Larry Westerlund, a Fresno City Council member and the body's newly elected president, said Monday that he will seek the 19th Congressional District seat being vacated by Mariposa Republican George Radanovich.
Westerlund, 43, joins an increasingly crowded field seeking the Republican nomination in the district.
Others in the race are former Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson, state Sen. Jeff Denham of Atwater, and former U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy, who served seven terms in the neighboring 11th Congressional District. It all adds up to a hard race for Westerlund, political watchers said.
"I think he has a long, tough road ahead," said Tom Holyoke, an assistant professor of political science at California State University, Fresno.
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Holyoke noted that Westerlund -- who, like Denham and Pombo, does not live in the district -- represents a portion of Fresno as a council member. "He now has to sell himself to the rest of Fresno, then to the rest of the congressional district."
Almost immediately after Westerlund announced his plans, a prominent Fresno-area Republican organization criticized the decision.
The Lincoln Club of Fresno County and its chairman, Michael Der Manouel Jr., said in a statement that Westerlund's "entry into this race seems to us a naked attempt to dilute the Fresno vote" from Patterson.
Fresno County has 37 percent of the district's Republican voters. Stanislaus County, by comparison, has 34 percent. The remaining 29 percent is split among Madera, Mariposa and Tuolumne counties.
The Lincoln Club statement said it no longer would support Westerlund if a Fresno-area candidate isn't elected to Congress in the 19th District.
Westerlund declined to respond to the comments.
A Fresno native serving his second term on the City Council, Westerlund said he knows he is "the little guy" in the race. "But sometimes the little guys do big things," he said.
Westerlund has been contemplating a run since Radanovich announced he would not seek re-election as his wife battles cancer. He said he is the best candidate because he's had to deal with Sacramento and Washington, D.C., politicians as a local elected official, and worked on an anti-terrorism task force in Africa when he was called to active duty by the Navy in May 2008.
Westerlund cast himself as an outsider.
"I feel strongly that we shouldn't allow the power brokers and fat cats in Washington and Sacramento to pick who our representative is going to be," he said. "If you like what you see in Sacramento and D.C., vote for the other guys. But we need somebody who hasn't got that taint."