Ben Cantu’s fifth time wasn’t a charm when it comes to getting elected to the Manteca City Council.
The retired Manteca planner appears headed for a fourth place finish in a six-person race for two seats.
Cantu is congenial, likable, and genuine.
When he ran for mayor in 2014 against Steve DeBrum, more than a few people — detractors and supporters — thought he had made a big mistake. The conventional wisdom at the time was with the retirement of longtime council member John Harris and a small field of newcomers he was a fairly solid bet to gain election if he had ran for council instead.
It’s an assessment Cantu agreed with.
So why did he run for mayor?
His answer in 2014 was simple. The mayor’s race was a bigger platform for ideas to be explored and discussed. Cantu also believes a mayor can be more effective at instigating change than a solo council member. Call it a bully pulpit if you will. It’s not that the mayor has any more power beyond running and setting the tone for the council meetings, establishing the council agenda, and making certain appointments given that Manteca is a general law city. The only way the mayor can direct policy or direct staff with a binding decision is as part of a council majority.
This time around he expressed the same sentiment in noting having a community discussion about Manteca’s needs is just as important as winning.
Perhaps to Cantu’s credit, this go-around seemed to have a more in-depth discussion of issues simply instead of making broad brush statements such as “I support public safety” and leaving it at that.
Still most candidates — especially when it came to their mailers — stuck to the modern campaign basics as provided by paid political consultants. That consists of sticking with tired political platitudes, endorsements, and personal vignettes on what makes them qualified to hold office. Fortunately they all steered clear of the fourth Holy Grail of predictable campaigns — vicious attack ads designed to twist reality and to paint with a broad judgmental brush.
Cantu was definitely the policy wonk among the six. Not inferring that is good or bad but simply pointing out Cantu tended to be more specific than anyone else about his visions and getting into forensic politics.
It is there that perhaps Cantu ran into rough water.
He has been a relatively lone — yet consist — voice in the woods on many issues that resonate with Manteca voters.
The need for affordable housing and not simply an affordable housing policy has been a mantra of Cantu’s for years. Four election cycles ago when the Great Recession and the liar loan crisis was sending home values in Manteca of the bottom to the Mariana Trench, Cantu argued it was the opportune time to make real headway into affordable housing. The response by then Mayor Willie Weatherford was considered more than reasonable by most when he said the market was taking care of the need.
To be clear on this point, Weatherford’s record puts him squarely on the side of people struggling financially. It’s just that Cantu was more plugged into the nuances that create affordable housing issues. He was right that the Great Recession and how it hammered housing prices presented a golden opportunity for proactive government steps.
A candidates’ poll conducted during this election cycle pointed out that Cantu was spot on about some things. Among them was a general belief that Manteca needs new library facilities. That said, the same poll indicated hardy anyone cared a rat’s behind about the need to build the Raymus Expressway — except for city staff, the current council majority that couldn’t work up the courage to kill it once and for all, and Cantu.
The takeaway, however, is that people were getting tired of broken or delayed promises for a whole lot of amenities such as wondering why the 100 block of South Main wasn’t repaired years ago when it first became a vehicle rattler instead of waiting for a much ballyhooed resurfacing of South Main Street that may happen next year.
It isn’t lost on people that it takes the city 13 years to deliver on a basic dog park after the council votes to proceed with it.
Cantu’s trip down memory lane about serial consultants, structured deficits, and the boom and bust cycle of city finances are fairly well on target even if sometimes he paints a simplistic picture of how it could be remedied. Most people focus on the here and now which means his repeated efforts to point to past failings — regardless of how accurate it may be — tend to roll most people’s eyes.
It’s not that Cantu is living in the past. He believes there is a clear, identifiable pattern that needs to be changed. And he has rather strong opinions on how that should happen.
The bottom line is that Cantu’s wants for the city wasn’t much different than those that also appeared on the ballot. As he pointed out at a candidate’s forum, the big difference was their perspectives, or life experiences they were coming from.
An argument can be made if Cantu shifted his campaign approach away from policy specifics and more toward platitudes to get elected and then pursued definite policies that his election chances would improve significantly.
It is more important to Cantu’s credit for him to engage the public in a conversation about their city and what they need and want.
Taking that road has come at a cost at the ballot box but it is safe to say by doing it Cantu has helped raise the bar. And who knows? Manteca still might one day get new library facilities after 20 years of unkept promises.