Council race lures young candidates

A switch to district elections isn't the only change coming to Modesto politics this fall. Candidates in the City Council race skew young, with five of the seven contenders in their 20s and 30s. With most current council members in their 50s and 60s, that means the Nov. 3 election will bring fresh blood to the council in more ways than one.

Youth means some candidates are in a different phase of life than a typical city elder. Three are unmarried, three are renters, four don't have children.

But the under-40 set does bring some political experience to the table.

The youngest of the bunch, 25-year-old District 5 candidate Joe Cataline — he's quick to point out he'll be 26 by Election Day — began volunteering for state Sen. Dave Cogdill of Modesto when he was 17.

District 4's Jeff Perine, 29 — he'll be 30 in November — is making his second council run. He lost to Bob Dunbar in 2003. Since then, he's managed campaigns for Stanislaus County Superintendent of Schools Tom Changnon and Yosemite Community College District Trustee Mike Riley.

Some link the surge in youthful candidates to the "Obama effect." Obama was 45 when he announced his presidential candidacy.

"With McCain versus Obama, it was the old school versus the new school," said Joan Clendenin, vice chairwoman of the Republican Party of Stanislaus County Central Committee. "I think it showed young folks that they can run and they can win."

No desire to cut services

District elections, which are cheaper than citywide campaigns, likely opened the door for younger candidates with fewer resources.

The dire economic times probably affected the candidate pool as well. At least one older candidate is sitting out this contest because he doesn't want the thankless task of cutting city services. Retired Hughson Police Chief Ed Washington, 61, considered a run in District 5, but said he decided against it when he realized he'd rather watch sunsets in Oregon than plummeting tax revenues.

District 4 candidate Robert Stanford, 43, said only young people have the energy — and naiveté — to run for City Council during an economic downturn.

"My theory is that they don't know what they're getting into," Stanford said. "I was happy to see younger candidates with new ideas. They think they can conquer the world, and more power to them, maybe they can."

Lean times probably scared off people who wanted to run just to "polish their résumés," Stanford said.

"You can't stick your name on any accomplishments because there aren't going to be any because there's no money," he said. "It's hard times, and they know they're going to be under fire."

A Modesto-based political consultant, Mike Lynch, said he was heartened by the younger people who stepped forward this election season.

"People are kind of bummed out with the negative economy," he said. "That people in that atmosphere would rise up and say I can offer something positive, that's a great sign."

Political watchers say it's too early to say whether the youth wave will lead to a sea change in the city's power structure. Modesto saw a spate of younger candidates in the 1980s and early 1990s, said Clendenin, but it didn't lead to a permanent passing of the torch.

Among them were Pat McGrath, who was in his early 20s when he was elected in 1985. He served one term, then left the council to attend law school. Balvino Irizarry was 39 when he was elected in 1987. He was defeated after one term.

"The last time we had a bunch of young folks, they served one term and ran away," Clendenin said.

Race about more than age

Will the candidates' youth affect the election? Not much, predicts Lynch. Four factors determine elections, and age isn't one of them, he said.

Lynch believes races come down to issues, endorsements, money and a candidate's qualities, such as intelligence and personality.

But, he said, younger candidates enjoy an advantage in neighborhood-based contests where they can reach almost every voter walking door to door.

"This cycle is uniquely suited to someone who can knock on 100 doors a day," Lynch said. "Stamina and energy will count a great deal. It's not all going to be done at the mailbox and on the airwaves."

Another place where younger candidates could shine is the Internet. Many are more adept at using online tools such as Facebook and Twitter to reach voters. The impact of social networking sites is difficult to measure, Lynch said, but he recommends candidates use them.

District 2 candidate Dave Geer, 67, said he's skeptical. The Internet may not be the best way to reach those most likely to vote. The average age of voters considered most likely to go to the polls this fall is 60 to 64, based on projections put together by Modesto political consultant Don Langman.

"I'm not altogether convinced (that Facebook and Twitter are important tools), considering the extreme lack of activity as far as younger people (voting)," Geer said.

Geer's District 2 rival, Al Nava, 35, uses Facebook and Twitter and isn't shy about what he posts online. Nava includes details of his exercise regime, his taste in women — fit, no makeup — and his support for legalizing marijuana. One of Nava's Twitter posts promises, "I'm making Politics sexy, cool, & exciting again!"

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