Gay Richmond council candidate Zepeda lands in a tied race

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Friday December 2, 2022
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Gay Richmond, California city council candidate Cesar Zepeda is tied with his opponent in the race. Photo: Courtesy Cesar Zepeda<br>
Gay Richmond, California city council candidate Cesar Zepeda is tied with his opponent in the race. Photo: Courtesy Cesar Zepeda

On election night, gay Richmond, California resident Cesar Zepeda was trailing in his two-person race for the East Bay city's open District 2 city council seat. His opponent, Andrew Butt, had gone so far as to declare victory that evening.

But after weeks of counting ballots in their November 8 contest, as well as Zepeda knocking on the doors of voters whose ballots had been rejected to ask them to "cure" them so they would be tabulated, the two candidates ended up in a tie with 1,921 votes each when a final tally was released November 30. After Contra Costa County elections officials conducted an audit of the vote December 1, Zepeda and Butt remained evenly split.

Thus, with neither candidate expected to call for a recount, the winner in the race could be decided as soon as today by a random draw of one of the men's names, though Zepeda told the Bay Area Reporter in a phone interview Friday it could happen on Monday.

(In a December 2 Facebook post Zepeda wrote that Richmond City Clerk Pamela Christian was out sick Friday and wouldn't be back until next week, "so the earliest that this tie will most likely be broken will be next week.")

"Definitely shocked," said Zepeda, 42, about the outcome of his race. "I want to say, in a way, it is exciting."

Because, explained Zepeda, it is proof that every person's vote matters. It was why he started contacting voters two weeks ago to ask them to cure their ballots if they had been rejected because of a missing date on the return envelope or for some other reason.

"This is really showcasing the power of the individual vote," said Zepeda, president of the West County Wastewater District board. "When I was out there curing ballots of voters and I would knock on their door and tell them your vote is important, they would give me this look of, 'That is what everybody says.' I would tell them, 'No, really, you could be the deciding factor.' Their demeanor would change at the realization of, 'Wow, I am going to make a difference.'"

Voters had until November 30 to cure their ballot. Zepeda worked up to the deadline to reach the impacted voters, even though he didn't know which candidate they had voted for in the council race.

"I totally believe every vote matters and every vote has to be counted," said Zepeda.

He told the B.A.R. he suspects his tie vote very likely came from an active servicemember based in Monterey, California that he tracked down. Reaching the man by phone, Zepeda at first suggested they meet halfway between the Bay Area and Monterey Peninsula so he could get the man's form to cure his ballot and turn it in to the county registrar. But elections staff said the voter could simply email them the necessary paperwork, which he did, said Zepeda.

"We tried to reach him several times. When I got a hold of him by phone, he said, "What can I do? I voted for you,'" recalled Zepeda.

He told the B.A.R., "The gist of the story is he is in the military, already serving his country for the right to vote. Now, he is seeing not only is he fighting for the right to vote, he is going to be the vote of difference."

The results of the council race should be certified today (Friday, December 2), said Zepeda, adding that the drawing of the winning name could happen as soon as Monday. Per the city's election rules, the city clerk must call the two candidates to appear before her at a designated time.

They will write their name on a piece of paper that is placed in an unmarked green envelope, sealed, and placed in a voting bag. Each candidate can then shake the bag, and then the clerk will draw one of the envelopes. Whomever's is picked becomes the new council member when the election winners are sworn into office in January.

Zepeda has called Richmond home since he moved there from Mexico when he was 8 years old. He had grown up in the small city of San Martin in Jalisco State.

As an adult, Zepeda became a homeowner and neighborhood leader in the city's Hilltop district. He also helped organize its Pride celebrations and launched an LGBTQ Democratic club for Contra Costa County.

He lost his first bid for a city council seat in 2016 and, three years later, was appointed to a vacant seat on the wastewater board. Rather than seek election this year to a full four-year term on it, Zepeda sought the council seat.

If he is declared the winner, he will become the first out gay man to serve on the Richmond City Council and its second LGBTQ member. The first, lesbian former councilmember Jovanka Beckles, now serves on the board for the regional AC Transit system.

Another out candidate had also run for a Richmond council seat on the November 8 ballot. But Jamin Pursell, who is nonbinary and queer, lost their District 4 race.

Updated 12/2/22 with additional information on how the winner of the tied council race will be determined and when.

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