Merced County Times Newspaper
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Snapshot emerges of new leaders after election 

Duarte, Soria pull ahead, so do Xiong, Ambriz after slim early margins

Editor’s Note: The following story has been updated to reflect election results released  Thursday (Nov. 17).


The fate of a few races that were too close to call on Election Night became more clear this week after the county updated what appears to be the last big ballot drop — a total of 22,000 ballots — on Monday night.

The canvass remained in progress as of Wednesday morning; however, county officials reported to the Times that there were only an estimated 1,313 ballots countywide remaining to be processed. They expect one final update of official results upon certification of the election. The county has until Dec. 8 to do that.

So who’s sitting pretty, and who’s still biting nails?

Well, John Duarte has pulled ahead of Adam Gray in the race for the open 13th Congressional District seat that represents Merced County as well as parts of Stanislaus, Madera, Fresno and San Joaquin counties. Duarte had 50.3 percent of the vote, and Gray, 49.7 percent, with a difference of 827 votes as of Thursday night.

The race between the incumbent State Assemblyman and Democrat from Merced and the Republican head of a family-owned tree nursery in Hughson has been closely watched and remains key to the struggle for power in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In State Assembly District 27, which includes Merced County and parts of Fresno and Madera counties, Esmeralda Soria of Fresno appears to be pulling ahead of Merced native Mark Pazin with 50.9 percent of the vote, compared to Pazin’s 49.1 percent. The difference was 1,581 votes.


Xiong vs. Shelton

Another close race that was separated by only one vote on Election Night featured political newcomer Fue Xiong and incumbent Merced City Councilman Delray Shelton.

On Monday night, Xiong pulled ahead by an impressive 130 votes, and now holds a lead of 51.8 percent of the vote compared to Shelton’s 47.9 percent in the race for the District 6 seat.

A portion of District 6 was affected by a County Elections mishap that sent out ballots with the wrong names of City Council candidates. Correct ballots were sent out to those voters affected, but it was unclear as of Wednesday morning how many of those corrected ballots have been turned in. If the race does narrow again, it’s possible both candidates will contest the results or even a runoff could be held.

Xiong has been critical of the election process in posts on his Facebook page.

“Let’s stay vigilant and ensure that ALL ballots are counted,” he wrote. “We need to guarantee that all wrong ballots were corrected and properly counted, and investigate why voting centers closed early and turned away voters. Let’s remind the county to be transparent as we approach the certification date.”

Xiong describes himself as a Thailand native who grew up in Merced as a member of a poor family of refugees. He said he doesn’t have allegiance to special interest groups, though more than $33,000 flowed into Merced as an independent expenditure from the statewide PowerCA Action to support Xiong’s candidacy. The group also advertised for paid local election volunteers.

The incumbent Shelton — who works in administration at the Merced County Sheriff’s Department — was supported by local groups such as the Merced Boosters and Citizens for a Better Merced.

Some candidates and political pundits said the future of the current Measure C public safety tax was in the balance with regard to the results of the Merced City Council elections. A majority of the current Council (four members) was in favor of putting an extension of the measure on this year’s ballot to secure critical funding for Police and Fire that is due to sunset in 2026. However, those leaders needed a 5th Yes vote for approval, and they didn’t get it from the other three Council members.

Looking forward: Candidate Xiong opposed the idea of Measure C during recent City Council debates. In the two other Council races, the clear District 1 winner, Ronnie De Anda, has been a Measure C supporter, as is the apparent District 4 winner, Shane Smith.

If current leads hold, that would leave at least two apparent Measure C-deniers on the Council (Xiong and Jesse Ornales), along with Bertha Perez, who in the past has flip-flopped on the issue. In this scenario, solid Measure C supporters would include Smith, De Anda, Mayor Matt Serratto, and Council member Sarah Boyle.

It’s possible the status quo regarding Measure C will remain unchanged after all the campaign rhetoric.


Smith is optimistic

Candidate Shane Smith is leading two other challengers, Casey Steed and Javier Fuentes, in the race for the District 4 seat on the Merced City Council.

“I think we ran a really strong campaign and it’s bourne out in the final vote tally. Like all candidates in Merced County, we were kinda holding our breath to see this last big voterupdate was going to be. Our margin over the second place finisher held. We think we have done basically everything we needed to do to win.”

On Wednesday, Smith was ahead of Steed, in second place, by 637 votes, leading Smith to believe there was simply not enough votes left to be counted that would threaten his insurmountable lead.

The Times asked Smith about the future of Measure C with the apparent new council members.

“I don’t know where the rest of the council will stand on the extension of Measure C,” he said. “Bertha has come out in support of public safety. She just says she wants to get Measure C right. … Fue, I think, you have to ask him in the context of him being on the Council. I wouldn’t put it past the Council to put Measure C on an upcoming ballot — perhaps in some modified form. I don’t think the conversation is over at all. And if the Council is not going to do it, I just spent 3 to 4 months talking with residents, and I think a Citizens Ballot Initiative would be very well received. And the new Council needs to be aware of that.”

Smith said he hopes to achieve some unity on the council with previously hotly debated issues, including increasing the city’s housing supply, adding affordable housing units, and promoting apprenticeships and more jobs for younger workers in the region.


Ambriz vs. Murphy

In Atwater, the City Council race between incumbent Danny Ambriz and James Murphy has been extremely close, but earlier this week, Ambriz pulled ahead by 47 votes. He currently holds 51.7 percent of the vote total.

This one between a sitting City Council member and a local plumber who has held various positions on city committees is still pretty darn close. Stay tuned to see who wins.


Voter Turnout

According to the latest county numbers, the overall voter turnout numbers are now listed at 44 percent, or 54,850 ballots cast from a total of 124,665 registered voters in the county.


The Diversity Front

If current leads hold, the Merced residents who show up at City Hall for City Council meetings will be looking up at the dais and facing three white leaders, three Latino leaders, and one Asian leader.

In contrast, the parents and educators who show up to elementary school board meetings of the Merced City School District will be addressing, in part, two black leaders and one native of India — perhaps a historical first for the district. They will join board chair Birdi Olivarez-Kidwell and Jessee Espinosa who are in the middle of their terms.

The Times projects incumbent Allen Brooks, a local Realtor, will hold onto his Area 3 seat, and Beatrice McCutchen, an MCSD employee, will win the open Area 5 seat. Priya Lakireddy, a parent who was critical of board procedures during Covid, ran unopposed for the Area 1 seat.


Still too close

One race that has tightened up is the one involving the Area 2 seat on the Merced County Board of Education. Tim Razzari holds a narrow lead of 107 votes, or 40.5 percent of the vote, over Mayleth Quintero Madrid.

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