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County supervisor hopefuls debate at UC Merced

From left, Board of Supervisor candidates Jim Sanders and Hub Walsh speak with debate attendees David Turner, Linda Lopez and Christian Ayeni at UC Merced on Tuesday.
From left, Board of Supervisor candidates Jim Sanders and Hub Walsh speak with debate attendees David Turner, Linda Lopez and Christian Ayeni at UC Merced on Tuesday. Merced Sun-Star photo by Marci Stenberg

District 2 supervisor candidate Hub Walsh portrayed himself as a government insider with the experience to lead Merced County through bad times during a forum Tuesday at UC Merced, while opponent Jim Sanders billed himself as a problem-solver with a fresh approach.

What was said, however, meant much less than where they said it.

UC Merced students and faculty could be a major voting bloc in this year's election, influencing who wins the District 2 supervisor's race and leaving a mark on Merced County. UC Merced falls within the district boundaries, and the Board of Supervisors will oversee how the area surrounding the university grows.

Despite this looming influence, neither candidate has made a strong effort to appeal the UC Merced community until appearing during the forum in the library, attended by a few dozen students.

Even then, who to support remained murky. The candidates touched on a variety of issues, including growth, health care and job creation, and always seemed to come back with similar answers.

Adam Kook, a 22-year-old student studying political science, asked that they highlight one policy in which they differ during their closing remarks. It was the second time they were pressed to show differences rather than similarities. It didn't happen.

"I think they're the same guy in different suits," Kook said after the forum. "They both say the same thing with different words."

Kook, who grew up in Turlock before moving to Merced, said he wanted concrete examples of how they'd manage job growth against an agricultural backdrop. "You have to say no to some businesses," he noted. "I want to see how they'll balance that out."

He's still not sure who'll get his vote, but he's definitely going to the poll on Election Day.

The two candidates didn't specifically tailor their answers to the university crowd, though they did spend time on job creation and economic development -- two of the issues that seemed to resonate with a group heading into a bleak national job market and a worse local one.

Sanders, in his opening remarks, gave an overview of his life in the county, noting that he took some classes at Merced College but never got a degree. He's considering enrolling in college again.

Walsh offered a similar biography, noting his service in the U.S. Army and his degree from UC Berkeley.

The two candidates reaffirmed their support for agriculture, the county's economic base, while assuring students they'll lure a diversity of businesses in the coming years, creating job options for graduates.

Building up the number of skilled workers is one of the keys to attract specialized business with well-paying jobs, Sanders said. The UC can help lead the way.

"This campus is full of people who can help spark the imagination of young people here," he intoned.

However, it should be more difficult to build on prime ag land because of its importance to the state, nation and world. Sanders said businesses should build on areas with less fertile land.

Walsh said the key to improving Merced's economy is through encouraging and growing small businesses. "There is no walk-off grand slam in this," he explained.

This is the first year that the university students will be choosing a supervisor to represent them. Retiring Supervisor Kathleen Crookham was re-elected in 2004, a year before the school opened.

With both candidates having strong support, the tallies will probably be close. UC Merced, through its professors and students, could be sending hundreds, if not thousands, of voters to the polls.

There are 21,359 registered voters in District 2, as of last month. Slightly more than 5,000 showed up for the primary between Sanders and Walsh, and about 7,000 showed up in 2004, a presidential race year, to vote to re-elect Crookham.

UC Merced has 2,718 students and about 800 professors and staff. About a third of the 1,000 students who live on campus are registered to vote, according to the Merced County Elections Office.

Student body President Yaasha Sabba said nearly 500 students have registered or re-registered to vote in the past few months. Today, Associated Student representatives will be going door-to-door to make sure everyone eligible has registered. The last day to send in a form is Monday.

Sabba, who moderated the debate, suspects a majority of students will take the time to cast a ballot, even though the polls are off-campus.

"It's the ultimate election when we're guaranteed to make history," he said. "They all want to be part of this historical event."

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.

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