It was earlier this year when supervisorial candidate Daniel Varela Sr. met with incumbent Supervisor John Pedrozo at a restaurant to sip coffee and talk about this year's election.
Pedrozo questioned why Varela, a former Livingston mayor, was running against him for the District 1 supervisor's seat.
Varela scanned the table they were sitting at, then picked up one sugar packet and one artificial sweetener packet.
While holding up the artificial sweetener packet, Varela said, "I'm just an alternative."
Varela is one of four candidates vying for the county leadership role that covers South Merced, Livingston, Le Grand, Planada and El Nido.
Although he described himself as "just an alternative" that day, Varela says he's the best choice for a position that has lacked leadership.
"Ultimately, my purpose is to bring the change to find solutions to the ongoing problems that we face every year," he said.
There's been a revolving door of ideas at the county management level, and it's time to formulate a plan and stick to it, Varela said.
"Merced County has not set a clear plan on how to economically develop the county," he said.
Various groups with competing interests in the county sometimes object to each other's visions, Varela said. Farmers may be at odds with developers when it comes to planning issues, but finding common ground would be a boon to all sides, he added.
Spotlighting and marketing local industries at an expo event could be an economic stimulant, he said.
"You have dairies, you have home builders, you have boat builders here in the county, you have the ag manufacturing industry," he said. "There are so many professional industries -- there's the restaurant industry -- even the schools could participate in this type of event where you highlight what they bring to the table, the strengths that they have for the county, and invite outside entities."
While there are several bright spots in Merced County, there are places that need more attention, especially in District 1, and Planada is a prime example, Varela said.
"That place looks almost like a third-world country," Varela said. "It's bad."
Graffiti, the parks and walkways all need to be addressed in that community, he said, adding that finding money through grants to build more sidewalks would be a step in the right direction.
Improving communities starts with bringing leaders together, said Varela, who decided to run for office in mid-January.
While the county budget is tight, "Sometimes, you don't need a budget to be a leader," he noted.
After serving as mayor of Livingston, being a leader isn't a new idea for Varela.
However, in 2010, Varela and a councilwoman were recalled from office after a controversial utility rate increase that many Livingston residents saw as too steep. The rate increases were, in part, aimed at improving water quality in the city. Varela said the episode shows his commitment to the issues he campaigns on.
"When I ran for Livingston City mayor, that was the No. 1 priority -- the water issue -- the brown water," he said. "We found the solution. Unfortunately, there were those who felt that it was just too much at the time."
Kaye Greeley, a former Livingston planning commissioner who's acting as Varela's financial coordinator and secretary, described Varela as a "man of integrity."
"I think he has such a heart for the people," Greeley said. "He really wants the best for our cities, for our county -- for all of it. He has a real passion for helping people."
Varela, who also speaks Spanish, was born in Fresno but moved to Merced County many years ago. He's one of four candidates for the position. Other candidates include incumbent John Pedrozo, Merced County sheriff's Sgt. Jim Pacheco and substitute teacher Peggi Gioletti.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.