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Mayor's race outcome still pending

Officials begin counting thousands of mail-in ballots

By Mary Lynne Vellinga - mlvellinga@sacbee.com

Last Updated 4:26 pm PDT Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Story appeared in MAIN NEWS section, Page A1

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Kevin Johnson speaks to supporters at election party in Oak Park

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Video: Heather Fargo

The outcome of the Sacramento mayor's race remained in limbo Wednesday as Sacramento County elections officials began the painstaking process of counting thousands of mail-in ballots turned in at the last minute.

At least 15,000 such ballots remain to be opened in the city of Sacramento, and perhaps thousands more, said elections spokesman Brad Buyse.

The question is whether those ballots will deliver either Kevin Johnson or Mayor Heather Fargo a majority of the vote, which would avoid a runoff in November. At the moment, Johnson is leading Fargo 47 percent to 40 percent.

"At this point, it's just too early to tell," Buyse said. "Obviously this is a close contest. Kevin Johnson is just a few percentage points away from winning 50 percent plus one."

At the same time, officials said it would be difficult for either Johnson or Fargo to make up enough ground to avoid a runoff.

"What we do know is that trends usually hold," said Yolo County elections chief Freddie Oakley.

With all precincts reporting, Johnson had 47 percent of the vote, compared with 40 percent for Fargo. Bounty hunter Leonard Padilla led the vote tally among the remaining five candidates with 6 percent of the vote.

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent, the two leading vote-getters will face one another again in Nov. 4.

Elections officials should know in a week to 10 days if Johnson and Fargo will need to go head-to-head in a runoff.

"We will start to process the vote-by-mails in the next few days," Buyse said Wednesday. "We will have to verify the signatures on them, open them up, take out the ballots and start processing them. That should start Thursday or Friday. The election is definitely not over until all of those votes are counted for that election."

Loud cheers erupted at Johnson's election night party Tuesday night every time new results were posted on the flat screen TVs positioned around the 40 Acres Art Gallery, part of the business complex Johnson developed in Oak Park.

Taking the microphone at just after 11 p.m., Johnson stopped short of declaring victory.

"We need to get another 3 percent, which is going to be difficult to do, but it can be done," he said. "If for some strange reason we do not get 50 percent, we're just getting warmed up."

Despite the relatively low number of votes cast Tuesday, Johnson said "it is very clear tonight that Sacramento has embraced change."

"Sacramento said we want a leader to take us in a different direction," he said. "They're speaking very loudly and clearly tonight."

Fargo arrived at her party at Vallejo's restaurant downtown and she told reporters she is prepared for a runoff.

"All campaign limits go back to zero tomorrow, and I'll get back to fundraising and do it again," Fargo said.

Fargo spoke to her supporters at 11:30 p.m. and took an upbeat position about the future.

"It looks like we're heading into a runoff," she said. "I've been outspent 3-to-1 against a well-known celebrity and I'm pleased to be here."

Fargo picked up Padilla's endorsement Tuesday night and said she expects to receive backing from other candidates eliminated Tuesday.

If there's a runoff, Fargo said, she'd be calling on Johnson to show up for more debates. In the primary campaign, he appeared in only two televised forums with the mayor.

Fargo's party was marred by a strange event, the sudden collapse of a huge limb from a sidewalk tree. It fell on the roof and patio at Vallejo's restaurant. People were dragged out from under the tree, and they were later icing their injuries.

One woman was taken away on a stretcher in an ambulance.

Former city Fire Chief Julius Cherry helped with the rescues. The mayor and a smaller group of her supporters moved to her campaign headquarters on I Street.

Tuesday's voting followed one of the most spirited and closely watched mayoral campaigns in Sacramento history - a drama featuring celebrity glitter, character attacks and heavy spending.

Johnson, a former NBA star turned developer and educator, lent his own campaign $500,000 and brought Magic Johnson to town for a fundraiser. His campaign blanketed Sacramento with political mailers and ran TV and radio commercials.

Throughout the campaign, Johnson said he wanted to take Sacramento to another level - attracting new businesses and pushing through downtown development projects with his power of personality.

According to campaign finance records, Johnson raised about $1 million to try to wrest the mayor's mantle from Fargo. She raised about $340,000.

Part of Johnson's money went to fund a large ground campaign that involved sending scores of young campaign workers into neighborhoods to get out the vote. Johnson himself said he walked precincts nearly every day of the campaign.

About the writer:

  • Call The Bee's Mary Lynne Vellinga, (916) 321-1094. The Bee's Terri Hardy and Bobby Caina Calvan contributed to this report.

Mayoral candidate Kevin Johnson embraces campaign consultant David Townsend in Oak Park on Tuesday as they saw he was leading in early returns. José Luis Villegas / jvillegas@sacbee.com

Mayor Heather Fargo waits outside Vallejo's at 11th and O streets Tuesday night. She was trailing in the vote count but hoped to qualify for a runoff. Hector Amezcua / hamezcua@sacbee.com

A supporter of Mayor Heather Fargo walks out from under a tree branch that fell onto the roof and patio at Vallejo's restaurant at 11th and O streets Tuesday during the mayor's election night event. After emergency workers arrived, one woman was taken away in an ambulance.
Watch an audio slide show of the accident. Hector Amezcua / hamezcua@sacbee.com

Fargo election night


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