Merced will have to wait to find out who will serve as its next mayor.
In one of the closest local races in decades, Merced City Councilman Bill Spriggs went to bed Tuesday night with just 24 more votes than his closest competitor, Councilwoman Michele Gabriault-Acosta.
With an unknown number of absentee and provisional ballots still left to count, elections officials said late Tuesday night that Gabriault-Acosta could easily pull ahead once all votes are tallied. They said a final result could be several days away.
"When it's this close, anything could happen," said Karen Adams, the county's registrar of voters. "We just don't know."
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Spriggs, a 58-year-old real estate appraiser in his eighth year on the council, said in a brief phone interview late Tuesday night that he's confident his lead will hold.
"I'm feeling good at this point," he said, celebrating his tentative win at Fernando's Bistro. "Like a lot of people, I'm just amazed it's this close. I think a lot of this has to do with the low turnout."
Gabriault-Acosta, a 57-year-old real estate agent who is halfway through her second council term, spent election night watching returns at the Branding Iron restaurant.
Standing among supporters, she said late Tuesday that she thinks the mayor's race is far from over. "I'm still feeling very positive at this point," she said. "It's an incredibly small lead. We just don't know what's going to happen."
What was known Tuesday night is that the race's third candidate, Rick Osorio, stands no chance for victory. This year's mayoral contest was the third for Osorio -- and his third loss.
The retired business owner and former councilman said in a phone interview after polls closed that he hasn't decided whether he'll run again. "I never say never. At this point I just don't know," he said.
A win for Gabriault-Acosta would mean that she'll follow in the footsteps of her parents, both of whom are former Merced mayors. It also would force the City Council to appoint someone to fill the council seat she'd give up to become mayor.
A loss for Spriggs, who is nearing the close of his second council term, would spell the end of his tenure in elected city politics; he will term out from his council seat this year.
If Gabriault-Acosta loses, she'll spend two more years on the council.
Spriggs campaigned on pledges to create jobs and to diversify the area's economy. He promised a willingness to make tough choices in the name of fiscal conservatism.
Gabriault-Acosta made many of the same promises, and won key endorsements from the city's police and fire unions and from sitting mayor Ellie Wooten.
With just over $12,000 in campaign contributions at last count, Spriggs was by far the race's best-financed candidate. He was the only one who hired a professional campaign consultant.
Gabriault-Acosta raised roughly $8,000. Osorio reported about half as much in donations.
Adams said it could take the county elections office as long as several days to declare a final vote tally. She said she plans to conduct a full recount of mayoral ballots. "With a vote this close, we need to be sure," she said.
Whoever becomes Merced's next mayor will serve a two-year term. The winner will be sworn in at the council's first meeting after election results are certified.
Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at (209)385-2477 or email@example.com.