If challengers prevail when all votes are counted, the diversity of the Merced County Board of Supervisors could become more in line with the communities the board serves.
With all precincts reporting from Tuesday’s vote, Livingston Mayor Rodrigo Espinoza led District 1 incumbent John Pedrozo by nearly 290 votes. If Espinoza prevails after all the mail-in and provisional ballots are counted, he will be the first Latino on the board in more than a decade.
The county must certify all votes by July 7.
In District 2, Lee Lor – a longtime leader in the Hmong community – made a strong challenge against incumbent Hub Walsh. With all 59 precincts reporting, only 29 votes separated the two. Walsh, who is seeking a third term, had 39.27 percent of the vote to Lor’s 38.81 percent. The third candidate in the race, Casey Steed, received 21.8 percent of the votes.
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If neither Walsh nor Lor receive a majority of the vote plus 1, they will go to a runoff election in November.
According to 2014 Census Bureau figures, Merced County’s population was 57.5 percent Latino, which is an ethnic identity that can be of any race. The county also is 8 percent Asian and 4 percent black, the Census Bureau showed. The percentage of residents identifying as white without being Latino was 29.5 percent.
Currently, the Board of Supervisors includes no ethnic or racial minorities. If elected, Lor would become the sole woman on the panel. The only current female supervisor is Deidre Kelsey, who is retiring this year.
Espinoza, who was elected as Livingston’s mayor in 2010, is the only Latino to hold a mayorship in Merced County. There currently are no black or Asian mayors in the county.
“I’m fluent in Spanish and was born in Mexico, and people feel like they can address their issues more easily,” Espinoza told the Sun-Star in 2014.
If Lor wins the seat, she will be the first Hmong American woman to hold an elected position in the Central Valley and second in California, according to Seng Alex Vang, a lecturer for the UC Merced Merritt Writing Program. Vang also runs a Facebook page called Hmong American Experience that has a following of nearly 8,000 and chronicles Hmong American stories.
“She’s, in a way, a pioneer, being a woman running for office,” Vang said of Lor. “It shows that the second generation (Hmong) born here can be part of the process. For refugees, some don’t know how to be part of the process. Even just voting is hard for them – going to the polls, understanding what candidates to vote for and what propositions to support.”
Christopher Ramirez, a faculty member for the UC Merced Merritt Writing Program, has lived in Merced for nearly a decade. “I haven’t witnessed much diversity in leadership,” he said.
The success of local minority candidates also reflects what’s happening on the national political stage, Ramirez said, with Hillary Clinton being the first woman to become the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party.
“There’s definitely a hunger in our community for different voices,” Ramirez said. “It also speaks to fact that people want to see a different type of representative and can give them a fair and equal chance to see what they can provide to the community.”
Lor said she thinks her “ground level” work in the community made her a competitive challenger for Walsh. “With him being in office for so long, I think that’s where the disconnect was,” she said. “He was in policy and in government, but he lost the connection with the community and residents.”
Lor said her campaign is gearing up for a November runoff and hopes to take the win.
In District 4, a crowded race with five candidates looking to fill the seat left empty by Kelsey’s retirement, Lloyd Pareira won a solid lead with 42.1 percent of the votes. In November, Pareira will face a runoff with former Gustine Mayor Rich Ford, who received 23.25 percent of the votes.
Fidel Cervantes, the Delhi school board president, received 634 votes, or 15.39 percent, in District 4. He was followed by Merced businessman Jack Mobley, who received 518 votes, or 12.57 percent, and Delhi community leader Ramon Prado, who had 272 votes, or 6.6 percent.
Overall, Merced County’s voter turnout was higher than the last presidential primary, said Barbara Levey, the county’s registrar of voters. The elections office counted 23,974 ballots Tuesday.
About 7,700 ballots remained to be counted as of Wednesday, Levey said. On Tuesday, about 4,800 vote-by-mail ballots were dropped off at polling stations. Elections staff must validate the signatures and sort the ballots into one of 266 precincts. Staff also must contact voters who did not sign their ballots.
About 2,900 provisional ballots are included in the total remaining ballots that need to be counted.
After signatures are verified, the elections office will begin working on a detailed analysis on how each precinct voted.
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477