We’ll be providing recaps and review on the Modesto Bee local political forums, beginning here with reviews of the taped interviews for Modesto City Council Districts 1 and 3.
Though city and county elected offices are theoretically non-partisan, nothing has made the contrary more evident than the Covid pandemic, when wearing or rejecting a facemask has become a political statement. And so it is that recent Modesto Bee candidates’ forums included questions about whether candidates wore masks and would support requiring them.
Janice Keating, candidate for City Council in Modesto’s District 3, provided the most revealing answer when she said she wouldn’t throw a fit about having to wear one into the local Safeway, then proceeded to come near a fit protesting about “bureaucrats” telling people what to do. Like many of her fellow Ted Howze supporters, Keating is not just content to reject science, she revels in defying it.
No surprise she also supports incumbent Mayor Ted Brandvold, who not only has resisted mask mandates, but also has defended and patronized the Velvet Creamery, which has defied state and local orders by continuing to serve restaurant customers inside its premises.
Keating’s justification for resisting mask mandates is based on the theory that we should protect only the most vulnerable among us; she doesn’t seem able to make the connection that the way to do that is by reducing transmission and the way to reduce transmission is by wearing a mask and practicing social distancing.
Resistance to masks and science are the chief reasons Modesto and Stanislaus County have consistently been among the three-to-five worst places in the state for infection rates. Our local leaders have never understood that the quickest way back to business as usual is by controlling Covid.
It’s not that they don’t have examples. Death and infection rates plummeted in the Bay Area after stringent rules of science were applied, and countries that implemented those same procedures are well on the way to complete business recovery.
Canada, with about one-tenth the population of the United States, is averaging between five- and six-hundred new cases per day; new cases in the United States have been hovering between thirty and forty thousand. The Canadian death rate from Covid has recently plunged to single digits per day. Deaths in the U.S. are still near one thousand per day. Some analysts argue the U.S. could have saved over 100,000 lives by following Canada’s example.
Modesto and Stanislaus County aren’t just among the worst in California for controlling Covid, they’re among the worst in the nation. As of September 13, Stanislaus County, with a population of 549,815, had 310 deaths from Covid-19; San Francisco County, with a much-denser population of 881,549, had 91 deaths.
Keating’s fail on science alone is enough to disqualify her in a field including James Applegate and Chris Ricci. Nonetheless, she also managed to mangle a question about defunding the police by going on a rant about crime and homelessness.
No local leaders or candidates for office have recommended defunding the police; the issue itself is a straw man assembled by candidates desperate for filler for their empty platforms. When asked recently about funding for law enforcement, Modesto Police Chief Galen Carroll said that if the department had more money, he’d use it to hire civilians.
Carroll, who uses data-driven computer models to track crime in real time, long ago realized that most “crimes” involving homelessness would be better addressed by social workers and police cadets, including mental health workers. Most experts in criminology agree that the quality of life crimes associated with homelessness decrease with sufficient outreach and treatment of mental illness.
In calling for a crackdown on homelessness by police, Keating may be channeling Stanislaus County Supervisor Kristin Olsen, whose time on the Modesto City Council was distinguished by spearheading criminalization of dumpster diving and shopping cart possession; we all see how well that worked out.
No one disagrees that crime and homelessness are serious issues in Modesto, but history shows that the cycle of catch, jail, and release just doesn’t work. Janice Keating hasn’t seemed to have learned from history.
Chris Ricci, who’s been robbed, had his car vandalized and damaged by a hit and run driver, is anything but soft on crime. The difference between him and Keating is that he’s less likely to inject emotion into an issue that requires pragmatic approaches. That alone makes him better on crime than Janice Keating.
Ricci’s long experience as a downtown businessperson and event promoter gives him an ideal perspective for restoring Modesto’s business economy. He is no longer the brash young entrepreneur who put Modesto on the map with the highly successful but controversial X-Fest events. More mature and with a toddler in the house, he’s retained his networking and promotional skills and remains one of our most optimistic local visionaries, brimming with ideas for promoting business and downtown Modesto. If anyone can bring people back downtown, Chris Ricci can.
Ricci understands that controlling Covid is key to restoring business and sees wearing a mask as one of the quickest and easiest ways to begin. Rather than gin up emotion about sound science, he’ll put businesses together with government to solve problems. He’s recommended closing some downtown streets to allow more room for outside dining.
In the City Council District 3 field with Ricci and Keating is Jim Applegate, a church founder and former construction executive. Applegate is clearly a very good man, but seems to have prepared too little to run for city council. His answers to most questions were, “I will listen to and work with staff,” or “I will work with our wonderful non-profits.”
Ricci won’t need to learn to work with city and county staff. He already has a long history of promoting local events that require careful planning and intricate coordination with local staff and officials. Keating is dismissive of staff — she calls staff people “bureaucrats” with patent disdain — while Applegate seems willing to enter office with a steep learning curve ahead during a crisis when we’ll above all need quick and effective action. We believe Chris Ricci will bring business back downtown much sooner than either of his opponents.
Candidates for City Council District 1 include Amin Vohra, Rosa Escutia-Braaton, and Jennifer Hidalgo. This is one of the strongest slates for city council in recent memory; all three candidates have experience relevant to the position and all three have worked extensively as volunteers and with non-profits. Jennifer Hidalgo is a field representative for State Senator Anna Caballero, and both Escutia-Braaton and Vohra have experience on local planning commissions.
Though all three are stronger on addressing Covid-19 than the majority of our current local leaders, only Jennifer Hidalgo stated emphatically and without reservation that she would encourage following state and local mandates and added, “I believe in science. The sooner we get the pandemic under control, the sooner we can get back to business.”
On the question of penalizing local businesses for violation of state and local mandates restricting openings, Hidalgo and Vohra stressed the need to emphasize education over punishment. Escutia-Braaton said she wears a mask, “in public, but the data is very conflicting.” Actually, recommendations from credentialed epidemiologists have been remarkably consistent since March; virtually all have emphasized masks, avoidance of close quarters indoors, and especially restrictive ordinances for restaurants and bars.
Escutia-Braaton may be taking cues from incumbent Councilmember Mani Grewal, who endorsed her on his way out of office. An always-ambiguous Democrat with a pronounced rightward lean, Grewal’s long-term political strategy has been to run to the right of most Democrats and even some Republicans. It may be on his advice that Escutia-Braaton is vague on Covid science and undecided on the race between Ted Howze and Josh Harder. For someone who claims to be a “registered Democrat,” there has been no clearer choice in decades. Nonetheless, Escutia-Braaton said she hadn’t yet made up her mind about who to vote for in the congressional race.
Vohra said a driving motive for his campaign is the desire to be the first, “Muslim born in India to run for local office.” He said he was driven to demonstrate that the vast majority of Muslims are good people after Donald Trump’s attacks on Muslims in 2016.
Vohra has impressive experience in local planning and development and his passion for Modesto and America are powerful reminders of the inspirational powers of the American Dream. He also understands that our local government needs state and federal assistance to deal with the punishing effects of Covid on public health and local economies.
Vohra said our current council has failed on many of the most crucial issues before it, mostly because of constant bickering and mistrust among its members and Mayor Ted Brandvold. Nonetheless, he is supporting Brandvold for a second term. It’s a position hard to justify given Brandvold’s central role in the city’s recent dysfunction.
We see Amin Vohra as a strong contender for this city council race but back Jennifer Hidalgo as best suited to apply governmental and civic experience in restoring Modesto’s economy while dealing with homelessness and crime. Hidalgo’s experience as a field representative for Senator Anna Caballero will offer the city yet another resource to tap as it begins to dig itself out of the deep financial hole brought on by the Covid recession. She’s also has a strong background in the private and volunteer sector.
Those who lament the punishing effects of the pandemic on our economy should reflect on how much further along the road to recovery we’d have been with leaders like Jennifer Hidalgo and Chris Ricci, both of whom prefer science and pragmatic solutions to politics and thoughtless rebellion. The sooner we get them in office, the better for Modesto.