City Council District 2 often is in the news for all the wrong reasons: gangs, drugs and crime.
But headlines don’t tell the entire story. The district encompasses downtown and west and south Modesto. It’s the most diverse area in this city of nearly 206,000 residents. And many families have lived in the district for decades, creating a cohesiveness that is rare.
The district is home to people whose families once called Mexico and Southeast Asia home. It has sizable numbers of black and white residents. Immigration and assimilation have been part of the district for decades, including for families who left the Dust Bowl states in the 1930s for a better life here.
But too many of the district’s neighborhoods are plagued by crime and poverty. Too many neighborhoods have roads, sidewalks and other infrastructure that need to be repaired. Too many residents need jobs. And not enough residents vote or engage in other acts of civic participation.
Three candidates are running in the Nov. 5 election to represent the district on the City Council: Tony Madrigal, Jon Rodriguez and Juan Telles. Councilman Dave Geer, 71, is not running for re-election.
Madrigal and Telles support Measure X, the 1-cent temporary sales tax on the November ballot. City officials say the tax should bring in about $26million annually over its six-year life.
Though it’s a general tax and can be spent on any general government purpose, the City Council has passed a resolution stating its intent to spend half of the tax monies on public safety, a quarter on roads, a 10th on replenishing reserves and the rest on parks and recreation and economic development.
Rodriquez does not support Measure X. He fears the tax will be spent on salaries and pensions. He believes poverty is the cause of crime, and the permanent solution will be found through education and jobs.
Madrigal, 39, grew up in Turlock and Denair and is from a family of farmworkers. He is a graduate of Hughson High, Modesto Junior College and the University of California at Santa Cruz. His degree is in economics.
He is not a newcomer to politics. He served on the Santa Cruz City Council for two terms, from 2004 through 2012. He said that while on the council, his focus included gang prevention and economic development. He now lives in west Modesto, having moved here in December. He said he moved to Stanislaus County to be closer to his mother and other family members.
He works as a substitute teacher and as an interpreter, translating English into Spanish at public forums and other events where not all of the attendees speak English.
“I’m the strongest candidate,” Madrigal said. “I have eight years of city council experience.”
But he had some trouble in Santa Cruz. The Santa Cruz Sentinel reported in 2007 that Madrigal made lewd comments about a woman’s breasts and buttocks during a graveyard shift ride-along with a police officer in March that year. The officer reported the incident and police investigated. The investigation turned up another incident in which Madrigal offended another police officer by telling her “she smelled so good that he wanted to keep her in his car as an air freshener,” according to the Sentinel.
Madrigal issued a public apology in May 2007 for his comments during the ride-along. “I acknowledge the significance of the insult and sincerely apologize for making the comments in front of the officer and for making him uncomfortable and for hurting his and/or her feelings,” Madrigal wrote in his apology, according to the Sentinel. “As a public official, I need to be more circumspect in the comments I make.”
The Sentinel reported in November 2010 that Madrigal pleaded no contest in Santa Cruz Superior Court to a misdemeanor charge of reckless driving. The judge sentenced him to three days in jail, which he could serve in a work-release program. The newspaper said a CHP officer had cited Madrigal three months earlier because Madrigal was weaving and driving at an unsafe speed on Highway 1. Madrigal was texting and using his laptop while driving.
The Sentinel also reported in November 2010 that Madrigal had missed 23percent of council meetings over the previous two years. Madrigal cited his work as a field representative for the California United Homecare Workers as the reason for missing meetings. The job took Madrigal to the San Joaquin Valley and foothills.
According to court records, Madrigal has been cited several times for driving while his license had been suspended or revoked:
• He was convicted of driving while his license had been suspended or revoked in Fresno Municipal Court in 1995.
• He was convicted of driving without a license in Santa Cruz County in 1996.
• He pleaded no contest to driving while his license had been suspended or revoked in Stanislaus Superior Court in 1999.
• He was convicted of driving without a license in Santa Cruz County in 2000.
Madrigal said at the time he was being cited, he was a young college student struggling to make ends meet. He can’t recall why his license was taken away, but he believes it was for not paying traffic tickets. “Sometimes I didn’t have the money to pay the fine,” he said, “but I still needed to (drive to) get to work.”
Madrigal said he won’t repeat his past if voters elect him to the Modesto City Council. “I’ve learned from my mistakes,” he said. “I still care about my community. That’s why I’m running for the council. I want to use my education and experience to work on common-sense, specific solutions” that create jobs, increase public safety and make this a better community.
Madrigal said he’s proud of his community involvement. He said while in Santa Cruz, he started a food festival and an annual drive to collect used dresses so girls could go to prom. He has continued both events here.
He partnered with the Latino Community Roundtable this year on Operation Prom, which collected enough tuxedos, dresses and other clothing for more than 200 promgoers. He said he serves on the boards of the King-Kennedy Memorial Center and the American GI Forum. He said he also has started a Neighborhood Watch in his neighborhood.
Rodriguez farms 110 acres of almonds in Delhi and Livingston with his grandfather. He was raised in District 2 and is a graduate of Central Catholic High School and Modesto Junior College. He is a member of the Latino Community Roundtable and the Modesto Lions Club.
Though he is a farmer, Rodriguez, 26, said he understands the need to set aside land for jobs, and some of it will be prime farmland. He said he can accept that as long as jobs are created and a balance is struck between job growth and preserving farmland.
“Modesto is facing one of the most important – if not the most important – issues in her lifetime,” he said. “It deals with how we will grow jobs, where we will grow jobs and how we will implement policy to do it.”
He said the No. 1 concern he hears as he campaigns is that people don’t feel safe. They want faster response times from police and are concerned about gangs, vandalism, auto theft and other property crimes.
Rodriguez said as a council member, he will do everything he can to improve public safety, but he said District 2 residents also need to play their part. He said they must become more invested in their community, through such means as joining Neighborhood Watch and voting. He said it will be easier for him to represent District 2 if he can show City Hall that the district’s residents are behind him.
Just 1,049 District 2 voters cast ballots in the 2009 council election, compared with 3,830 voters in the District 4 race and 4,693 voters in the District 5 race. The council districts have roughly the same number of residents. That was the first year Modesto held district elections for council members.
District 2 also has the fewest number of registered voters among the six council districts. The Stanislaus County election office reports there are 9,417 voters in District 2. The others districts have 14,319 to 16,928 voters.
Telles, 23, works as a seasonal worker at a winery. He is a longtime resident of District 2 and has spent much of the past two years as a community volunteer and organizer, working with young people, neighborhoods and others in the district.
“I am an active community member who is connected to the residents, their resources and realities,” Telles said. “I have lived in west Modesto for more than a decade. The experience of dealing with residents and organizing around their issues in our district sets me apart in a big way.”
Telles said too many District 2 residents don’t know how to participate in local politics. He said he will help them get their voices heard at City Hall by encouraging them to attend City Council meetings and write, call and email council members and other officials with their concerns.
One of his top priorities is to improve the infrastructure in District 2, Telles said. That means better streets, sidewalks, parks and other public facilities. He said improving the infrastructure will encourage businesses to stay and others to locate in the district. That will generate more revenue for public safety and other needs.
Telles said the funding for these improvements could come from Measure X if it passes. If the sales tax measure fails, then he would scrutinize the city’s budget to ensure that District 2 receives its fair share of public spending.