New way of voting for Modesto council just around the corner

Modesto turns a corner in November, when voters choose City Council candidates from their own neighborhoods for the first time.

The city's first district elections come at the end of a long and contentious road that started with a lawsuit filed by Latino residents demanding a voice in local politics.

When the candidate filing period closed Friday, seven people had stepped forward to run in the three districts up for grabs. The city's other three districts will go to the polls in 2011.

In north-central Modesto's District 5, incumbent Councilwoman Kristin Olsen will face challenger Joe Cataline, a 25-year-old who once worked as a field representative for state Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto. Former Hughson police chief Ed Washington considered a run, but decided against it.

District 4, which includes the La Loma and airport neighborhoods, attracted three candidates: Robert Stanford, an airport neighborhood advocate; Jeff Perine, who ran for council in 2003; and Joe Muratore, a La Loma Neighborhood Association board member. Juan Melgoza filed papers at the last minute Friday, but did not have enough valid signatures to qualify as a candidate, said City Clerk Stephanie Lopez.

Southwest Modesto's District 2, the neighborhood that sparked the drive for district elections, has two candidates. Al Nava, a Latino veteran who moved to the neighborhood three months ago, and Dave Geer, who's lived in the area for 22 years. Geer said he's running because his neighborhood has been neglected too long.

If Geer prevails in the nonpartisan race, he'll be a white Republican representing a largely Democratic, Latino district.

That wasn't quite what civil rights advocates had in mind when they filed the 2004 lawsuit that led to district elections.

Sandra Lucas, who helped write the February 2008 ballot measure that called for district elections, called District 2's short list of candidates disappointing and puzzling. With plenty of well-qualified Latinos, Lucas said, "they should have been lined up."

"I'm incredulous and I'm embarrassed for them that you had this major stink made (but there are so few candidates)," Lucas said. "It almost doesn't compute. It creates a credibility gap."

Larry Salinas, who served on the commission that helped map the districts, said the city had drawn the blueprint for new leadership, but it's up to residents to follow through.

"If people are going to proclaim that there's inequities and underrepresentation, then it's our responsibility to step up and remedy that issue," he said. "If we don't do it soon, then shame on us, because that's what started this whole process."

One factor that could be keeping more candidates from jumping into the fray is the weak economy, said Randy Siefkin, a retired Modesto Junior College political science instructor.

"All you get to do these days is decide where to make cuts," he said. "You just make people angry. You annoy people who are being hit by the cuts and you annoy people who don't think you've made sufficient cuts."

District elections mean new choices for voters and new strategies for candidates.

Neighborhood-based campaigns can be cheaper than a citywide contest, but money is still crucial.

In a district race, candidates who lack funding can put their resources into lower-cost options, such as walking door to door, said former Modesto City Councilwoman Kenni Friedman. That would never work in a citywide contest. It would be impossible to connect with all the likely voters, she said. With the city carved into districts, candidates can meet individually with likely voters multiple times.

Candidates who are skilled at one-on-one interactions have the advantage, said Mike Lynch, former chief of staff to former Rep. Gary Condit, D-Ceres. "This is a unique opportunity for people who rely on their personal, persuasive skills," he said. "Because you get to your winning vote total one by one."

Making a candidate's message stick with voters takes more than face time, Lucas said. Mailers, a Web site and signs are crucial. Candidates also should use social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter, she said.

Lucas guessed it could cost as much as $20,000 or $25,000 to run a district campaign.

With no hot-button issues on November's ballot, voter turnout is expected to be fairly low. That makes name recognition all the more important, Lucas said. That will give a boost to candidates such as Olsen and Perine, who ran in 2003. District 4's Joe Muratore could benefit because he shares a name with former Councilman Frank Muratore. The two are not related.

The challenges won't end for candidates once they're elected. District candidates face a tough balancing act, Siefkin said.

"You can narrow your focus to issues that are of concern to constituents in that district," he said. "But the long-term risk is -- and one of the criticisms of a district system is -- you become overwhelmed with the district's constituents' concerns as opposed to citywide concerns."

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at or 578-2378.

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