InterView – Sue Zwahlen

Sue Zwahlen
By Chris Murphy

For the third time in Modesto’s history, the citizens have chosen a woman as Mayor of Modesto. Needless to say, this should have happened much earlier in our history, but we are on the brink of a new era, with many challenges, political division amongst our people and last but certainly least, a pandemic that none of us has faced. There is no new normal yet, the rules have all changed, but we need to press forward to keep our community healthy and at the same time help our people and business survive for the future. Sue Zwahlen has a deep history in Modesto, her children were in the public school system along with my kids. We have a multi-cultural city that we have to move forward and engage people from all parts of Modesto. Sue served on the Modesto City Schools Board and is retired ER nurse and has seen both sides of this pandemic. We celebrate people that put their hat into the ring, to step forward to make a difference. We have a new city council make up, budget challenges and an opportunity to chart a new direction. How will we do this? Sue lives in the College area with her husband. Let’s get to know Sue and learn about her plans.

ModestoView: Growing up here in Modesto, how do you feel it is different now?
Sue Zwahlen: It’s much larger but has maintained its small town friendliness.

MV: We have just come out of one of the most divided elections in US history, what can you do to bring Modestans together?
SZ: I will do my best to do what I’ve always tried to do: serve everyone regardless of ethnicity, religion, sexual or political orientation.

I’m a Democrat, and my husband is a Republican. My mom was a Republican, and my dad was a Democrat.
My grandparents were split parties. So I’ve had experience listening to both sides and debating the issues. I know how to get along with people I may not agree with.

MV: What do you feel the most pressing issue is in Modesto?
SZ: COVID-19 recovery. After that, safety, economic development, homelessness / affordable housing and accountability.

MV: Dining and food are such a big part of Modesto, how do we help them through this without losing local businesses?
SZ: This is such a difficult time for them, to say the least. Ordering takeout helps, but not enough. We need to do everything we can to promote and support them as we’re able to open up. The RAD program and reconfiguring parking to allow outdoor options were examples of that, and I am open to anything else that will allow the industry to recover and thrive.

MV: I believe that a city that has lots of live music and performing arts will be the creative cities of the future, what do we need to do to make sure this is treated like the valuable economy that it is?
SZ: We need to promote it in every way possible, through social media, Visit Modesto, DOMO, and encouraging everyone, especially young people, to get involved. They are our future.

We oldsters remember when local high schools and other groups had local bands provide the music for dances. I miss that. I would love to see more live bands performing outdoors downtown and elsewhere. Hopefully, as the pandemic subsides, we can see a rebirth of Porchfest and other great musical events.

MV: It seems to many that government doesn’t work. What will you do to make sure that our local government does work and how will you communicate that?
SZ: I would challenge the naysayers to run for public office, help someone running, or serve the community for a while and then ask themselves if it works. Democracy only works if we all participate!

Government is designed to be deliberative and thoughtful. One person does not unilaterally make decisions for everyone. There must be discussion, debate and open, transparent communication. That’s what I intend to facilitate, in order to increase trust in our local government.

MV: Modesto’s history is very interesting, and we have a great place in the world with our Graffiti culture, our hometown heroes and our innovative industry. What do we need to do to bring this all together as part of our community brand?
SZ: Our history, especially our graffiti culture, is based on young people growing up in Modesto. We must continue to educate and remind our citizens of those times. I once spoke to a high school class about the 1960’s. One of the students said, “I wish I was alive back then.” I reminded her that, although it sounded dreamy, it was also a time of huge divisions and conflict in our country. We must share those memories, positive and negative, and do all we can to support and keep alive our Modesto traditions.

Our rich cultural diversity is also a strength that needs to be shared and celebrated often.

MV: What do we need to do to attract the young professionals, the coders, and encourage the next generation to stay or locate here?
SZ: We have an opportunity to attract people to Modesto with employees working from home. They can work from anywhere, why not Modesto? We have beautiful weather, trails, lakes, orchards and tree-lined streets. More affordable housing and promoting our downtown dining and entertainment are critical. We need to create a vibrant city that attracts everyone here! I am impressed with the many community groups and leaders who are currently working to do this.

MV: If you had unlimited budget, what would be the first thing you would tackle?
SZ: Caring for our homeless residents. As someone who has treated them for years in the ER, and seen this population explode, I can hardly bare thinking of them exposed to the elements all day and through the night.

MV: How will you translate your experience as a nurse, parent and school board member to being an efficient manager of Modesto City Council and our initiatives?
SZ: As an eight-year member of the Modesto City Schools Board, we managed over 4,000 employees, a $350 million budget, dozens of campuses with hundreds of buildings, and a geographic area larger than the city of Modesto. On a daily basis, I interacted with parents, teachers, administrators and school staff, handling both complex education issues, philosophical differences, and the very personal – and sometimes heated – concerns that parents have about their children.

In addition, my experience as an ER nurse and decades of involvement with community groups that served the homeless, poor, and ethnically diverse communities and their needs, has made me acutely aware of the complex challenges our city faces.

I truly believe that all of this has prepared me for the responsibility of running our city.

MV: What will you do to encourage volunteerism and teamwork in our neighborhoods and civic services?
SZ: Everywhere I go, I challenge everyone to identify what they are passionate about in our community and then encourage them to sign up to help. Don’t just simply talk about it – act on it!!

Plant flowers in your neighborhood garden, read to a child, volunteer at a food pantry, make calls for a non-profit, help greet newcomers at your place of worship, help clean up your park or street, or do whatever you’re inspired to do.

Just imagine, if everyone did that for only a few hours a week, what a difference it would make in our city!

MV: What is one of your best Modesto memories?
SZ: Choosing one is not easy. Growing up in Modesto, riding my bicycle all over town – way out to the orchards on College Avenue – playing at Graceada Park every summer day, visiting my grandparents on their local farms, eating fresh picked fruit from their orchards … I could go on and on. Raising our family in a friendly, safe, caring city, was important to us. Modesto provided that environment for me as a child and a parent.

MV: Describe your perfect day in Modesto?
SZ: A perfect day for me in Modesto starts out by driving through tree-lined streets to downtown Modesto for hot chocolate. I interact every day with so many people one on one, while facing the most important issues of the day head-on to try and make a difference in our community.

I enjoy spending time with my husband, children, their spouses and our ten grandchildren.

I end the day writing in my journal, expressing gratitude for all that I have and then getting a good night’s sleep, to do it all again the next day!

MV: Beatles or Stones ?
SZ: Beatles – although I was at Altamont Speedway on that fateful day when the Rolling Stones played there.

Contact Sue at<>



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About the Author:

Chris Murphy is the President and CEO of Sierra Pacific Warehouse Group and Publisher and Founder of ModestoView Inc. Chris worked globally in the cycling industry returning to Modesto in 1996. He is also the founder of the Modesto Historic Graffiti Cruise Route, Legends of the Cruise Walk of Fame, Modesto Rockin’ Holiday, the Modesto Music History Organization and co-founder of the Modesto Area Music Association. Chris is married to his artist wife Rebecca since 1985 and has two daughters Madison and Abigail, both graduating from Modesto High and UC Berkeley. He is lead singer and guitarist for his band, Third Party that donates their performances to non-profits.