PAC cash pouring into Merced City Council races

Group uses negative ads to oppose Carlisle in City Council campaign.

November 1, 2011 

As Merced voters prepare to head to the polls next week, two political groups are pouring thousands of dollars into the Merced City Council campaigns — and they're both strongly supported by the same man.

Jim Abbate, whose company, Alia Corp., operates McDonald's restaurant franchises throughout Merced County, has donated thousands of dollars to local political action committees.

One group, Citizens for the Betterment of Merced County, is supporting Richard Cervantes, Tony Dossetti and Mike Murphy in the local races.

The second group has taken a decidedly negative approach. Workers Opposing John Carlisle for City Council 2011 is the group responsible for the signs popping up around town declaring "Anybody But Carlisle," as well as the anti-Carlisle ads airing on Radio Merced and KUBB Country stations. The group reported $10,389 in contributions as of the latest filing period, with about 75 percent of the donations coming from Abbate.

The main complaint against Carlisle is his stance against the Wal-Mart distribution center, which had an 80 percent approval rating among Merced residents, Abbate said.

"John Carlisle was the only vote against it. I don't know why he's against it — people need jobs," he said.

Abbate said the group's members take issue with how Carlisle handled the area's homeless camps.

But going negative is a risky move, said Mary Ward, a Merced political consultant who's listed as assistant treasurer on Michele Gabriault-Acosta's campaign forms.

"You never know if it'll backfire," she said. "Negative campaigns certainly work, but every now and then, a negative hit piece or media blitz will make people angry and cause people to vote for that person if they feel he's being attacked."

Carlisle, who questions the group's motives in an ad appearing in today's Sun-Star, says the campaign against him has been filled with deception, starting with the PAC's name.

"These people aren't workers — they're well-to-do business people and the biggest contributor is one who might take criticisms of Wal-Mart to heart. They all have money to throw around, and it's their right if they want to waste it. If anything, I consider it a compliment. They must think I'm being effective at something they don't like."

Financial supporters of the Workers Opposing John Carlisle group appear to be business owners and executives, many of whom live outside city limits.

Richard Kirby, manager of Kirby Manufacturing, is listed as the treasurer for the group. Kirby made a donation of $1,000 to the campaign. Donations of less than $300 were made by VOJE, Inc., a trucking company in Planada; Main Stone Corp., an agricultural company with an address in east Merced; Robert Ayers, an executive with Transcounty Title; Hilltop Ranch of Ballico; and Jack Mobley, owner of Service Master Cleaning Services. Mobley, who has been a candidate in several state Assembly races, said he donated to the group after receiving an email from Abbate.

"I don't have anything against John Carlisle," Mobley said. "I just don't see how anyone can vote against the Wal-Mart distribution center. It's emblematic of our difference of opinions."

Carlisle says he's heard from constituents that they're disappointed with the negative turn in the campaign. He's readying his rebuttal, starting with an ad placed in today's Sun-Star. He's also running ads in the Merced County Times and plans to start knocking on doors. "A couple of so-called experts say it's all about name recognition," he said.

Abbate said the City Council needs to be more "proactive" and address jobs, the homeless situation and other problems. "We have some serious issues with crime and gang violence," Abbate said.

In his view, the City Council needs to be more critical and work with the city manager and police in finding ways to clean up the city.

His experience with dealing with the city on permits, fees or projects generally has been better than it was five or six years ago. "When I have projects I need to move forward with, they're easy to work with, not as tied to black-and-white, (they) want to look at the gray areas — even with permits and fees," he said.

Abbate, who's also a member of Citizens for the Betterment of Merced County, said that group's membership is a cross-section of people involved in farming, manufacturing, and medical and legal fields, who banded together to help promote Merced and what was best for the county.

Richard Cervantes received $2,100 from the group, while Mike Murphy received $1,500 and Tony Dossetti got $500.

Murphy, Cervantes and Dossetti each met with Citizens for the Betterment of Merced County's members to seek the group's endorsement.

Cervantes said the group seemed to like the fact that he was a Merced native and came from a blue-collar background.

"They were very adamant about being pro-business and very much in favor of the Wal-Mart distribution center, so they liked that I am a planning commissioner on record of voting to support Wal-Mart," he said.

Cervantes said if he's elected, the group's financial support wouldn't influence his decisions as a council member.

"You have to be very vigilant about who these PACs are," he said. "Your intentions are to make your community a more viable place to live. I make sure when I receive checks, I do so with the understanding that it's supporting what I believe, not me supporting what they believe."

There's a lot at stake on Tuesday's ballots, but it remains to be seen just how effective the campaigning — positive and negative — will be.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsunstar.com.

Online editor Brandon Bowers can be reached at (209) 385-2464 or bbowers@mercedsunstar.com.

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