Modesto supervisor candidates look familiar

Voters aren't seeing many surprises in this year's race to represent the most urban of five Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors districts.

This much is certain: The victor in District 4 will be a seasoned male politician, a known quantity, someone residents will recognize from decades back.

The average age of the three candidates is 70. Each has run an average of seven political campaigns. And all ran against each other for the same seat four years ago, making the current contest a do-over of sorts.

But don't be fooled into concluding there is little difference between Dick Monteith, Carmen Sabatino and Balvino Irizarry. They may be mature and savvy, but they are very different men with varied life experiences, widely contrasting styles and opposing views on the future of Stanislaus County.

At 78, Monteith is the oldest and has had the most political success. He is a former state senator whose only ballot loss came in a run for Congress. He's also the incumbent supervisor, making him the one to beat.

Sabatino, 72, rocked Modesto's political world when he became mayor in late 1999, but that was the only race he won in 11 tries for four different offices. Four years ago, he finished last in a five-way primary for the seat eventually claimed by Monteith.

At 61, Irizarry is the kid in this race. His sole political victory came in a 1987 race for Modesto City Council, seven years before Monteith's first victory and 12 years before Sabatino's. Like Sabatino, he also failed to advance to the 2006 runoff.

The three men agree on some things, such as an eventual end to tax breaks for farmers who resist development. (District 4 contains few rural constituents, compared with the other supervisorial areas.) And the candidates want to help the area rebound from the recession, but they would take divergent paths.

Monteith is sticking by his votes favoring Gerry Kamilos and West Park, the would-be developers of an ambitious vision to transform a former naval air field near Crows Landing into a business center sprawling over 4,800 acres. Leaders are responsible for setting a long-term course that might not pay dividends for decades, Monteith said.

Sabatino is adamantly opposed to West Park, as are many West Side residents -- who won't vote in District 4, which takes in north-central Modesto and Del Rio to the north.

"It's a loser and it was a loser to begin with," Sabatino said. "The cry for jobs, jobs, jobs ... I don't know how many years have gone by and we haven't heard any good news. All we've got is lawsuits."

Irizarry is somewhere in between, saying county leaders "started out with good intentions" but got rolled by Kamilos' smart development team. He also opposes premature loss of farmland, a hot topic in the 2006 campaign which isn't drawing much attention this time as construction has slowed to a drip.

Irizarry has been critical of Monteith, likening him to an ineffective "bump on a log" who hasn't done much in his four years in office. County leaders, Irizarry said, have fallen out of touch with regular people, who are "confused and wondering if the county is doing anything for them."

Sabatino is much more caustic in his "Morning Mayor" Internet show where he regularly attacks the area's power structure. Recent targets include Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson, who is running for re-election; Sarah Palin's scheduled visit to Turlock; The Bee; the district attorney's office; and just about anything having to do with the current Modesto City Council.

Monteith likes to talk about integrity, listening to people and working both sides of the political aisle. Cutting $23 million from the next fiscal year's budget starting July 1 is no fun, he said, but "this too will pass."

"I can't look at a person who's been fired and say, 'Look, cleansing is good,' " Monteith said. "But it gives us an opportunity to evaluate all of our expenses."

County leaders missed the boat on rising pension costs, Irizarry said, blaming "mismanagement, bad planning and a lack of long-range planning." He warned that a "bomb is coming" in future years, when the county's annual retirement obligation is expected to balloon by millions of dollars.

If elected, Irizarry would be the first Latino to represent a county whose Latino population grew from 31.7 percent in 2000 to about 39 percent in 2008, according to U.S. Census estimates.

A two-time state wrestling champion at Downey High School in his younger years, Irizarry became the first Latino elected to the Modesto council 23 years ago and has urged Latinos to groom viable political candidates over the years.

"I think I am a reflection of this community," he said, "and I think the board needs a change."

Sabatino says his record shows he "provided solutions rather than public relations slogans." He spent money wisely as mayor, he said, pointing to cuts he spearheaded in City Hall's advertising with The Bee -- after a series of articles outlining his taxpayer-funded trips, limousine rides, cell phone bills and golf rounds.

He lost a re-election bid only months after prosecutors publicly launched a corruption probe, leading to 10 felony counts while Sabatino claimed he was victimized for political reasons. A seven-week trial in 2006 ended in a mistrial when jurors could not agree on verdicts.

Asked recently for the primary reason he seeks office, Sabatino said: "Corruption in this county must be dealt with and not merely exposed."

Monteith says he's had success advocating a future transit program for the elderly and disabled. He's proud of law enforcement contracts that four cities have with the Sheriff's Department, which brings money to the county, and of the county's partnership with five cities to build a new animal shelter.

Monteith first entered the political arena as a 62-year-old retiree. He would be 82 in four years and hinted this might be his last campaign, but declined to rule out anything.

"I'm extremely fortunate that my health is good, and I still believe I can make contributions," he said. "You don't get more smart when you get older, you just live long enough to make mistakes and learn from them."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.