Modesto's first-ever district elections were supposed to open the door to new voices fueled by low-cost campaigns, but voters' choices on Tuesday showed that money still talks.
With 87 percent of precincts reporting, the candidates who raised the most cash had prevailed, with incumbent Kristin Olsen holding onto her seat, Joe Muratore winning a three-way race in District 4 and Dave Geer prevailing in District 2.
The biggest surprise in the election was that Muratore likely won't need a runoff to take District 4 because he garnered more than half of the ballots in that race.
Olsen won 1,937 votes or 64 percent against challenger Joe Cataline in north-central Modesto's District 5. In District 4, which covers the La Loma and airport neighborhoods, Muratore earned 1,284 votes or 53 percent; Jeff Perine captured 819 votes or 34 percent; and Robert Stanford won 293 or 12 percent.
In District 2, which spans areas west of Highway 99 and south of the Tuolumne River, Dave Geer won 389 votes, or 55 percent, to challenger Al Nava's 313 votes, or 44 percent.
The winners won the fund-raising game too: Olsen raised $44,051 this year, Muratore collected $29,352 and Geer brought in $15,638.
Tuesday was voters' first chance to pick representatives from their neighborhoods instead of citywide races, but few took the opportunity. Turnout was among the lowest this decade. It appeared unlikely that more than 20 percent of the 209,110 eligible Stanislaus County voters would cast ballots. That's a far cry from last year's historic presidential election, when a record-breaking 71 percent voted.
District 2 had the most dismal showing, with 702 ballots cast for the two candidates. Residents there pushed for district elections, suing the city to demand a voice at City Hall. That energy was absent on Tuesday.
At one polling place in the district, only eight people showed up to vote, county election officials said.
Geer, 67, a federal security officer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, ran as an aggressive advocate for District 2. He said the neighborhood had been neglected too long, and he would fight to bring city dollars directly to the area. Geer vowed to re-open a closed police substation on Paradise Road and mend streets and sidewalks.
Geer garnered strong support from business and conservative interests. He used his donations to send three mailers, including one that was sent to 2,300 people. Geer did not return calls for comment on election night. Nava, 36, is a Navy veteran who grew up in Ceres.
Olsen, 35, was first elected to the council in 2005. She said voters re-elected her because they knew she was willing to work hard for Modesto. On the campaign trail, Olsen pointed to accomplishments such as bringing the Amgen Tour of California to town. A mother of three, she is the assistant vice president for public affairs at California State University, Stanislaus.
"I'm committed to doing my part to reduce crime, to attract jobs and to improve the quality of life," Olsen said from an election night party. "I look forward to living up to the voters' expectations and moving the city forward."
Olsen had spent $33,756 at the end of the last fund-raising period -- nearly eight times more than Cataline, who spent $4,238. Cataline said he was proud of the race he ran. He promised to run on shoe leather, and made good on that pledge, visiting some houses in District 5 three or four times. "I talked about a lot of issues I felt needed to be talked about," Cataline said.
Muratore, 31, is a commercial real estate consultant whose campaign focused on optimistic themes about making Modesto into a city where other young professionals want to live and work. Muratore is active in the La Loma Neighborhood Association. He's said the group's model of citizen-driven neighborhood improvement could work in other parts of the city.
Muratore said he called more than 1,000 voters and knocked on thousands of doors to win his seat. He said his hefty war chest was a testament to his roots in the community.
"Frankly it says that I've lived in the community my whole life, I've served on a lot of boards and been involved in a lot of projects," Muratore said.
District 4's second-place finisher, Perine, 30, teaches at a juvenile justice facility in Stockton. Perine ran for council in 2003 when he was just 24. His father and uncle are both Modesto police officers. Perine won the police union's backing and made public safety the cornerstone of his campaign. Police union donations helped Perine pay for a TV ad broadcast on four cable channels. He said he was disappointed by Tuesday's outcome, but was proud that he and challenger Muratore had "kept the race clean and ran an honorable race."
Stanford, 43, a longtime advocate for the airport neighborhood, cast himself as the voice for poor residents who are cut off from City Hall. He's said Modesto's growth is out of control and accused opponent Muratore of being a "shill" for real estate interests.
Voters in three of the city's six newly drawn voting districts went to the polls Tuesday. Residents in Districts 1, 3 and 6 will get their chance to vote in 2011. The mayor, whose seat is also up in 2011, will continue to be elected by a citywide vote.
Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2378. Follow her at Twitter.com/BeeReporter.