In the race for what's sometimes called the "Modesto seat" on the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors, the discussion is more about urban problems such as homelessness and the cost of housing.
The three-way race featuring former Modesto Councilwoman Janice Keating, Frank Damrell III and state senator Tom Berryhill is the first step toward choosing the representative for supervisorial District 4, which includes most of Modesto, Del Rio and a small part of Ceres. The two candidates getting the most votes June 5 will advance to the November election unless one of them captures more than 50 percent.
Damrell, the son of a retired federal judge, said county leadership has seemed reluctant to deal with mental illness and drug addiction, which are primary factors of chronic homelessness in Modesto. Mental health and substance abuse services for low-income residents are the responsibility of county government.
"I was a proponent of Laura's Law two to three years before the county finally got it adopted," Damrell said, referring to a court-ordered outpatient treatment program recently approved by county leaders. "I think there is more we can do. Of all the counties in the state, we have the lowest per-capita usage of conservatorship."
Keating said it's great to have overnight shelters for the homeless, but the "problems run much deeper than that and have to be addressed." One third of the homeless have severe mental illness, Keating said, and she wants to know why they are not assisted as mental health funding flows to the county.
She also asks what can be done by law enforcement to deal with people on the streets who don’t follow the rules.
Another priority for Keating is what she calls an "extreme" shortage of housing in Stanislaus County that is destroying the household budgets of young families. "I would look at what could be done to start providing housing for people, whether it's (condominiums, apartments) or single family homes — anything," Keating said.
Berryhill, who is terming out of the state senate this year, said he can use his experience in Sacramento to help the county fight against a state proposal to take river water from agriculture to restore salmon. The Republican has represented the 8th senate district, stretching from Tuolumne County to Fresno.
He claims his home in Del Rio as his place of residence to run for supervisor.
Berryhill is endorsed by District 4 incumbent Dick Monteith, who is retiring, and is supported by other fellow Republicans on the Board of Supervisors, including Kristin Olsen, Jim DeMartini and Vito Chiesa.
Keating, 52, was on the Modesto City Council from 2002 to 2009. Even though the county pulled out of the dire recession of 10 years ago, residents are not satisfied with the state of the economy, Keating said.
She suspects that state regulations are holding back economic progress in the county. With a lower corporate tax structure created by federal reforms, large companies in the area should be in a better position to increase payrolls. "Are we asking them what the county can do to partner with them to expand their workforce?" Keating asked.
Damrell, a staff member for Democratic state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani of Stockton, said the county may be missing opportunities for job growth. As an example, he cited a Salida business that wants to train people in software code writing.
"For $3,500, you can train yourself to write code and reposition yourself in the workforce," Damrell said, noting that salaries for code writers start at $60,000 to $80,000 a year after an internship. He said the county hasn't stepped up to assist the business owner.
Proposals to build housing outside of cities would run into the Stamp Out Sprawl initiative. Approved in 2008, Measure E requires a public vote on new housing developments in the county jurisdiction, so any county efforts to increase housing would most likely involve collaboration with cities, Keating said.
Damrell, 57, said there was interest from developers in building multistory housing in downtown Modesto about 10 years ago, just before the nation's economic crisis. Those same developers could be invited back to reconsider Modesto, he said.
"They are busy in Sacramento and the Bay Area and can't keep up with the demand there," Damrell noted. "There are a number of ways to address housing. It will have to be collaborative and innovative."
Berryhill has spent more than the other candidates after transferring $130,000 from a state Board of Equalization campaign chest to his local campaign in March. Berryhill raised money to run for a Board of Equalization seat in 2018 before changing his mind.
As of April 21, Tom Berryhill for Supervisor 2018 had $75,360 in reported expenditures. Damrell had spent $21,119 and Keating had $2,343 in spending.
Berryhill, 64, has been a voice for agriculture and business in his 12 years in the state Legislature, starting as an assemblyman in 2006. According to his campaign material, he supports common-sense policies that protect taxpayers and help the economy.
Berryhill did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.
Keating said with her perspective as a former city elected official she can help minimize the traditional conflicts between city and county government.
Damrell said he would be a listening ear for people who are not so comfortable with Republicans who dominate the county governing board.