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Modesto’s mayoral candidates are older white men. Is that bad? Experts weigh in

As Modesto voters look to elect a mayor in November 2020, their choices are shaping up to be more of the same — older white men.

Twenty-five candidates have run for mayor since 1979 and nearly all have been men, often older white men. At least two candidates were Latinos and at least one was a black man. Four candidates were women, and it’s been 16 years since the last woman ran for mayor.

The current candidates so far are Mayor Ted Brandvold, Senior Pastor Rick Countryman of Big Valley Grace Community Church, Bert Lippert, the city’s building safety program coordinator, Councilman Doug Ridenour and former Mayor Carmen Sabatino.

Their ages range from 58 to 82, and their average age is 67.

Modesto has had two female mayors since 1979: Peggy Mensinger from 1979 to 1987 (she was the first female mayor since the city charter took effect in 1911, according to Bee archives) and Carol Whiteside from 1987 to 1991.

Mensinger died in 2002, and Whiteside could not be reached for comment for this story.

The gender imbalance does not surprise University of the Pacific political scientist Keith Smith.

“Men, whether because of social conditioning or historical experience or how they think of themselves — there are lots of possibilities — are much more willing to run for office,” said Smith, who added that holds true at the local, state and federal level.

Women made up 22 percent of the mayors of U.S. cities with at least 30,000 residents as of September, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, which analyzed information from the United States Conference of Mayors. The conference represents cities with at least 30,000 residents.

Local women say Modesto is missing out when its voters don’t have candidates who reflect half of its population.

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“It’s important that the community see themselves reflected in their leaders,” said Jennie Sweeney, board president of the Stanislaus County Commission for Women, “whether that be a woman, a person of color, or a white male.

“People bring their culture, interests and issues wherever they go. We need all perspectives brought to the table, and we don’t have that now.”

Stanislaus County Supervisor Kristin Olsen — who served on the Modesto City Council from 2005 to 2010 before serving in the state Assembly for six years — said the city would benefit from a strong, collaborative, results-oriented mayor and there are several women in the community with those abilities.

Modesto has struggled in recent years. The City Council is divided and at times dysfunctional. And there is a perception in the community that City Hall is not doing enough to fix pressing problems, including homelessness and affordable housing.

“Modesto has a lot of room for healing and growth,” Olsen said, adding a female mayor could help bring that about.

So why aren’t women running for mayor?

Smith said political science research shows women believe they have to have significant accomplishments and qualifications before running for office, a belief men tend not to share.

“A man might say, ‘Yeah I can do that,’ and might run for office,” Smith said. “But a woman might say, ‘I’ve done all these things and because of those things, I can run for office.’ Their self-evaluations are different.”

Smith added that a woman may need encouragement before she would consider running for office, while a man may not need that external push. (Sweeney said the commission for women is in the early stages of discussing how it can encourage more women to run for office throughout Stanislaus County. )

Olsen pointed to other barriers as well, including balancing the demands of family life with those of political office. She added that the women she has encouraged to run for a variety of positions also tell her they don’t welcome the public scrutiny that comes with elected office.

“They say, ‘I don’t want my life on display,’” Olsen said.

She said Modesto has made big strides in addressing another barrier.

“We’ve come a long way but ... we tend to elect older white men,” Olsen said. “It was a big deal, and not necessarily a positive one, when I was first elected to the City Council in 2005 and ran for state Assembly in 2009.”

Olsen said she faced questions about how she could run for office as a young mother with children. She was 31 when she was elected to the council. She said male candidates who were young and had children were not asked those questions.

Olsen stressed that her point about older white men running for and serving as mayor is not a criticism of them or their abilities, just that they have not always reflected the city’s full diversity.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported that as of 2018, Modesto had about 215,000 residents and 46.4 percent were non-Hispanic or non-Latino whites, 37.9 percent were Hispanic or Latino, 7.7 percent were Asian and 4.2 percent were black or African American.

The current City Council reflects some of that diversity. It is made up of three older white men, two women, a Latino and a Sikh.

Olsen also said the mayor’s salary — which is $43,200 and has not changed in about a decade — is too low to attract a full range of candidates. She said the mayor has a more than full-time job. The city has about 1,200 employees and an annual budget of about $400 million.

Olsen said she has spoken with several women about running for mayor and all have said no, though she hopes one will change her mind and enter the race.

“I’m not aware of any women thinking of running for mayor,” said Sweeney, with the Stanislaus County Commission for Women.

If a woman does not step forward this time, there could be a female candidate in 2024. Councilwoman Kristi Ah You, who is running for a second term in the November 2020 election, said in a text message: “My intention is to complete eight years (on the City Council) and then run for mayor.”

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