District elections build interest in seeking office

Modesto voters in four months will choose City Council candidates from their own neighborhoods for the first time, a change that already seems to be motivating new people to run for office.

Three of the six candidates who have signaled their intent to run said they would not have considered competing in a citywide race, the format Modesto used to choose council members until this year.

"I don't think I would've run if not for districts," said Joe Muratore, one of four people running in a district that includes the La Loma, Wycliffe and airport neighborhoods. "I wanted to represent my neighborhood."

Juan Melgoza Jr., one of Muratore's likely opponents, and Al Nava, a candidate aiming for a south and west Modesto seat, expressed the same motivation for running.

Their runs will be a test of whether Modesto's switch to district elections will work as advertised for voters, who approved the concept in February 2008.

The theory behind the change holds that district elections will bring more diverse voices to the council by making it easier for first-time candidates to win. They would be able to limit the costs of a campaign and walk door to door in their districts.

It's a common change for cities as they grow. Just four California cities larger than Modesto use citywide elections for council races.

Modesto was pressured to adopt district elections through a 2004 lawsuit that claimed citywide races limited the ability of Latino candidates to win office. Modesto paid $3 million to settle the case in May 2008 after fighting it for four years.

The first evidence of whether district elections will work as intended likely will come Aug. 7, the deadline for candidates to file papers to run for office.

That's when voters will see if the change draws more candidates.

More questions will be answered in the fall as the campaigns start.

"It certainly will set the stage for what district elections look like in Modesto," said Councilwoman Kristin Olsen, the only incumbent running for office. She's running in a north-central Modesto district.

"There's still a lot to be known," she said. "How much does it cost to run for election? Does it increase the number of people who want to run for election?"

The three seats up for grabs in November are:

District 2, which spans south and west Modesto

District 4, which includes the La Loma, airport and Wycliffe neighborhoods

District 5, which is generally north of Briggsmore Avenue between Tully Road and just west of Coffee Road.

Three more seats will switch to district seats in 2011. They represent central Modesto, northeast Modesto along Village I and northwest Modesto around Vintage Faire Mall.

The candidates in the running for District 4 likely will include:

Muratore, a commercial real estate consultant and board member of the politically active La Loma Neighborhood Association

Jeff Perine, a teacher at a state correctional facility in Stockton who has run campaigns for Stanislaus County Superintendent Tom Changnon

Robert Stanford, a community advocate and Web designer who wants to speak up for low-income and working-class residents

Melgoza Jr., a recently discharged soldier who is opening a Mexican pastry business. He has been involved in campaigns for Democratic Assembly candidates.

Stanford could benefit from name recognition from his 2007 campaign for a council seat. Muratore and Perine have hosted fund-raisers and secured endorsements from council and school board members.

Some dissatisfied with Olsen

Olsen wants to keep District 5. It's unclear whether she'll draw a challenger.

She has a bull's-eye on her back among residents who believe she has put too much attention on what they consider minor issues over the past four years. She does not intend to change her priorities, which are public safety and quality-of-life issues.

"My priority continues to be to stand up for higher standards for Modesto," she said. "I don't believe in settling for mediocrity."

Nava, a Navy veteran who served on the USS Los Angeles submarine, is the only candidate in District 2.

That's a special district because the committee that drew election boundaries wanted to ensure that it would have representation on the council immediately. Historically it has not had a voice in government, and it is recognized as having the highest concentration of Latino voters in the city.

It was the only district the commission designated for the 2009 election instead of the one in 2011. The others were chosen at random.

Nava has been adjusting to civilian life since he was discharged in the fall and is participating in civic groups, such as the Latino Community Roundtable.

"Whoever I'm running against, I'm going to be the underdog," he said.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at or 578-2366.