Last weekend, county Supervisor Vito Chiesa convinced lawmakers in Sacramento to quit sticking it to Stanislaus County by ending the so-called negative bailout that cost the county about $72 million in tax revenues over the past 35 years.
His moment of glory, indeed. This weekend, that same mover and shaker subjected himself to the public humiliation that also comes with the life of an elected official.
He agreed to be among the dunkees in the dunk tank at the Hughson Fruit & Nut Festival. And Saturday night, he donned a disco suit à la John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” and competed in the Salvation Army’s “Dancing With the Turlock Stars” fundraiser. Great fun since he’s not up for re-election until next year.
“I’m willing to make a complete idiot of myself as an elected official,” he joked. “But not during a campaign.”
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He’s not alone. In fact – take note, you first-time local political candidates – leaping out of your personal comfort zone becomes part of the job and how you react with constituents. Somebody might shove a baby in your face to kiss. You could be expected to crawl under a limbo bar, sing karaoke or judge a pie-eating contest. Some huckstering? Sure. A bit of pandering? Of course.
Indeed, the political battles are never as humbling as some of what they do outside of the chambers and meetings. And yes, that includes those dunk tanks where the regular folks can dump you into the drink for a laugh and usually for a charitable cause.
“I remember going down to Newman for their festa,” former county Supervisor Paul Caruso said. “They asked me if I wanted to be in their dunking booth. Not really. I wasn’t buffed, toned. But I did it anyway. People lined up because they wanted take on their supervisor. None of them hit (the target). But they’d poured ice into it and some guy hit the paddle and in I went. It wasn’t very funny at the time. I had a bad hair day.”
Had he refused?
“You have to let ’em poke fun at you once in awhile,” Caruso said. “If you don’t, they think you’re a stick in the mud.”
Former Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour got the dunk tank treatment once.
“When I came out of there, I thought, ‘What am I doing this for?’ ” he said.
Anything they do can become newsworthy or, worse yet, social media-worthy. In 2004, Ridenour choked on a piece of meat while dining in a Modesto restaurant the night before speaking to a crowd of students at Downey High. Had that happened today, it not only would have made the paper (which it did) but also Facebook – which launched a month after the incident – and YouTube, and been Tweeted and maybe even Periscoped live because, well, that’s what we all do these days.
Tony Madrigal, a Modesto City councilman, strikes first by posting photos of his activities on his Facebook page, and he’s a busy guy. This week, dressed for work in white shirt, tie and slacks, he jumped into a Zumba dance line with several women at a Hispanic Chamber event in downtown Modesto.
“I’ve done Zumba a couple of times at different events,” Madrigal said. “I’m proud of my Zumba knowledge and experience.”
Nobody works the crowds at more events than Madrigal, and he finds none of it even remotely embarrassing.
“Because it’s usually for community causes, children’s events,” he said. “I have no regrets about these things. I’m happy to volunteer and lend a hand. I have a lot of faith in the organizers of these events that when they ask me to participate they’re not going to put me in embarrassing situations.”
Except one. He participated in this year’s Haven Women’s Center “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” domestic violence and sexual assault awareness event, walking a mile in high heels, and found it both educational and very painful.
“I needed help,” he said. “Local volunteers helped me make it to the finish line.”
There’s another motive, he said. The bigger the crowd, the more people he sees and see him, which comes in handy when the next campaign rolls around.
And how’s your arm? I covered the Modesto A’s season opener in 1989. Vice Mayor Balvino Irrizary became a last-second sub for then-Mayor Carol Whiteside. He arrived on the mound, interrupting the A’s starting pitcher in mid-windup. Then Irrizarry threw the ceremonial first pitch into the screen on two hops, smiled big, waved to the crowd and headed back to the council meeting.
Kristin Olsen of Riverbank, the Republican Assembly leader, enjoys public activities as well as photo ops to promote bills she’s written or co-sponsored.
“But I don’t do things I wouldn’t ordinarily do,” she said. Which means she actually likes to skateboard, as she demonstrated during a media event to promote her bill to legalize motorized skateboards.
“There are lots of fun activities,” she said, some better than others.
“I do a luau (campaign fundraising event) every year,” she said. “We had hula dancing.”
The next thing she knew, she was demonstrating how to do the hula with Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson.
“And he was better at it,” she said.
She also found herself in a sushi rolling contest with other legislators. Sushi rolling?
“I was really nervous about that,” she said. “But I won. I’ve got a giant samurai sword hanging in my office.”
State Sen. Anthony Cannella, another who would prefer to avoid the spotlight, said there are plenty enough opportunities for embarrassment at private events, let alone the public ones. He hosted a meet-and-greet fundraiser in Madera in 2010.
“A guy pulled me off to the side and said, ‘We’re all wine grape growers here. You’re serving Australian wine.’ We never made that mistake again,” Cannella said.
So for all of the rookies running for public office, understand that if elected you might get berated by 300 people from Wood Colony or an angry mob of people upset over water policies.
But can you handle the dunking booth?