Jeff Jardine

Modesto’s mayoral voters issue wake-up call

Ted Brandvold talks Tuesday with supporter Mani Grewal after defeating Garrad Marsh in Modesto’s mayoral runoff election.
Ted Brandvold talks Tuesday with supporter Mani Grewal after defeating Garrad Marsh in Modesto’s mayoral runoff election.

Modesto’s voters – or at least the roughly 25 percent of you who checked one of two boxes, stuffed the ballot into the envelope and stuck it back into the U.S. Mail – have spoken.

Out with the mayor, Garrad Marsh. In with the new guy, Ted Brandvold, and by a margin that could be better described as a chasm.

Therein lies the beauty of American politics, at least at the local level. Most politicians get job reviews every four years, with voters playing the role of the bosses. If voters don’t like the job an officeholder is doing, don’t like the direction the city is headed, or simply aren’t wowed by a candidate’s charisma, they can always vote for the opponent.

In many cases, they don’t know what they’ll get, but they know what they’ve had. That, to a great extent, explains why Marsh soon will be ex-mayor and Brandvold, a political rookie, will be sworn in as mayor once the election is certified, probably later this month. It also should serve as a reminder to others who hold office – and a warning to Brandvold as well – that those who care about the city, demand improvement, transparency and communication and exercise their right to vote tend to have a long memory and a short leash.

In politics at any level, incumbents generally benefit from familiarity and name recognition. At the same time, they establish records that can become campaign fodder for the opponent. Marsh lost because he challenged the public safety unions on their pensions and twice failed to sell the public on a safety tax. He lost because while he claimed he wanted to protect Wood Colony from development, he managed to convince 300 Colony residents and their supporters he was against them instead. They voiced their displeasure during a City Council meeting.

Residents of the city, meanwhile, see more homeless people not only in the downtown but also in their neighborhoods going through their trash, sleeping in alleys and leaving some folks to feel that their personal security and private property are at risk. Include the lack of new, higher-paying jobs coming to the city, along with lower education rates, drug abuse, crime, gangs and everything else that plagues a community, and residents look for someone they can hold accountable.

That, at election time, is the mayor or their district representative. With the power comes the responsibility and the blame, period.

Marsh wasn’t a horrible mayor. You won’t find many people who will accuse him of not wanting Modesto to become a great place to live, work and raise families. Nor will they claim he didn’t work hard toward that goal, either during his two terms as a council member or his four years as mayor.

He’s never been an embarrassment to the city, like his counterpart 30 miles to the north. Stockton Mayor Anthony Silva remains under investigation by the FBI, was along with a group of people who got drunk, rowdy and damaged a limousine in an incident a year ago, and has become a constant source of column fodder for The Record’s Michael Fitzgerald, who called him everything from “a bewildered boy in a mayor costume” to “unfit for office.”

Indeed, Marsh was pretty boring by comparison, and that is a good thing. It means people are paying attention to issues, agendas and approaches instead of getting entertained and sidetracked by a sideshow.

Good behavior didn’t keep him from developing political foes, though. And he’s certainly not the first incumbent to get the boot. Carmen Sabatino used voter anger to shock and unseat Dick Lang as Modesto’s mayor in a 1999 runoff, then failed to reach the runoff as the incumbent four years later. Jim Ridenour ultimately replaced him and served two terms.

Longtime Stanislaus County Supervisors Pat Paul and Paul Caruso both lost as incumbents in 2004 following revelations that former county CEO Reagan Wilson spent over $230,000 on his county-issued credit card over a six-year period, and hired a friend who was paid over $260,000 to advise the county on landfill projects that never were completed. The voter backlash put Bill O’Brien and Jim DeMartini in the seats they continue to hold.

And in 2006, interim Sheriff Mark Puthuff entered the race as the favorite. But Puthuff self-destructed with his angry and mocking criticisms of opponent Adam Christianson, but more so by directing much of his ire toward popular predecessor Les Weidman after Weidman changed his endorsement to Christianson. A lieutenant at the time, Christianson beat his boss in a landslide and is serving his third term in office.

These reversals of fortune suggest that no local politicians should think in terms of job security. The voters, regardless of how few actually exercise their right, make that determination.

This time, it was Marsh’s turn to incur the wrath of the electorate, and it represented both a sound whipping and loud message.