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No hanging chad, but plenty of controversy in Bay Area mayor’s race

    VALLEJO, Calif.  — Election Day turned into Groundhog Day in this waterfront city.
    First, Gary Cloutier was declared the winner by five votes and became the San Francisco Bay area’s first gay mayor. Then, a recount gave rival Osby Davis a two-vote edge, making him Vallejo’s first black mayor.
    Now, Cloutier is arguing the recount was tainted by sloppy tallying and fraud, and he wants to know how a vote for him ended up in the trash.
    And that’s just what happened after Cloutier was arrested in Palm Springs and accused of public drunkenness.
    ‘‘Yeah, it’s a wild finish. That’s just going to make it more thrilling,’’ said Al Cusseaux, a Vallejo voter and Davis supporter who showed up to see the court challenge argued Tuesday. ‘‘The right man was voted in.’’
    The race for mayor of Vallejo, a blue-collar city of 117,000 about 30 miles from San Francisco, was interesting from the start. Both Cloutier and Davis were trying to become trailblazers.
    Cloutier, 45, a former city councilman, and Davis, 62, a former county supervisor, had ended Election Day in a dead heat, and officials spent days counting absentee and provisional ballots before declaring a winner.
    While that was going on, Cloutier was arrested Nov. 18 on suspicion of public intoxication after stumbling from a Palm Springs bar and getting into a Cadillac, according to police.
    Cloutier called the incident ‘‘a mistake that I deeply regret,’’ and promised it wouldn’t happen again.
    A few days later, he was sworn in, only to have Davis request the recount.
    Cloutier says the recount was riddled with problems. At one point, Davis led by three until an absentee ballot for Cloutier was found in a pile of plastic bags.
    Cloutier calls that evidence of fraud and went to court Tuesday, unsuccessfully seeking a court order stopping Davis from taking over as mayor.
    County officials deny that there was any fraud or that a vote was tossed in the trash. County spokesman Stephen Pierce said the ballot had been erroneously set aside and both candidates were immediately informed of the find.
    The seesaw results have divided the community, said Hank A. Howard, who was among those watching Cloutier’s court challenge. But Howard, who voted for another of the four mayoral candidates, said there is one outcome everyone can agree on: Your vote counts.
    Cloutier can still contest the results in a trial and has said the issue is ‘‘far from over.’’
    After Davis was sworn in Tuesday night, Cloutier left the council chambers, but not before echoing actor and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
    ‘‘I’ll be back,’’ he said.

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