In a run-down shopping center that's home to a discount cigarette store and a bail bonds business, Modesto City Councilman Dave Geer is ordering his lunch. On the menu today: a sandwich from Le Saigon Vietnamese deli.
Geer, an Army brat who says he ate horse meat as a 6-year-old in France, is not one who's intimidated by exotic menus. "I'll try everything once," he said.
Moving frequently as a child also made Geer comfortable with strangers and unfamiliar situations. Those skills are coming in handy now.
Geer, 67, was elected last fall as the first City Council member to represent District 2, which spans south and west Modesto. He's expected to be an advocate for an area that's long been neglected.
On paper, Geer could not be more different from most of the voters he represents. He's a Republican in a majority Democrat district. He's white in an area that's mostly La- tino. The district is home to lower-income people who are younger, more likely to rent than own and more likely to be born in a foreign country than the rest of the city.
Geer is none of those. But spend a day with him in his district, and you'll see that while Geer looks like a bit of a fish out of water, he never acts like one.
That's true even when he's the only person in line at Le Saigon wearing a dark grey pin-striped suit, silver cuff- links (he got them on sale for $13 at Kohl's, he says proudly) and polished black dress shoes. The other customers include a trio of middle-school-age boys in hoodies ordering sugary drinks.
The young woman behind the counter chats with a customer in Vietnamese. Then she turns to Geer and greets him warmly, reminding the councilman that her birthday party is this weekend and he's expected to attend.
Geer has known the shop's owners for years. The same goes for a lot of people in District 2. Geer and his wife, now deceased, moved to west Mo- desto in 1987 and he's lived in the same house ever since.
Those deep roots helped him knock off opponent Al Nava, a 36-year-old Latino Democrat, in the November election. Low voter turnout meant Geer bested his opponent by only 148 votes.
Nava attacked Geer as a right-wing "tea-bagger," a reference to the conservative protests last year often populated by activists concerned about health care reform and federal spending. Geer once was a member of the Stanislaus County Republican Central Committee. As a member of United We Stand America, he supported third-party presidential candidate Ross Perot.
Geer served 18 years in the Army. He now works at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, patrolling a 10-square-mile bomb-testing facility known as Site 300 from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
When Geer knocked on District 2 doors during last fall's campaign, he said, a lot of people asked his party affiliation. But, it "didn't seem to be a detriment, which was a relief to me," he said. He doesn't worry that partisan difference will create a disconnect between him and his constituents. "I was able to connect during the campaign, and I haven't seen anything that tells me I'm not going to be able to connect as a councilman," he said.
'Didn't give a hoot'
Pastor Daryl Fair saw Geer's ability to connect firsthand during the campaign. Fair preaches to homeless ex-cons and drug abusers in César E. Chávez Park. He invited Geer and Nava to speak to the group in October. Only Geer took him up on the offer.
Fair said some speakers get nervous around his flock, who don't always smell very good and look a little rough around the edges. But Geer "didn't give a hoot," Fair said. "There was no fear in his eyes. I thought he was either nuts or fearless. He just came bouncing across the grass and he was like, 'Let's do this!' "
Zipping around in his white compact Suzuki last week, Geer said "it galls him" that there's a perception that conservatives aren't interested in helping poor people.
"In many respects, the welfare state the Democrats put together did more harm than help," he said. "I'm not sure that being a conservative doesn't mean you don't care about the less fortunate. At least to me it doesn't."
Case in point: At a Tuesday morning meeting in his City Hall office with a Modesto Chamber of Commerce representative, Geer wastes no time piping up about the needs of his less-fortunate district. The chamber representative quizzes Geer on whether the Chamber's e-mails are too long, how he likes the Web site and whether there should be alcohol at chamber mixers.
When he asks Geer for feedback, Geer says his constituents struggle with a high foreclosure rate and high unemployment, especially farmworkers who've seen work hours dry up with the water shortage. He explains that his district is probably Mo- desto's most diverse, home not just to a large Latino population, but to Asians and blacks as well.
Geer then tells the chamber representative, "But the chamber is, someone was commenting to me the other day, lily-white. There's a perception that it's an old boys' club for wealthy Republicans. I don't know what the chamber can do to change the minds of residents in a part of the city that's not wealthy. The businesses there, some of them are hanging on by their fingernails."
Been involved all along
Half an hour later, Geer visits what he considers one of his struggling district's strongest assets: the King-Kennedy Memorial Center on South Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. He greets Carole Collins with a hug. She's the program manager for the West Modesto/King-Kennedy Neighborhood Collaborative. They've known each other since the mid-1990s, when Geer and his wife started volunteering with the col- laborative.
Collins said Geer reminds her of the late Richard Patterson, Modesto's second black councilman and a longtime west Modesto advocate. "When you have people who are already involved who enter the political world, it's a win-win," Collins said. "(Geer)'s always been involved, and we don't expect any different now."
Behind the King-Kennedy Center on Tuesday, Collins showed off an empty, trash-strewn lot she hopes to transform into a garden where students will learn to grow produce. Geer says that as a member of the City Council's finance committee, he's hoping he'll be able to steer dollars to the project.
That's just one example of how the people of District 2 are counting on Geer to deliver now that they have their own representative in City Hall. You don't have to look far to find other examples.
Upset by abused foreclosures
Driving through his district, Geer points out empty houses. They aren't just abandoned, they're abused. One is a charred shell. Another looks like a test site for a spray-paint company.
Geer spots gang graffiti on an abandoned house near Dallas Street and Lassen Avenue. He shakes his head. "That's horrible, that really gripes me," he says. Geer says he's hoping some of the $25 million in stimulus money the city recently won to fix up foreclosed houses will find its way to these blocks.
Stopping in for a quick visit to Los Amigos Tire Pros on Crows Landing Road, Geer gets a reminder about another District 2 problem: county islands. The unincorporated pockets are surrounded by city territory, but they lack streetlights and sidewalks. They're patrolled by the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department, not Modesto police.
Los Amigos Tire Pros owner Francisco Chavez is trying to open a nightclub across from his tire store. The process has been slow, in part because the county is responsible for the nightclub building, while the city is responsible for its parking lot, Chavez said. "That's why we've been running around in circles not knowing what we're supposed to do," Chavez tells Geer.
Later, Geer says he wants to do something to speed up annexing county islands into the city. "I hope so, but I'm not sure exactly what I can do as a City Council member," he said.
Aspiring salsa dancer
The county islands issue is just one that District 2 residents hope Geer will tackle, said Modesto City Schools trustee Ruben Villalobos.
Villalobos, a 36-year-old Democrat, briefly considered running for the District 2 council seat until he realized he lived two blocks outside the boundary.
Instead, he ran for and won a school board seat in November. When Villalobos first met Geer, he said, "my first thought was to not support him because we have different politics."
But the two ended up pictured on a campaign flier together. The Modesto Police Officers Association paid for the flier. Geer's donation list included support from conservative and business interests such as the Modesto Chamber of Commerce, land-use attorney George Petrulakis and the Building Industry Association of Central California.
Villalobos supported district elections because he wanted a more diverse council, he said, but he was happy to back Geer. Villalobos said he was impressed when he saw Geer show up early and stay late at event after event.
One moment in particular from the campaign season captured part of Geer's appeal, Villalobos said: his dancing at a Ceres salsa concert.
"To see this upper middle-aged white male in a suit out there dancing salsa, it was really fun," Villalobos said. "I wouldn't have expected that the first time I met him. He's not a born dancer, but he's willing to get out there with the community and have fun with the citizens of the community. It was good to see."