Ashton: Elephant's long shadow hangs over Stanislaus County races

June 28, 2010 

Bill Lyons' loss in his bid for a seat on the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors on June 8 underscored how thin the bench is for Democratic Party candidates here.

With newcomer Terry Withrow, all five supervisors are conservative, well-off, white and male. In an upset, Withrow defeated the better-funded Lyons, a former state secretary of agriculture who would have become the board's only Democrat.

Republicans in Stanislaus County have the initiative even in communities where they aren't in control. That speaks to their hard campaigning and efforts to get people in office at the municipal level.

Look to Turlock, where Democratic Mayor John Lazar often appears overshadowed by the outsize presence of Republican Councilman Ted Howze.

This trend surprises because the county has more registered Democrats than Republicans. Many of those Democrats are more centrist than liberal, which helps Republicans win in districts where they don't hold a majority.

It's hard to say whether local government would provide different services and budgets if other voices were at the table. Sandra Lucas, a longtime Stanislaus County Democratic leader, said recession budgets leave little space to debate philosophies.

"In these trying times, no matter who's on the board, I'm not sure there's a lot of wiggle room," she said.

"There's more of an impact if they had some women on the board. Women bring a different perspective, much more so on local issues than Republicans and Democrats."

Lucas laid some of the blame for the thin roster of Democrats in local office at the feet of gerrymandered legislative districts. Republicans have a lock on the 25th Assembly District and 14th Senate District, both of which take in much of Modesto.

Republicans tend to get much better turnout in the 26th Assembly District, which includes territory friendlier to Democrats in Ceres, Turlock and San Joaquin County.

With room for growth, the GOP lands up-and-comers on planning commissions and city councils, giving them a start on political careers that could lead to more responsibility.

"Without the opposition party getting elected, that party withers," Lucas said. "There's no movement upward. What you have is people don't feel they can get ahead. The development of candidates doesn't happen when you know you can't send people to the Assembly."

She has high hopes for redistricting reform, which might yield Assembly and Senate seats that are less safe for ideologically extreme candidates.

"It's not a one-party problem," said Modesto attorney Robert Farrace, who has been helping Democratic candidates. "When you get out of our area, the Republicans are upset because a lot of the districts they feel are gerrymandered for Democrats."

With different boundaries, a Democrat with strong name recognition such as Lyons could be competitive in an Assembly race. Or, Democrats such as Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueño or Modesto City Schools Trustee Ruben Villalobos could take shots at different offices.

As the districts stand today, these Democratic candidates wouldn't stand a chance no matter how they perform in their current gigs. ...

ON TO THE NEXT BIG THING ... Bye-bye, Sarah Palin. It was a blast to have you in the valley, bringing the circus to Turlock.

Now we can get ready for the fair.

Bee Assistant City Editor Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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