8-foot driveways in Granville Homes’ Copper River Ranch; before the council’s decision, 18-foot driveways were required. He hired Kendra Rogers to a newly created position at Granville, community investment director, after Rogers resigned as director of First 5 Fresno County in a messy political squabble. And he pulled the plug — for now, he says — on Granville’s west of Highway 99 Westlake project.

Oh, yeah. He also found time to fulfill his duties as a commissioner on the California Transportation Commission, grow almonds and pistachios, lobby for more water for Valley farmers, and continue fundraising for American Medical Overseas Relief, the Fresno-based nonprofit that funds the Afshar Hospital in Afghanistan.

And, give oodles and oodles of money to political candidates and committees at the local, state and national levels.

By our count, Assemi donated more than $520,000 to local and state races, including $130,000 to losing Fresno Superior Court judge candidate Rachel Hill and more than $54,000 to Gov. Jerry Brown’s re-election campaign. He and other Assemi relatives were major contributors to Fresno City Council candidate Cary Catalano, who lost to Soria in November.

In the 2014 federal campaign cycle, he kicked in $80,400. This tally included $32,400 for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and $20,200 to Rep. Jeff Denham’s Victory Fund. The Denham Victory Fund, by the way, received $30,000 of the $113,400 that Assemi donated in the 2012 federal cycle.

No race seemingly is too small or too big for Assemi’s attention. His focus is development and planning, but he also is passionate about children’s issues, public education, helping domestic violence victims, restorative justice and modifying the Endangered Species Act.

So why has Assemi become so visible in Fresno’s political scene? His answer is consistent: He loves Fresno and wants to see the community that has been good to his family prosper. We imagine that he likes the spotlight and the adrenaline rush of campaigns, too.

Assemi told Bee reporter John Ellis in early December that Granville would equal or expand its political participation in future years. And in a commentary published Dec. 7 in The Bee, Assemi wrote: “I commit myself to finding leaders who will aggressively combat government waste and transfer those savings to ensure public safety, improve social services, and maintain and expand our vital infrastructure. I will search for individuals — Republicans, Democrats and independents — who want a civic environment where businesses can flourish, transparency can thrive, natural resources are protected, culture and art are elevated, education is valued and families are prosperous.”

The potential danger to the public, of course, is the immense political power that large campaign contributors sometimes accumulate.

With his declaration that he will maintain a high political profile, Assemi surely knows that many people will be tracking his future contributions and actions ever more closely.