Among the more puzzling aspects of Ted Brandvold’s term as Mayor of Modesto is his desire to run again. He’s never seemed to like the job, and has even less aptitude for it than enthusiasm, yet there he was at the September 23 Modesto Bee Mayors’ Forum, seeking another term.
The mayor was subjected to some withering criticism, with the cruelest blow coming from current City Councilmember and former ally Kristi Ah You. When Bee moderator and Opinion Page Editor Garth Stapley asked Ah You why voters should trust her after she broke her alliance with Brandvold and chose to run against him, she replied,
“I don’t think he’s going to get elected…he’s not a good public speaker.”
Ah You added that she believes Brandvold has been an excellent mayor and would be excellent again, but that she broke with him because of weak responses to Covid-19 and a lack of transparency about changing urban limit lines (min: 33:50). She said that part of the reason for her decision was Brandvold’s signing an open letter to Governor Newsom in April requesting permission to reopen local businesses. Et tu, Kristi?
As Stapley noted, Ah You’s timing was questionable. Five months ago, she said she wouldn’t be running for reelection, “because family and business won out.” Just three months later, she announced she’d be running against Brandvold for mayor. Until then, her alliance with Brandvold had seemed firm.
Until Ah You’s break with Brandvold, his chief critic had been Councilmember Doug Ridenour, a retired Modesto Police Officer who is also running against him. Ridenour has been embroiled in disputes with the city clerk, one of which had seemed resolved when an investigation found charges against Ridenour were unfounded except for some trivial name-calling.
The issue surfaced again last Friday, just days after the Bee forum. City Clerk Stephanie Lopez is again the focus of the investigation, which centers on emails she sent in response to public records requests. Lopez claims she’s the victim of a hostile environment, once again blaming Ridenour for harassment. The updated Bee story,
“features confidential attorney-client documents…leaked to The Bee, and Councilwoman Kristi Ah You not following the Brown Act, the state law that governs how local elected bodies conduct their meetings.”
Given that personnel issues involving city employees are subject to strict confidentiality rules, it’s difficult to discern exactly what’s going on between Ridenour and Lopez. Involvement by City Manager Joe Lopez (no relation to Stephanie) and the city attorney complicates things even further, as does the charge that Ah You violated the Brown Act. What we do know is that attorneys’ fees for the imbroglio are approaching $100,000. We also known that Stephanie Lopez’s attorney has argued that the investigation is the result of, “a completely dysfunctional City Council…They are basically split in half and engaged in infighting.”
The description, “dysfunctional,” has been applied to the current City Council not just by Lopez’s attorney, but by the Modesto Bee several times over a series of articles. Not surprisingly, Ah You, Brandvold and Ridenour disagree that the council has been dysfunctional. When asked about that characterization, they all say, in a rare chorus of unanimity, “We got a lot done.”
The crowded field of candidates for mayor includes four others; however, we decided not to comment on Erin Tenorio’s performance other than to wish her well.
The other three candidates are Naramsen Goriel, Rick Countryman, and Sue Zwahlen.
Goriel said he’s running because he’d become, “sad and angry” at the council’s dysfunction and the, “lack of action has become intolerable (1:31).” He said he was certain he could help address Modesto’s problems with affordable housing, homelessness and other seemingly intractable issues.
Countryman agreed with Goriel and said he, too, had been motivated by anger, “at how the city councils meetings were going,” with constant bickering and backstabbing. He’s backed by many of the same people who supported Ted Brandvold in 2015, most especially the George Petrulakis/Mike Zagaris combination of pro-development and real estate interests.
Zagaris and Petrulakis tend to support more than one candidate in crowded races, favoring pro-growth people prominent in churches with large memberships. Their strategy is to force a costly, low-turnout runoff, when a reliable base of church-goers and infusions of money can be the deciding factors. In Countryman, they have the Senior Pastor of one of the largest churches in the region.
Zagaris said he had switched from Brandvold to Countryman because Countryman is more charismatic and, “has the personal characteristics and professional skills that this community needs more.” Countryman himself said he’s running to bring his “leadership skills” to the larger community of the City of Modesto.
Sue Zwahlen, a retired Emergency Room Nurse and former member of the Modesto City Schools Board of Trustees, said she’s running because, “We need a fresh start.” Zwahlen boasts an impressive list of endorsements, including many from trustees she served with as well as current members of the City Schools Board. She’s also endorsed by Congressman Josh Harder.
Of the seven candidates, five have unusually suitable experience for mayor. Like Ah You, Brandvold has business and political experience. In addition to his five years on the city council, Ridenour served as a Modesto Police Officer for a total of 41 years, 16 of them as a reserve. He’s endorsed by the Modesto Police Officers’ Association.
Countryman’s position as Senior Pastor at Big Valley includes administration of the multi-thousand member church and a school of some 800 students. He’s been accused of mingling church and state by campaigning with local politicians Kristin Olsen, Mani Grewal, and Bill Zoslocki. He was also criticized in a Modesto Bee story for conducting “Facebook Live” video interviews where neither he nor his guests wore facemasks.
Masks have become a defining issue in local politics, mostly because they’ve been politicized by President Donald Trump and his followers. They’re flare points in Stanislaus County because it’s consistently been among the state’s leaders in infection rates and ratios of death to population.
With the exception of Congressman Harder, local leaders have resisted donning masks and have been reluctant to support mandates from Governor Gavin Newsom requiring business closures. Ted Brandvold, in addition to signing the April letter to Governor Newsom requesting reopening businesses, has frequented and supported a local diner that has continued to serve indoors, in open defiance of state and local mandates.
During the Bee Forum, Kristi Ah You took a strong stand in favor of masks and mandates, and added that if we had followed New York’s example, we’d be reopening businesses and schools far ahead of our current schedule. No one remembers her saying such things in April, when she was still Mayor Brandvold’s staunch ally.
It’s only been after polling revealed widespread support for masks and social distancing that local Republican leaders have supported wearing them, and many are still frequently seen without them.
Both Goriel and Zwahlen are credible on masks and social distancing, Goriel because he’s intelligent enough to follow science and Zwahlen because she’s a former nurse who understands health and public safety.
Goriel is among a group of rising young candidates for office who need just a bit more on-the-ground experience to round out their résumés. The mayor’s job has proven to be among the most difficult in the region, and the next term will be especially trying. Whoever takes on the job should have a long and verifiable history of collaboration and leadership under stress.
Candidates for mayor almost always recite a list of things that need fixing — it’s always the same list — yet they never acknowledge the overriding problem for the City of Modesto is that it’s broke. The city has no money.
Insiders chuckled when Ted Brandvold came into office five years ago with his much-ballyhooed,“100 Day Budget Review.” Brandvold, like most members of the far right, was and still is possessed by the unshakeable belief that all governments everywhere are wasteful of taxpayer dollars. It’s good campaign material, but it’s demonstrably false in the case of Modesto, where the shortfall in tax revenue is going to be even worse next year, due to the ravages of Covid-19.
The two candidates with the best records of success under pressure are Doug Ridenour and Sue Zwahlen. Ridenour didn’t just succeed as a police officer, he received awards for valor and distinguished public service. Unfortunately, current lawsuits involving his service on the city council raise questions about his suitability to serve as mayor. Zwahlen’s career as an Emergency Room Nurse was an almost daily exercise in crisis management. She’s been tested more than any other candidate.
During her term on the council, Kristi Ah You has been accessible, transparent, and candid. However, Garth Stapley raised serious questions about her abandonment of Mayor Bandvold. Their alliance was questionable from the beginning, especially after Ah You had campaigned on a platform promising to address homelessness and then allied herself with a Mayor who said repeatedly and publicly, “Homelessness is not the city’s problem.”
Rick Countryman has shown himself capable when dealing with a captive audience of like-minded people, but he has little to no experience with a more diverse and potentially hostile audience. He’s also backed by people with a long history of putting growth and development ahead of other interests; if he’s elected, expect him to put a lot of time and energy into expanding urban limits.
Among the most telling things about Sue Zwahlen’s endorsements is the number she received from educators and people she worked with on the Modesto City Schools Board of Trustees. She was the top vote-getter on that board and earned the respect and backing of most everyone she worked with. She was a leader in ensuring a welcome environment for students from every possible background and identity, and helped boost graduation rates in a region plagued by high dropout numbers. The support and respect she’s received from people she worked with offer solid testimony to her abilities to lead and work with others
When asked how she would respond to deficits brought on by the Covid-19 recession, Zwhalen responded, “We have to tap all our resources, including federal and state funding.” Unlike those who routinely offer the standard, “We have to bring volunteers and non-profits together and listen to everyone’ ideas,” Zwahlen knows it’s going to take much more than volunteers and non-profits to bring back a stable and growing economy.
She was endorsed by Congressman Josh Harder after running against him because Harder, like anyone who’s ever observed Sue Zwahlen closely and over time, realized she offers a very special combination of competence, integrity, and judgment. Most of all, she understands that public service works best when people with opposing views find common ground and move forward.
This year’s slate of candidates for MayTor of Modesto offers a representative sample of the best our city has to offer. Given the city’s reliance on a strong City Manager for administrative duties, the mayor’s most important role is to promote unity, maintain focus, and help frame policy. As an Emergency Room nurse, Sue Zwahlen was tested under pressure most days of her career. As a member of the Modesto City Schools Board of Trustees, she’s shown she can work with others to set policies that apply fairly to a broad and diverse population. She has the temperament and experience the City of Modesto needs during its biggest crisis in anyone’s memory.