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Election Preview: Amid growing pains in Sparks, council candidates vie to move the city forward

Savanna Strott
Savanna Strott
Election 2020Local Government
City of Sparks signage

Sparks is growing. The increase in population and economic activity in the city of more than 100,000 has come with growing pains, such as rising rent and disagreements on the best way to harmonize the new with the old. 

The issues have motivated 10 candidates to seek three open seats on the five-person Sparks City Council — a job that comes with a salary of about $55,000. Each race features an incumbent with a considerably larger purse than newcomer opponents.

Although primaries are generally designed to narrow the pool to just two competitors per seat, all of Sparks’ races in the last election — mayor and two seats on the City Council — were decided in the primary because of a rule that results in a win if a candidate claims more than 50 percent of votes. 

The election on June 9 could whittle the competition, or it could produce winners five months early.

Here’s a look at the races.

Ward 1

The candidates for Ward 1, which covers Southwest Sparks and downtown, are racing to show they are the most active and on-the-ground candidate in their community. 

Incumbent Donald Abbott is looking for re-election after taking the seat in 2016, when he beat opponent Denise Lopez by a little less than 2 percent to become the first millennial and youngest person to serve on the body.

Abbott’s website says he would preserve Sparks’ heritage and history, support infrastructure and continue the work he’s been doing. He’s endorsed by the Associated General Contractors of Nevada and the Northern Nevada chapter of the NAIOP Commercial Real Estate Development Association. 

In the first quarter, he raised $6,165, with more than $4,000 of that coming from donations of $100 or less and his biggest donation of $1,000 coming from Tryke Companies, which produces cannabis products. He spent almost $14,000, mostly on advertising and special events, and has more than $43,000 in cash on hand.

That’s almost $40,000 more than his runner-up in fundraising, Wendy Stolyarov, a political activist and owner of a company that provides media work and public relations for labor organizations in Northern Nevada.

Facebook has become the setting for the closest thing to a face-off between these two candidates, though neither has directly named the other.

In a post last week, Abbott described a mailer from Stolyarov as “dirty politics” employing “sinister tactics.” The mail piece in question dedicated half its space to detailing “problems” of Ward 1, including allegations that the city council “failed to protect Sparks seniors from COVID-19” and that Abbott “won’t stand up for Ward 1” with references to several news articles.  

“This is just awful to say and incredibly disturbing that someone running for local office would say something so disgraceful and misleading,” Abbott said in the post. “As much as this person wants to divide and tear us down, Sparks is a strong and proud community. I know this because, unlike this person, I have lived here my entire life.”

The rest of Abbott’s post focused on council actions he said helped the community. 

In a response post the following day, Stolyarov, who has lived in Northern Nevada for 10 years, posted the mailer in question and asked voters to make up their own minds about it. She touted her own volunteer experience and endorsements from organizations such as the Northern Nevada Central Labor Council. She said leaders must be accountable, and that Abbott could have spent his campaign funds on purchasing masks for seniors and frontline workers and still would lead the money race.

“I wish that the incumbent had been half as motivated about stopping a single issue on this piece of mail as he was about the mail itself,” the post read. “If he were, maybe I wouldn't have had to run in the first place.”

Stolyarov’s first race was in 2018 when she ran for mayor and got the second highest share of the votes with 16 percent, losing to Mayor Ron Smith with 61 percent. Prior to that, she was the legislative director for the Nevada Libertarian Party during the 2017 session and a field organizer for NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Her campaign materials market her as a “progressive Democrat.” If elected, her website says she would work on prioritizing diversity, supporting local unions and workforce training and developing affordable housing in light of the more than 40 percent increase in rent over the past six years in the Reno-Sparks region. Stolyarov, who described herself as pansexual on Twitter, also would be the first openly LGBTQ+ member of the Sparks City Council.

Stolyarov’s biggest donors are the White Rabbit PAC, which has donated $71,000 to mostly Democratic candidates in Nevada since 2012, with $2,000 and the District Council of Ironworkers with $1,000, making up half of the almost $6,000 she raised in the first reporting period. She spent about half of that on advertising and consultants and has $3,790 cash available. Her endorsements include the Culinary Union and the LGBTQ Victory Fund.

Candidate Kristine Grimes, a retired civilian employee of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, has also been trying to show voters that she is on-the-ground literally: Grimes has been walking, scootering and riding her bicycle throughout Ward 1 with campaign signs and tracking her journeys on Facebook. 

Her Facebook page says that she would focus on public safety, infrastructure and civilian services and retaining businesses if elected councilwoman. She also vows to donate her first paycheck to five underperforming schools. 

Grimes reported raising no money in the first period but spent about $100, leaving her in the red. Fellow candidate Dick Kirtley, a retired maintenance man for the City of Sparks, did not report any campaign fundraising.

Ward 3

The race for Ward 3, which mainly covers the southeast portion of Sparks, also features a well-funded incumbent facing off against a slew of political newcomers.

Paul Anderson was appointed to Ward 3 by Smith in 2018 after Smith left the seat to become mayor. This will be Anderson’s first election. 

Like Abbott, Anderson has endorsements from the real estate group NAIOP Northern Nevada and the Associated General Contractors of Nevada. His website says he is most concerned with public health and safety, specifically relating to infrastructure. 

Anderson raised just over $15,700 in the first quarter. Las Vegas businessman Dennis Troesh and Silverwind Development, which has completed millions of dollars worth of development in Victorian Square in downtown Sparks, each contributed $5,000. Most of his $9,500 in spending went to advertising and consultants.

Anderson’s $28,000 in available cash is well ahead of the rest of his competitors, the closest of which, Quentin Smith, has $1,000. A faculty member at UNR recruiting National Merit Scholarship finalists, Smith made several small loans to himself throughout the quarter to raise his $2,000, half of which he spent on advertising and consultants. 

Smith has endorsements from the Culinary Union and the Northern Nevada Central Labor Council. If elected, his website says he would like to bring a Nevada System of Higher Education institution to Sparks, recruit small businesses to the city and increase growth initiatives for Sparks that are led by civilians and experts. Employment in Sparks is expected to increase at a rate of 1.4 percent along with a population growth of 8.6 percent by 2023.

Elvira Diaz, a political activist who has lobbied for transgender rights and previously worked for Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, says on her website that her campaign focuses on affordable housing, small business needs, diversity and the needs of the Spanish-speaking community in Sparks. She raised a little over $385, spent $160 and has $200 in available cash.

Fellow challenger Andrea Tavener, who works in public information and development for the Washoe County Library System, has raised $850, spent $270 and has about $580 available.

The last candidate, Dan Ness, reported no in campaign fundraising for the first quarter.

Ward 5

With his only challenger withdrawn from the race, incumbent Kristopher Dahir will reclaim his Ward 5 seat, which stretches from the center of Sparks to the city’s most northern borders. Still, he spent close to $10,000 in the first period in advertising, consultants and volunteer expenses. He has a little over $29,000 in cash on hand.

Dahir, a pastor and administrator at a private Christian school, won the seat in 2016, beating his opponent, John Walter, by almost 3 percentage points after running unsuccessfully for the Ward 4 seat in 2014.

Disclosure: Wendy Stolyarov is the fiancée of David Colborne, a columnist at The Nevada Independent.

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