District elections are supposed to change the face of city politics, but the first go-round did little to nudge Modesto in a new direction.
Voters rejected the only Latino candidate in a field of seven; turnout was abysmal.
Some caution against reading too much into the city's first try at neighborhood-based representation.
"Change is a process, not an event," said Modesto-Stanislaus NAACP President Wendy Byrd, a longtime supporter of district elections. "I guess there was an expectation that (there would be) a dramatic increase in voters. It takes baby steps, one step at a time. Just because we didn't get there this time doesn't mean it won't happen."
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The jury's still out on what district elections will mean over time, but here's what Modesto learned from this week's results.
What was encouraging ...
YOUNG CANDIDATES — Of the seven people who ran for City Council this year, five were in their 20s or 30s. The median age on the current council is 54.
Many were glad to see fresh faces throwing their hats in the ring. "They ran and they weren't successful, but at least they put out some effort and they got people excited," said Michael Burtch, chairman of the Stanislaus County Democratic Central Committee.
Young Republicans — Kristin Olsen, 35, and Joe Muratore, 31 — however, won their races.
Burtch said he'd encourage Democratic candidates such as District 2's Al Nava, 35, and District 5's Joe Cataline, 26, to stick with city politics and gain experience by serving on city commissions. "I don't want them to say 'I tried and I failed' and go home and lick their wounds," Burtch said.
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CHEAPER CAMPAIGNS — District elections haven't increased the council's diversity, but another theory about the new system has proved true: It costs less to get into office.
City Councilman Garrad Marsh said he spent the equivalent of $50,000 in today's dollars in his first council race in 2003. This year, some campaigns were run on a fraction of that. Dave Geer spent $10,732 on his race in District 2.
District 4 winner Muratore spent $20,916 to prevail in a three-way race in District 4. The district has about 2,900 "likely voters" — the voters candidates must reach if they want to succeed. Muratore personally called more than 1,000 of those voters the weekend before the election and blanketed the district with six mailers.
Such tactics would have been impossible in a citywide contest, Marsh said. He remembers having enough cash to send out only "one and a half" mailers in his 2003 race.
The knowledge that it's possible to win a seat with fewer resources could open the door to more candidates, political consultant Mike Lynch said. "Everyone in every district is going to look at this and say anyone can do this," Lynch said. "People are going to say, 'If I start early enough, I can meet everyone in my district.' "
MORE RESPONSIVE CANDIDATES AND COUNCIL — Former City Councilwoman Kenni Friedman believes the new system has created closer ties between elected officials and the people they represent.
Friedman said she was encouraged to see candidates holding campaign events in neighborhood parks. That familiarity will pay dividends for constituents, Friedman said.
"You know who your council member is, you've met them, they're not a strange face," Friedman said. "People will be much more open about talking to them about their concerns, whereas before it was, 'Oh my gosh, they're here for 200,000 people, I'm not going to bother them.' "
Under the citywide system, residents' complaints to council members about neighborhood issues such as speed bumps would get forwarded to all seven members, Marsh said. About half of the time, no one would respond because everyone thought someone else had done so, Marsh said. Districts will create more accountability, he said.
In theory, that means neighborhood problems such as the now-closed tallow plant on Crows Landing Road won't fester for years, said Dale Butler, immediate past president of the Hispanic Leadership Council.
"If we had had a representative from that particular area, I'm sure we would have seen a lot more focus (on the tallow plant)," Butler said. "No one and everyone was responsible, so it fell through the cracks to some extent."
What was disappointing ...
NOT ENOUGH CANDIDATES — Many say they're disappointed that more people didn't run, especially in District 2, in neighborhoods west of Highway 99 and south of the Tuolumne River.
District elections were meant to give a voice to the people who live there, but only two candidates volunteered to be that voice. The majority Latino and Democratic district elected a white Republican, Dave Geer.
As long as Geer was the community's choice, then district elections succeeded, said civil rights attorney Robert Rubin. Rubin led the charge for district elections when he sued Modesto under the Voting Rights Act.
He said people often misinterpret the intent of the Voting Rights Act. The law isn't supposed to push Latino candidates into office; it's meant to give District 2 voters a "full and fair opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice," Rubin said.
People should be patient about the scarcity of District 2 candidates, Rubin said. "You can't be locked out of power for over 100 years and expect there to be a waiting cadre of candidates saying 'Pick me, Pick me,' " Rubin said. "You've gone through so many generations of people being completely locked out, why should someone prepare themselves and educate themselves for a process that's stacked against you?"
One reason for the few candidates could be that Modesto's district elections were driven largely by "external activism," said Douglas Johnson, a consultant who advised the city commission that drew boundaries for the voting districts. He was referring to Rubin's firm, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.
In most cities, an established community movement pushes for districts, Johnson said. Those homegrown efforts usually produce more candidates groomed and positioned to run.
ABYSMAL TURNOUT — Another disappointment this week was the low voter turnout, with just 22 percent of voters casting ballots countywide. But turnout in odd-year local elections is always pretty bleak, said consultant Lynch. In fact, this year's participation was slightly better than November 2007, when 21 percent of voters participated.
At just 12 percent, turnout in District 2 was especially low. That's because many District 2 residents are recent immigrants who aren't used to participating in democracies, said pastor Wayne Bridegroom of west Modesto's Central Baptist Church.
District 2 residents have felt cut off from local politics for decades, said Bridegroom. "You don't turn a spirit of despair around in one election," he said.
But change is possible, Bridgegroom added. He saw it during the 2008 presidential election, when nonpartisan youth groups registered voters. District 2's voter turnout shot up to 54 percent.
"There's still that sense of hopelessness," Bridegroom said. "But I think it's gradually being replaced by a sense of, well, maybe something good is going to happen if we stick at it long enough."
Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2378. Follow her at Twitter.com/ BeeReporter.