Three newcomers headed for Modesto Irrigation District board

gstapley@modbee.comNovember 5, 2013 

— Three political newcomers – John Mensinger, Paul Campbell and Jake Wenger – struck gold Tuesday to win seats on the embattled Modesto Irrigation District board.

Despite unprecedented turnover on the five-person panel, the board will maintain its historic weight toward farmers as opposed to urban customers because of Wenger’s Division 4 triumph over three candidates with weaker ties to agriculture.

Wenger, 29, captured 58 percent to represent northwest Modesto and Salida, easily outdistancing Jim Mortensen, 66, who received 20 percent, according to unofficial results with a few thousand ballots yet to count. Ted Donham, 59, and Brad Johnson, 49, trailed with 14 percent and 9 percent, respectively.

“I walked a lot of precincts,” Wenger said. “I figured, if it takes hard work and elbow grease, that’s what I’m willing to do.”

In central Modesto’s Division 2, Mensinger, 59, sent former Modesto Mayor Carmen Sabatino to his 13th defeat in 14 tries for office at several levels over four decades. Sabatino, 76, who left office in late 2003 after one four-year term, mustered only 28 percent Tuesday; Mensinger had 72 percent, according to early returns.

“My family has been active in Modesto many years,” said Mensinger, a businessman whose mother was Modesto’s first female mayor. “My opponent was somewhat supported as a restaurateur, but I think a lot of people don’t think of him as the ideal public servant.”

Campbell, 50, prevailed with 57 percent over Les Johnson, 80, who received 23 percent. Campbell will represent northeast Modesto and part of Riverbank in MID’s Division 3; Matt Innes appeared on the ballot but did not campaign and received 19 percent.

The three winners inherit public dissatisfaction over several high-profile issues ranging from electricity bills to an aborted push at selling water to San Francisco. MID also faces serious threats to its water supply from drought and from state and federal officials wanting to resurrect salmon runs.

Like Wenger, holdovers from the current board – Nick Blom and Larry Byrd, both elected two years ago – are growers, while Campbell and Mensinger are not. That could be important as the board confronts inequity between water and power rates. Electricity customers for decades have paid millions of dollars more than their fair share to keep farmers’ irrigation bills low, but the debate over how the imbalance is figured has only just begun.

Campbell and Mortensen had raised more than any Modesto City Council hopeful as of a couple of weeks ago. Per-candidate fundraising was higher for the MID candidates, too.

Leaving the MID board are Glen Wild, Tom Van Groningen and Paul Warda, respectively from Divisions 2, 3 and 4.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or (209) 578-2390.

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