The conventional wisdom is that candidates for Mayor of Modesto face inevitable runoffs. That’s why insiders are saying there’s no way either Garrad Marsh or Brad Hawn, the odds-on favorites in a crowded field, will get fifty percent of Tuesday’s vote. Failing to take a stand on the Mayor’s race, the Modesto Bee has written, “we hope to see a runoff between Garrad Marsh and Brad Hawn.”
While runoffs may seem inevitable, like population growth, they’re more the result a calculated strategy than accident. City government is the single major factor in promoting growth and residential development. For players in the growth game, backing candidates is just a cost of doing business. Peggy Mensinger’s warning of a realtor/developer coup in the late 1980’s has proven prescient as, with few exceptions, pro-residential development politicians have dominated city government for the past two decades.
Several tactics comprise the runoff strategy. The most basic is the “flooded field.” A slate full of candidates disperses votes and makes remote the likelihood any candidate will receive a majority. The slate will always feature at least two pro-growth candidates, one of whom is a stealth candidate. The stealth candidate will emphasize public safety, infrastructure, and “jobs, jobs, jobs.” This candidate will be “civil,” bland, and abstract when speaking of controversial issues like urban boundaries, farmland protection and growth.
The goal for the stealth candidate is to emerge from the crowded field with no negatives. If all goes well, the stealth candidate becomes a stealth mayor: Think Jim Ridenour, then try to name three things he stands for. Despite two terms as Mayor, he’s managed to avoid a political identity. In fact a reliably pro-realtor/developer politician, most people know only that he’s a very nice man.
Once there’s a runoff, the losing pro-growth candidate or candidates toss their votes to the stealth candidate, and campaign for him in earnest. The runoff can cost as much as the primary campaign, again by design. Deep pockets are favored.
During the runoff, smears, fears and jeers become favored tactics. Dirt becomes a prized commodity, as it can be the determining factor in who wins or loses. But the big factor in the runoff is still money. Both Brad Hawn and Garrad Marsh figure to spend over six figures before Tuesday, and a runoff will probably cost that and more. Few candidates can afford to play the game, and few donors can match the bankrolls of realtors and developers.
With his donor count in the hundreds, Garrad Marsh has already accomplished one of the crucial things required to reverse two decades of momentum favoring the status quo: He’s got money. He must also generate voter turnout. Most city elections are decided by a small core of voters, with the majority of citizens apathetic from the realization no candidate represents their interests. Marsh needs people to turn out who vote with renewed hope that city government will represent everyone, not just the favored few.
Marsh will also have to get voters to eschew party in favor of platform. In local elections especially, party is an unreliable indicator of a candidate’s position. Many staunch Republicans are also strong believers in smart growth and farmland preservation, as are many Democrats. Unfortunately, too many voters cast their ballots along partisan lines, favoring party over platform. Garrad Marsh has already gotten support from members of both parties; he’ll need even more crossover votes to buck the prevailing tide of tradition. Instead of left or right, people will have to vote forward.
Marsh has mustered an impressive army of volunteers. His plan to visit voters in every precinct in Modesto is well within reach. If people turn out and if Modesto citizens have finally had enough business as usual, Garrad Marsh will have accomplished the impossible—a first round win. In any case, his bold stand in favor of growing upwards instead of outwards and his willingness to articulate clear positions have energized thousands.
No matter the outcome of Tuesday’s election, Garrad Marsh is not going away and neither are his legions of supporters. When it comes to reversing Modesto’s retrograde motion, he’s already made the first big push.