Leave it to the Modesto Bee to whiff on the biggest political decision in years. Yes, when it came time to step up and take a stand, the Bee took a walk.
That’s what happened when The Only Game in Townwouldn’t make the call on the Modesto Mayor’s race. With three strong candidates, two of them developer-friendly, the Bee passed. Modesto’s newspaper of record then recommended a solidly pro-developer slate of City Council candidates, following its long practice of seeming to be impartial while flogging the growth horse.
The Valley Citizen featured former City Councilman Bruce Frohman months ago in favor of Garrad Marsh for Mayor. Since that time, Marsh has garnered support from the most diverse political base since Peggy Mensinger’s. Only Garrad Marsh has made farmland preservation and building Modesto’s inner core the centerpieces of his platform, and only Garrad Marsh has a long history promoting smart growth and strong urban boundaries.
The Bee is hoping for the usual outcome when developers flood a campaign with pro-growth candidates—a runoff. Runoffs favor candidates with the deepest pockets, and developer-financed candidates have always been able to outspend their opponents. Marsh, however, has received donations from hundreds of small contributors. He’s probably set a record for number of donors to any campaign in local history. He’s also avoided taking cheap shots at public employees, and he’s been bold enough to take a clear stand on controversial issues. Marsh is an easy choice for voters who favor smart growth, farmland preservation and a revitalized downtown.
The highest profile City Council race is in District Three, which features Carmen Sabatino as Modesto’s resident political villain. It was amusing to read a Bee Editorialchiding Modesto police and firefighters for running an “unflattering” photo of Mayoral candidate Brad Hawn. Last year, the Bee, which has a photo file stretching back decades on Sabatino, called him in for a special photo session after he won an award from the Stanislaus Arts Council, then ran a picture of a snarling Carmen Sabatino on his election biography when he ran for county supervisor. “Unflattering” indeed, but maybe beauty is in the eye of the Beeholder.
Sabatino is running against two strong candidates, Dave Lopez and Todd Aaronson. As one of the few “employed” rather than “employers” to appear on the City Council, Lopez has been a welcome presence. Gregarious, sincere and approachable, Lopez’s “Everyman” ethos offers a lot to a city that has too often been represented by the favored few. Unfortunately, developer money is all on Lopez, probably because he’s seen as manageable.
Todd Aaronson’s “A” list of endorsements would seem to make him a logical choice, especially since both the Bee and developers favor Lopez. But Aaronson’s focus-group approach and obsession with branding suggest someone more attuned to safe political options than strong commitment, and we have no idea how he might react when confronted with the choice between power and principle.
That leaves Sabatino, and even his many of his detractors will wish he had won if the Bee’s favored candidates prevail. Sabatino’s defects are at least out in the open, and among local politicians, only County Supervisor Jim DeMartini has as much courage to speak truth to power.
It’s easy to forget that Sabatino’s term as mayor featured the most transparent local government ever, the most dedicated opposition to developer control of government ever, and one of the best City Councils ever. He balanced four budgets, exposed the Village I fees shortfall and brought Stanislaus County CEO Reagan Wilson’s conflicts of interest into the public eye. Given the possibility of continued developer domination of City politics, Sabatino is an easy choice.
District Five’s Stephanie Burnside was hand-picked by a growth-friendly committee to replace Kristen Olsen when Olsen went on to State Assembly. As an indication of just how tilted the process was, consider that Dr. Charles V. Allen was not even a finalist, doubtless because Dr. Allen, in addition to being a pillar of the community, has long been an advocate of smart growth.
Burnside’s opponent, Jenny Kenoyer, will bring a strong voice for senior citizens and the much-needed perspective of the working woman: She’s familiar with health and medical issues, favors smart growth, and can see government from the point of view of the average tax payer. Kenoyer for Council.
In District Six, Dave Cogdill Jr. figures to continue the legacy of his father, and that’s good for those who favor the realtor/developer matrix. It’s hard to argue against Cogdill’s long list of supporters and his thoroughbred pedigree, but the choice here is Doug Dryssen. Modesto need not sustain the tyranny of the status quo.
That leaves District One, where the Bee is recommending Philip Moyer, a self-described Tea Party Patriot. Moyer’s opponent, John Gunderson, offers prime evidence that Modesto desperately needs more involvement in government from able citizens. There is already one Tea Party member on the City Council (Dave Geer), and that’s more than enough. Unfortunately, Gunderson’s lack of coherence is enough to make the Citizen take the coward’s way out and punt. Instead, we recommend a write-in, voter’s choice.
The Mayor’s race is the major event here. A victory by Garrad Marsh offers Modesto’s best chance in decades for a re-vitalized inner city, smart growth, and political unity. Marsh has already brought people together, and as Mayor he’ll deliver even more: Garrad Marsh for Mayor.
About The Author
Eric Caine formerly taught in the Humanities Department at Merced College. He was an original Community Columnist at the Modesto Bee, and wrote for The Bee for over twelve years.