The filing period for Merced County’s local elections opened Monday, and five people in Merced already have notified the state they intend to run for a council seat in the city’s first election with defined districts.
Voters in the city, spurred by a potential lawsuit two years ago from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, adopted the move to carve Merced into six council districts. The mayor is still elected by voters citywide.
Alhough Merced’s population is about half Latino, no one on the City Council identifies as Latino or Hispanic. The 2013 local election drew council hopefuls who fit that demographic, but none won a seat.
All six councilmen also live north of Bear Creek, leading to complaints that South Merced lacks a voice.
The civil rights nonprofit argued that districts would allow for the council to better represent the makeup of the city.
Three seats are up for election this cycle, and the other three are set to be up in 2018. In the running this year are the downtown District 3, southeast District 1 and northwest District 5.
In the running this year are the downtown District 3, southeast District 1 and northwest District 5.
The most hotly contested sector in this early part of the race is District 1, which has drawn three candidates: Sonia Fernanda Alshami; Lakisha Jenkins; and Jesse Ornelas.
Fernanda Alshami works as a logistics expert at her family’s business, Lino’s and Sons Trucking in Merced. The 33-year-old has lived in Merced since her parents brought her at about age 6 from Mexico, she said.
She described herself as Hispanic. “That’s part of the reason why I’m running for City Council,” she said. “I just feel our local government needs diversity and perspective.”
Jenkins, 39, the CEO of the Kiona Foundation, has been in Merced since 2014 but lived in the Central San Joaquin Valley since 2000. Perhaps best known in Merced as an advocate for easy access to medical marijuana, she studied for her naturopathy degree at Clayton College of Natural Health, she said.
The self-described black American said she looks forward to the potential diversity that come with districts. “I’m hoping that it will create some diversity,” she said. “I would like to see different opinions as well as ethnic backgrounds on the City Council.”
Ornelas, who describes himself as Chicano, also said he expects the districts will shake up the council’s makeup. “I think this is a great opportunity for Merced to really get some new, fresh ideas,” he said. “Now some people are going to run who normally wouldn’t think they have a chance.”
The 41-year-old, who has lived in Merced County since he was 16, said he earned his bachelor’s in Chicano studies with a minor in anthropology from California State University, Fresno.
The mayor’s race has so far not drawn any Latino or Hispanic candidates.
The youngest candidate to vie for a council seat thus far is Daniel Sabzehzar, a 21-year-old who is the only candidate to have declared in District 5. The biochemistry and public health student at UC Merced also is director of marketing for the Blum Center. He was out of the country on Monday and could not be reached for comment.
Sabzehzar, a volleyball player at UC Merced, was a member of the national volleyball team for El Salvador, his mother’s native country.
The sole candidate so far in District 3 is Daniel Kazakos, 35, the chief financial officer of Horizons Unlimited Health Care in Merced. He’s a Merced native who served in the Army and who describes his ancestry as “other Asian,” a nod to his Kazakhstani roots.
Kazakos earned his bachelor’s from Rutgers University, he said, before earning a master’s in accounting from University of Phoenix. He, too, said the districts should lead to a better representation of the community.
“It’s about access to opportunity,” he said.
The mayor’s race so far has not drawn any Latino or Hispanic candidates. Councilmen Mike Murphy and Josh Pedrozo have entered the race, as has Necola Adams, a small-business owner and a leader in the city’s African-American community.