Features & Columns

Gilroy Mayoral Race Gets Weird

Gilroy's race to become mayor turns nasty, forcing Don Gage to come home
Don Gage GUESS WHO'S BACK: Don Gage, standing in front of Gilroy's Old City Hall, says he wants to return to his former job after seeing an ugly start to the mayor's race.

A former meth dealer and a sly, polished attorney fight to become Gilroy's next mayor. Neither is favored to win, but their bizarre relationship and public trash talk have captivated the attention of voters in the southern-most point of Santa Clara County.

Local law requires Gilroyans to register their home alarms with police, because of numerous false alarms. Knowing this, Councilman Dion Bracco—the former drug dealer turned towing magnate—filed a public records request on the home of his council colleague Perry Woodward. The records request showed past bills and proof of no false alarms at the house. Not exactly exciting stuff.

In a phone interview, Bracco claims "someone" told him to look into a nameless address because he'd find a surprise. By the time the phone clicks, though, Bracco's story changes several times. He finally says he acted alone and made the request to lay a trap for Woodward, an attorney who practices real estate, commercial and technology law in San Jose.

Bracco also claims another "someone" told him Woodward hired an investigator to dig into his past and was sharing the dirt with the local newspaper's editor-in-chief, Mark Derry of The Gilroy Dispatch. Suspecting collusion, Bracco says he filed the request, expecting Woodward and Derry would catch wind of it.

"I wanted to know what they had and how they were going to use it," Bracco says. "Then him and Derry went for the bait; they showed their hands."

Ironically, those cards may flush Bracco's chance to become mayor. A Dispatch article published in February detailed Bracco's 1990 felony conviction for possession and sale of meth. The article came two months after Gilroy's police chief, Denise Turner, and the city administrator visited Woodward's home to inform him of Bracco's PRA request.

Woodward—who endorsed Bracco during the last election in 2010 and whose former campaign manager, Andrew Russo of Salinas-based Paramount Communications, now works for Bracco—laughed at his opponent's "fairy tale."

"It's just comical," Woodward says. "Was he lying then, now or every time he talks? He just can't be trusted."

Derry echoes those sentiments in between chuckles.

"That's the most wild fantasy conspiracy theory that you could possibly concoct in Gilroy," the paper's editor says. "If everyone knew about his past, then it isn't dirt. This whole thing has been spun, but it's ultimately up to the voters, and we're not going to not print that story once we know about it."

But there is another conspiracy theory in Gilroy, this one about the relationship between Woodward and Derry. A common saying in town is, "When you pull for Perry you get Derry," and why the story broke in February raises questions. A source close to the situation says the paper's editor first heard of Bracco's past in early 2010 and corroborated it with court records a few months later. The source says Derry then sat on the story for more than a year.

The meth story seems to split Gilroy's residents. Many longtime residents and those close to Bracco, 54, already knew. Even Ron Kirkish, an outspoken anti-drug crusader in the community, backs Bracco for mayor.

None of this matters to some Gilroyans, though. Former City Administrator Jay Baksa says he was shocked to learn of Bracco's conviction and wonders why he didn't divulge his past when he first ran for office in 2003.

That wasn't illegal, though, because Gilroy's charter does not require candidates to disclose crimes committed in the past. City Hall employees must divulge felony convictions during the application process, but state and local laws allow felons to run for and hold office as long as they've completed parole and are registered to vote.

Outside this lawyer-trucker fracas sit two other mayoral candidates: a chatty doctor and a seasoned politician who thinks he needs to save the city from the other three.

Councilman Peter Arellano, a physician at Kaiser Permanente, usually wins much of Gilroy's Latino electorate. (Gilroy is about 50-50 Latino and white, according to the Census Bureau.) But the left-leaning councilman—who did not return multiple emails and phone calls—is known for lengthy platitudes that often lead to eye-rolling on the dais.

"Bracco and Arellano are simply not qualified to be mayor, to put it frankly," Woodward says.

But Don Gage is.

Coming Home

"There's just so much bickering and nastiness going on, and for our town, a small town, that's kind of embarrassing," Gage says in his usual cool tone as his dogs bark. The 30-year political vet hushes them with a quick command.

Gage first sat on Gilroy's council in 1981 and served two terms as mayor from 1991 to 1997. He also represented Gilroy as a Santa Clara County supervisor and now serves as the director of the powerful Santa Clara Valley Water District. If he wins in November, Gage will leave the water district one-and-a-half years into his four-year term.

Aside from ending the council's skullduggery, Gage says he wants to further restructure Gilroy's building fees to encourage development. In October, the council approved a 25-percent reduction in some development fees for residential builders. Still, the city has one of the country's highest fee levels. Developers pay between $50,000 and $60,000 in fees to build an average home in Gilroy.

Knowing this, people at City Hall suspect Gage is running to save his close developer friend John Filice, manager of the Glen Loma Group, which has been at a standstill of sorts with the city since the council lowered development fees.

Filice says he is waiting for the economy to rebound before building a $750-million development of 1,700 homes and acres of infrastructure on the city's western edge—a mammoth development for a town of only 50,000 people. But Glen Loma plans to address the council to possibly recoup about $250,000 it claims it overpaid based on the old fee structure. And even though the development agreement the group signed with the city gives it the right to postpone building until economically feasible, the empty swath of land still rubs officials the wrong way.

As an old friend of Filice, a Gage-run Gilroy could potentially corral City Hall to dispense with the bad vibes and fees, according to one of Gilroy's councilmembers. Gage and Filice vehemently deny any scheming.

"Whatever disagreement they have with the city will be resolved before I get in office," Gage says, "and if it takes them longer than that to resolve the (fee) problem, then we've got another problem.

"I'm not going to sell out for $250," he continues. "And how many votes can the Filices even garner? Only one lives here, and if you want to buy me off, you better have millions and millions, because I'll need it for the attorneys."

Filice also dismissed any dubious connection between the project and Gage in an email.

Outgoing Mayor Al Pinheiro, who was first elected to the council in 1999 and has served as mayor since 2003, will not seek re-election. He says he wants to concentrate on his insurance and travel businesses. But the crowded field has left him unsure who to endorse.

"Until Don Gage came into the picture, I was supporting Dion, and now that they are both running, it makes for a difficult decision, and at this time I am endorsing both until I look into things further and meet with both of them," Pinheiro wrote.

Gage, a Republican, points to his lengthy track record as proof he's more qualified than the other candidates. Plus, people were stopping him in public and asking him to run, he says. As for Bracco's sticky situation, Gage says he thinks the man's past is just that, and Bracco's inclusion in the race will just give voters more of a choice. (Bracco could also split votes while name recognition surely won't hurt Gage.)

"Bracco didn't compel me to run," Gage says. "I don't run against anybody; I run for the position. And I don't run negative campaigns." In Gilroy, plenty of others seem to already have that covered.