There's not as much cash, but there's no shortage of competition in this fall's City Council and mayor's races.
At this point in the 2005 election, candidates Rick Osorio and Ellie Wooten had raised a record-setting $65,784 in their heated battle for the mayor's seat.
Two years and a housing bust later, campaign coffers are more modest. At the end of last week, campaign finance filings showed that Osorio and Wooten have raised a combined $27,095 so far, with Wooten leading Osorio in the donation game. She's raised $16,395 to his $10,700.
While the two candidates like to talk up their differences -- he calls himself a visionary, she says she's about action, not words -- a look at their donations list reveals strong similarities between them.
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Both raked in $1,000 donations from the California Association of Realtors' political arm, both have strong backing from local real estate, building and developer interests.
That makes the mayor's race a near carbon-copy replay of 2005, but on the council side, the ballot is giving voters something new: variety.
The lineup of candidates includes a big-money candidate backed by establishment businesses, Merced's first Hmong candidate, a South Merced advocate, a labor-backed ex-probation officer and a double political legacy following in her parents' footsteps.
Here's a look at the slate...
Candidate: Ellie Wooten Raised so far: $16,395
When Wooten ran back in '05 Merced's real estate boom was moving full-steam ahead with no end in sight.
"There was money all over and people didn't have a hard time with (contributing)," said Wooten. Two years later, she's cut the ticket prices at her fundraisers in half to $25 a head. "You have to respect the fact that it's not the boom," said Wooten.
That doesn't mean she's not getting some four-figure contributions. She's collected $5,000 from Stockton-based grocer Food 4 Less and $1,000 from Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, her longtime political ally.
As for strategy, Wooten says she's using her usual method:
"I'm going right to the people -- that's always worked for me. I think I've had some successes in the last two years and I'd like to continue."
Candidate: Rick Osorio
Raised for far: $10,700
With more name recognition this time around, Osorio says he plans to raise less money, about $20,000 or $30,000. But the stakes are higher for him. He terms out of his City Council seat this year, so if he wants to stay on the dais, he'll have to win the mayor's slot.
With $1,000 donations from local builder Bob Rucker and Fresno developer Leo Kolligian, Osorio describes his backers as "pro-business."
"It's the same people that contribute every year -- pro-business people and people who believe in what I believe in -- the little guy," said Osorio.
The contributors may not have changed much, but Osorio says he's employing different tactics this year, prompted in part by a 2005 Sun-Star editorial that labeled him "prickly."
"I'm being nicer to everybody," said Osorio. "I have to show my caring side, my softer side. ... Last time I was trying to prove I could raise money for a campaign and I was being aggressive. Now I'm just trying to raise money for what I need."
Candidate: Bob Acheson
Raised so far: $16,647
When it comes to money and organization, Acheson is out-gunning his competition by a sizeable margin.
Both his signs and Web site went up early, a move likely related to the fact that Acheson has hired a political consultant to engineer his campaign.
His largest contributions are $1,500 from the pro-business political group Citizens for the Betterment of Merced County and $1,500 from Riverside Motorsports Park, the raceway project the county approved late last year.
He says he supports RMP because it will bring economic opportunity to Merced, but he distanced himself from the controversial project.
"I have nothing to do with Riverside other than the fact that I support jobs and economic growth," said Acheson. "It has nothing to do with me at all."
Like Wooten and Osorio, Acheson enjoys backing from the California Association of Realtors' political arm, which contributed $750 to his campaign.
Candidate: Carl Pollard
Raised so far: estimated $4,200
Pollard, an incumbent who was appointed to his council seat after the 2005 election, has made half-a-dozen runs for council, all fueled by a grassroots approach. This time, he's trying something different: raising money.
At a Thursday night fundraiser at a North Merced home, about 105 supporters paid $50 a pop to hobnob with Pollard, a vocal advocate for South Merced and the only African-American on the council.
There he won endorsements from council colleagues Bill Spriggs, Rick Osorio, and Joe Cortez, according to organizer Lee Boese.
The biggest check of the night, $300, came from Lori and Mike Gallo -- evidence that Pollard, a longtime outsider, is earning support from the establishment.
But he says he remains the people's candidate.
"I want to be a voice for people that don't feel like they have a voice," said Pollard.
Candidate: Michele Gabriault-Acosta.
Raised so far: $5,795
A political legacy whose mother and father both served as mayor, Gabriault-Acosta enjoys wide name recognition. When she ran for her council seat in 2003, she ran a shoestring operation, raising about $1,000 to put up 125 yard signs, she said.
As she did back then, Gabriault-Acosta, a real estate agent, lists public safety and jobs as her top priorities for Merced. This time, she's got more money to spread her message. The contributions she's collected, mostly smaller donations from individuals, will pay for 625 yard signs.
But it's her deep ties to the community that are more valuable to her than any campaign contributions, she said.
"People know me from my parents and from growing up here and being so involved in the community," she said. "People know what I'm about. There are no hidden agendas, what you see is what you get."
Candidate: John Carlisle
Raised so far: $5,214
Most of Carlisle's funding comes from labor groups, and he's proud of it. A fellow candidate recently "accused" him of receiving support from unions, he said, a charge that he found humorous. Carlisle, a retired probation officer, was a founding member of the union that represents some county and city employees.
"To me, working people represent a lot better microcosm of this community than (other groups)," said Carlisle. "... There are considerably more working people here than there are folks in the real estate business."
But he says he doesn't want to be pigeon-holed as solely a labor candidate.
"I want to represent the average person in town, not the rich developer or real estate interests or other folks that are already over represented," he said.
Candidate: Noah Lor
Raised so far: $6,538
Lor's presence in the race marks a watershed moment for Merced: the arrival of the city's Hmong community on the political scene.
In addition to a $1,000 contribution from the Merced-Mariposa Central Labor Council, Lor has collected dozens of small cash dondations ranging from $20 to $50 from Merced's Hmong residents.
"I think (the Hmongs) see the importance of being involved in public service, more than they used to," said Lor, a counselor at Merced College.
Reporter Leslie Albrecht can be reached at 209-385-2484 or email@example.com.
Campaign contributions for Merced's two mayoral candidates
Total Raised: $16,395
$5,000 from Food 4 Less; $1,000 from California Association of Realtors political action committee; $1,000 from Cathleen Galgiani For Assembly
Total Raised: $10,700
$1,000 from California Association of Realtors political action committee; $1,000 from Fresno developer Leo Kolligian;
$1,000 from Merced builder Bob Rucker
SOURCE: Merced County Elections Office
City Council race
Total campaign contributions for five candidates vying for three City Council positions
Bob Acheson $16,647
Michele Gabriault $5,795 -Acosta
Noah Lor $6,538
Carl Pollard $4,200
John Carlisle $5,214
SOURCE: Merced County Elections Office