Bill Lyons, whose name is familiar to many in Stanislaus County, might add "county supervisor" to a long public service resumé, and incumbent Dick Monteith could avoid a fall runoff to keep his supervisor's seat, incomplete returns suggested early today.
Lyons, a former state agriculture secretary, Modesto Irrigation District board member and county farm bureau president, captured 3,542 votes, or 51.24 percent, with all 70 precincts counted.
Farmer and certified public accountant Terry Withrow was close behind with 3,346 votes, or 48.4 percent.
"There are tough challenges ahead," said Lyons, who is eying county government as leaders struggle with hundreds of layoffs and multimillion- dollar deficits.
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The two men hope to succeed Jeff Grover in District 3, which includes northwest Modesto and Salida. Grover, having served two four-year terms, will step down at the end of the year and endorsed Lyons.
Needing more than half of Tuesday's votes to avoid a November runoff, Monteith said, "We'll just hold on and see what happens." With all 75 precincts reporting, he was leading with 5,513 votes, or 51.54 percent, in District 4 to represent north-central Modesto and Del Rio.
Balvino Irizarry had 3,278 votes, or 30.64 percent, and Carmen Sabatino trailed with 1,857 votes, or 17.36 percent.
Lyons benefited from political connections cultivated over several decades, scoring major endorsements and raising far more than all other supervisorial candidates combined.
Withrow, the only first-time candidate in either race, remained hopeful late Tuesday as election workers had a few precincts yet to tabulate. "We still have a ways to go," he said.
The race took a spiteful turn in recent weeks as both accused the other of negative campaigning with personal attacks. Withrow said Lyons personally profited from political connections, while Lyons highlighted transfers of groundwater outside of the county by Withrow's in-laws.
In 1999, former Gov. Davis appointed Lyons to oversee the state Department of Food and Agriculture, an agency with more than 2,000 employees and a $300 million budget. He led the agency for five years.
The District 4 contest was a do-over of sorts because the three men had faced each other in a five-way race for an open seat four years ago. Monteith, a former state senator, mustered enough support in 2006's first voting round to force a runoff with former Modesto City Councilwoman Janice Keating, then beat her in November, while Irizarry and Sabatino finished fourth and fifth behind former City Councilman Tim Fisher.
Sabatino fared little better this year, while Irizarry might force a runoff.
"It's going to be close, but right now, it's probably leaning (Monteith's) way," Irizarry said at 10:40 p.m. Tuesday. He hasn't held public office since losing a re-election bid for the Modesto City Council in 1991 to Dave Cogdill, who is leaving the state Senate and won an unopposed race Tuesday for county assessor.
Sabatino, ousted from the Modesto mayor's seat by Jim Ridenour in 2003, is host of an Internet show and raised little money. He said: "Organizations and mechanics trump issues in an election. But I'm not going anywhere. We'll still be talking about the issues."
With a few precincts yet to count, Monteith said, "I'm a great believer in this: You run your race and do everything you possibly can, then you just have to relinquish it and wait."
Lyons raised more than $266,000, compared to Withrow's $89,000. Candidates in the other race gathered only a fraction of those amounts.
Lyons could become the only Democrat on the nonpartisan county Board of Supervisors, replacing Grover, the only board member without political party affiliation. Monteith and Supervisors Bill O'Brien, Jim DeMartini and Vito Chiesa are Republicans.
Former Supervisor Nick Blom, who stepped aside for Grover in 2002, also endorsed Lyons, as did Chiesa, while DeMartini and the Republican Party supported Withrow.
"I'm very proud of both the Republican and Democratic support I've gotten," Lyons said. "I think (supporters) evaluated my experience and didn't really look at my party. I wanted to keep it nonpartisan."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2390.