Voters on Tuesday transformed the Merced City Council, electing a mix of leaders with wide-ranging opinions and backgrounds.
Election returns showed Merced County Undersheriff Bill Blake, high school teacher Josh Pedrozo and clean-air advocate Mary-Michal Rawling garnering the most votes and heading for office.
Blake earned the most support with 3,412 votes, Pedrozo received 2,646 votes and Rawling received 2,336 votes.
"It's very gratifying," Blake said. "It feels good coming in No. 1."
Richard Cervantes and Carl Pollard fell short, with 2,249 and 1,896 votes respectively.
The winners could change today when the county's elections office counts vote-by-mail ballots turned in late in the day. The office has roughly 400 ballots, though they're from across the county and not all of them will pertain to the council race.
Even if the winners change, Merced will have younger leaders on the council. Pedrozo is 26, Rawlings is 29 and Cervantes is 27.
As it stands, no one on the council is less than 40 years old. Councilmen Jim Sanders, Joe Cortez and Bill Spriggs are termed out, all serving two four-year terms. The new council members won't take office until the county certifies the results.
Blake said his first priority will be making sure there's a long-term solution to help the city's homeless people. It's a problem that's vexed the council all year and has grown in urgency as winter's chill arrives. "It's been festering so long," Blake said.
After that, he wants to focus on creating more jobs for the community. Blake spent the evening in Huntington Beach at his last undersheriff's conference. He'll be retiring this year.
Pedrozo's crowd -- which included his father, Supervisor John Pedrozo, and his aunt, Farm Bureau Executive Director Diana Westmoreland-Pedrozo -- was riled up at Toni's Courtyard Cafe as returns put him in second. He said he was confident he'd place high in the polls, probably following Blake, who he suspected would lead.
His campaign slogan -- "Communication, collaboration and common sense" -- resonated with voters who are ready to move the community forward, Pedrozo speculated. "I have a lot of energy," he said. "I'm doing this to give back to the community."
The mood at Rawling's camp at J&R Tacos downtown remained tense as a TV screen showed her maintaining a slight lead over Cervantes. She declined to deem herself the victor until every ballot was counted. "I'm not letting myself get there," she said. "I want to be sure."
Rawling chalked her strong showing to a cadre of friends who spent time going door-to-door, sending e-mails and talking to voters. "They boldly left their comfort zone," she noted.
Stunning fundraising turnouts -- both in number of people and dollars -- kept Rawling forging ahead day after day. "It reminded me why I did this, and it kept me going," she said.
Cervantes' party at D'Angelos was subdued as it appeared he wouldn't earn enough votes to land a seat on the council. He had spent every weekend since mid-September walking precincts and many evenings phone banking.
He said he wanted to help revitalize Merced and believed a council seat would help him guide its recovery. "I want to see Merced move forward," Cervantes said.
He believes his message of creating jobs and making the city business-friendly was what voters wanted. It's just that he didn't reach enough of them or make it clear enough.
Pollard watched returns at Bishop's On The Square and was disappointed. He said this, his seventh council campaign, would likely be his last for a while, possibly forever. "I don't know what happened," he said. "I thought I'd get one of those seats."
Still, he said he'd remain involved in the community and hopes he can make a difference, even if he's not on the dais.
Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.