Knox, Ornelas, Smith face off in race to fill District 1 seat
There’s diversity, contrasts in District 1 race
One of the main reasons Merced moved to district voting for City Council positions was to allow for more cultural and ethnic diversity on the leadership dais by providing equal access to the city’s political process.
This November, the people of District 1 will choose their representative leader among three ethnically diverse candidates. They are all challengers for the seat after the incumbent decided not to seek re-election.
The three District 1 candidates are all men; however, one is White, one identifies as Chicano, and one is African-American. Their ages are 63, 45 and 66, respectively.
District 1 is located in southeast Merced, bordered by Yosemite Parkway to the north, the rural Tower Road to the east, Mission Avenue and Frontage Road to the south, and a portion of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Highway 59 to the west.
In many ways, it’s a district on the rise with big development projects that include the extension of the Campus Parkway project — an expressway that serves as a new major corridor from Highway 99 to State Route 140, and eventually UC Merced. Work is also underway on the largest retail development project the city has ever seen — the Merced Gateway Retail Center. Just think: 2,700 new jobs, $30 million a year in sales tax revenue, shops, restaurants, a fire station, and 200 apartment units. Across the street, the Campus Parkway Plaza will feature a Hilton Hotel and Convention Center.
All this, and not to mention, a new Navigation Center to serve the homeless, new homes on the horizon, and a possible industrial park.
Still, District 1 is lacking basic infrastructure in key areas, such as pedestrian sidewalks in neighborhoods with fast vehicle traffic. There is a need for safer routes to schools. Future park sites have been waiting for development. And the city’s homeless crisis has been highly visible in the district for more than a decade. Unsightly camps can be seen underneath highway overpasses, near railroad tracks, and along streets.
That’s the backdrop. Now it’s time to meet the candidates.
‘Already on the job’
Joel Knox is a retired, longtime Merced educator and active community advocate who believes he is in an excellent position to represent District 1 on the Merced City Council.
The 63-year-old candidate also has a catchy campaign slogan: “Opportunity Knox!”
“I’m already the person the City of Merced uses as a community contact in the district,” he says. “I’ve advocated for business, public safety, recreation and infrastructure on a regular basis for 20 years. … I’ve been doing the job without the title.”
Knox is referring to his work with the Golden Valley Neighborhood Association — a group he helped get started in 2001. He’s also been the elected chairperson of the group from the start.
“Our priority has remained the same, and it’s the same priority that I have as a council candidate,” he explains. “I’m running to make sure the residents of District 1 get their fair share of the city’s attention and resources.”
The group has a regular membership of core volunteers that meet every other month, but it can balloon to 50 or 60 people “depending if there’s a hot button issue” that comes to the forefront of local politics.
“When we first started, we had no amenities over here whatsoever,” Knox says. “We had small, corner grocery stores. And then the city wanted to put up a large apartment complex at Parsons and Yosemite Parkway, but we successfully advocated to stop that project. That led to the city proactively searching for a large supermarket to go in there instead. Eventually we were successful with bringing in Rancho San Miguel, the CVS Pharmacy, Mountain Mike’s Pizza and other shops to the site.”
Today the candidate says he wants to focus on other quality of life issues for the district, including more job opportunities for residents, housing availability, and improving the homeless situation.
“We realize we have to address housing issues,” he says, “and we have to address the impact of homelessness. But we also need to recognize that our businesses don’t have the tools to address the impact of the homeless situation. So one of the things I have been doing is reaching out to various city resources like the Restore Merced effort. We would like to make their services available in southeast Merced.”
Knox says he has the time and resources to look after the needs of constituents.
“One thing I think is important for a city representative is to be a consistent representative for their area. I can say without a doubt for the last 20 years I have been an ever present individual at the City Council meetings. The city staff knows who I am. Council members and mayors have reached out to us and attended our meetings. I am up to date about what’s going on throughout the city, as well as in my district.”
Knox is a native Mercedian and attended local schools. He grew up near Merced High but he attended Tenaya Middle School in the city’s first year of integration.
He graduated from Merced High in 1975, went to Merced College and then transferred to Chico State where he earned a BA in political science. He also received a teaching credential in government and special education.
Knox returned to Merced immediately after his higher education to pursue a career in teaching and also to look after his father who had developed Alzheimer’s.
He taught physically handicapped students at Fremont School for one year and then moved to Margaret Sheehy School — the only elementary school in south Merced at the time. He ended up teaching there for 35 years.
The candidate has also served as the elected chairperson of the Merced / Mariposa Teachers Council.
“I have seen daily the relationship between local government and schools, as well as the impacts of government policy on improving the quality of life for our residents, students and parents,” Knox said in a campaign statement. “To make progress, we need to be in the rooms where the decisions are made.”
He added, “If you want a council member who just goes along to get along perhaps you should not support my campaign. But if you want someone who will strongly represent our area’s needs when issues like housing, law enforcement, business growth and homelessness are on the table, you should vote for me.”
Knox has already received a long list endorsements from local residents, among them: Hub Walsh, past Merced mayor; John Pedrozo, past Merced County supervisor; Carmen Ramirez, Merced College Board of Trustees; Mary-Michal Rawling, past Merced City Council member; Tammie Calzadillas, assistant superintendent, Los Banos Unified School District; John Carlisle, past Merced City Council member; Pete Gonzales, owner, Pete’s Auto Body; and Mark Racob, owner, of Racob’s Automotive.
Jesse Ornelas is a man who has overcome many challenges in his younger years and has risen above to become a well-educated and successful mentor for local youth, and a determined social justice warrior for the community.
This year marks the second time, the 45-year-old candidate has put his hat into the ring for the District 1 seat on the Merced City Council. He ran back in 2016, and placed third among four candidates, with 17.1 percent of the vote in the final tally.
It was his first-ever political campaign and he admits the whole process was all new to him. This time around he says he has more support, more organization, and what he calls “The People’s Platform.”
“We always hear or experience the phrase, ‘That’s just the way things have always been.’ … Well that’s just not a good enough excuse for me anymore. I think we need to start thinking of solutions to best solve some of the problems we are facing with regard to economic growth, housing development, homelessness and our overall city budget. …
“When I see Merced’s young people of color, including the young people I work with, make great strides to get resources, and the vision they have for Merced, I’m inspired. A lot of people say that young people are the future. Well, we believe that young people are the present. They are the ones experiencing 2020 right now, and they have solutions. I choose to embrace that, and that’s why I’m running. I’m afraid that a lot of the strides that people have been working for to create change — like investment in parks, Measure Y funding for youth activities, and district elections — all of these types of forward, progressive ideas are going to take some steps back if the City Council doesn’t improve its membership.”
Ornelas is the program manager for the Youth Leadership Institute that’s part of the statewide Building Health Communities initiative. He oversees four areas, including: “Rise & Lift” and “Girls & Women of Color,” which are programs for young people of color that focus on transformation and healing; the “We’Ced” magazine program which highlights the importance of storytelling and the media; and the “Moving Foward” program that involves direct interaction with local youth who are caught up in the juvenile justice prison system.
His People’s Platform includes addressing homelessness, affordable housing development, community based economic development, and budget allocations.
Ornelas understands there are more and more homeless resources coming to town, but his focus is to hold government and nonprofit organizations accountable for what actually gets done to improve the situation. His goal is to help create a Youth Drop-in Shelter for overlooked teens who are “housing insecure” and “couch surfing” from place to place. He points to progress being made in Fresno with a similar location already in place.
The candidate says UC Merced has caused the city to grow in a way that has not been beneficial to struggling residents. “It’s impacting housing costs, rents, everything,” he says. “The city of Merced has not been able to keep up economically. … The housing sector is growing, the price of housing is growing, but we don’t have the jobs to support that growth. We need to invest in our people and get them trained, educated and ready for career-based employment opportunities. Rather than having adults with families working at fast food restaurants. Not that working at fast food places is bad, but before these jobs were for young people who earned money after school. They were part-time jobs for adults. Today, people are trying to survive off that type of work. We need some real economic development that is people friendly. … If we don’t get people ready, Merced is not going to look the same in 15 to 20 years. … Some people may see dollar signs, and see that as a good thing. … But I want to make sure that growth benefits the people not so much the developers.”
Ornelas sees a gentrification process happening in Merced with the cost of living slowly pushing struggling residents away.
With regard to the city’s COVID-19 response, the candidate says he would have liked to see more concrete leadership with strict public safety moratoriums, and a freeze on rents to aid residents and businesses.
The candidate says the current and past City Councils have neglected opportunities to invest in the city’s young people.
“Year after year, we have seen people pack the chamber, pleading for more investment in youth activities, and they are always getting their ideas shot down or put on the backburner … We need to start focusing on funding different types of projects and not just allocating a lot dollars toward law enforcement. Let’s take some of that strain off law enforcement and get some social workers out in the community, and let’s end the pipeline to prison in Merced. …
“The community violence, the drugs, the gang involvement —these are all symptoms of a community in trauma. Let’s start addressing that trauma. Lets get to the root cause of this behavior that’s endangering and hurting people in our communities. We have families who have had generational poverty and generational incarceration. … like we need to end that.”
The candidate describes himself as “system impacted, formally incarcerated.”
“If people love the good in me, they have to love the hood in me,” he says. “Being from an impoverished area of town has made me who I am.”
Ornelas is the son of Frank Ornelas and Eustolia Vierya who were raised in the farm labor camps in the Planada area. He moved to Southern California as a child and returned to the Merced area when he was in his teens. Later his father passed away from suicide after suffering with mental illness.
Ornelas experienced a troubled youth in a society “that was not equipped to help a young man who had endured the type of trauma not many survive.”
The problems followed him into adulthood, but he managed to work through Merced Adult School, and then Merced College, where he found success and served as the president of student government and founding president of MEChA, the Chicano empowerment group. He transferred to Fresno State where he earned a degree in Chicano studies and a minor in anthropology.
Ornelas is also a long time leader and organizer of the Merced Brown Berets. He has served with various nonprofits including the Health Equity Project.
He has lived in District 1 for eight years, and enjoys life there as a father in a blended family of six children, ages 4 to 25.
Louis Smith is a retired educator, bus driver and current part-time teacher through the new, online distance education model.
And at age 66, he also has a growing family with a marriage of 10 years and three young children.
They are helping him out in his latest endeavor — running a political campaign to win the District 1 seat on the Merced City Council.
It’s a modest campaign with no supporting committee, just the wife and kids. It’s pretty much Smith posting signs, handing out fliers and meeting with residents.
But Smith is very good with people, and he has an infectious smile — and a positive attitude to go with it.
He’s definitely a worthy ambassador for District 1 in southeast Merced.
“It’s a beautiful community,” he says. “We have wonderful people here who are friendly. They are very hospitable. They talk to you. You can tell right away that they are hard-working taxpayers. The whole community is just fabulous.”
The candidate says he entered the race because he was seeing some things that were not being resolved. “I can’t understand to save my soul why anybody else around didn’t see these things,” he says.
Smith’s political platform is to: 1) Maintain and improve community and police relations; 2) Transparency in the way local government works; 3) Begin construction of a railroad overpass at 16th and G Streets; and 4) Work with school boards and local businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What were local government officials thinking?” Smith asks in regard to the G Street corridor, the relatively new underpass at 23rd Street, and train movement along 16th Street. …
“You would think leaders at the time they put in the underpass would have considered G Street as a main artery throughout the ENTIRE city. There’s only one more crossing on G Street — at 16th Street — and an underpass there would have connected the city as a whole.”
Smith believes it’s unacceptable that south Merced is separated from the city because of train movement. He points out that there have been times when all of the crossings at 16th street have been blocked by a parked train. And he says a proposed new High Speed Rail station in the vicinity of the crossing — if ever built — offers no clear solution. The existing tracks are meant for freight trains, not a bullet train for passengers.
“God forbid, I’m in an ambulance one night after suffering a heart attack, and we drive up to a parked train on that line,” he says.
The candidate says the city need to be proactive about monitoring and protecting people who will be using services in and around the new Navigation Center on B Street, as well as a new affordable housing project down the street, and on Cone Avenue, where the Rescue Mission is putting up a new campus site. He would like to see partnerships with county mental health agencies so that interventions could take place if any disturbing episodes develop on the streets.
Smith says he would prefer not to take funds away from the Police Department, and even allow for more competitive wages for officers, as well as improved training and equipment.
“I would love for them to have the best of everything, but when it comes to military surplus equipment, I’m not for that at all,” he points out. “I’m not going to dedicate taxpayer money for bazookas or tanks that are outdated. I’m not going there.”
He added that more advanced training in mental health issues would be a plus for the Police Department.
With regards to “transparency of government,” Smith wants all city vehicles to be easily identifiable with large ID numbers that can be clearly seen by residents at least a half block away.
“Residents want transparency in government,” he says. “I have noticed a Public Works employee just sleeping in a city-issued vehicle, having a siesta in the middle of the day. I’m thinking, you know your tax money is paying this guy’s salary. It’s the same if I see a police car in a driveway and the officer appears to be talking to his friend for an hour. It doesn’t happen all the time. It may be a small thing. But it’s important.”
Concerning his two fellow challengers on the campaign trail, Smith has a couple of opinions.
“I think one candidate has exaggerated a lot on his position as far as bringing businesses into the city. I don’t think he was at the table when some of the city deals he talks about were struck. My opponent probably went to one or two council meetings. Other than that, it’s not really what he has built it up to be. My other opponent is an interesting guy. He did have some results following the police around and speaking up about issues. It was a good idea. It sparked interest. It put the police on notice. I give him credit for that. But as far as the rest, I really don’t know what his platform is all about.”
Smith is a native of Lynchburg, Virginia. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Lincoln University, PA. in 1982. He arrived in California in September of the same year.
He immediately began working as a substitute teacher in Alameda County from 1982 to 1990.
After that, he started to work at Grosvenor Bus Lines, a contracted service for San Mateo County, as a bus driver from 1990 to1998. While there he served as a shop steward for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1225.
During this time he attended Bay Cities Bible Institute, Oakland and received a diploma in Bible Studies in June 1989.
He started working at San Francisco Municipal Railway (SFMTA) as a bus driver in 1998.
He moved to Merced in 2000 seeking a nice, affordable community to live in; however, he continued to work in the Bay Area, choosing to commute instead.
In 2010, he married Budina Bunch of Tucson, Arizona, and they are raising one daughter and two foster sons, ages 5 to 8.
After 20 years of service, Smith retired from San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 2019. He is currently involved with home schooling and distance learning with the Weaver Unified School District.
With the remainder of his time, his goal is to be elected onto the City Council and become an “ambassador for peace and prosperity for the city.
Says Smith, “I have noticed that some of the political and government leaders in the City of Merced are not in the 21st century. They are still in the 20th century — the status quo … It’s like “Don’t bother me and I wont bother you.” I want the city to continue to be progressive, and grow.”