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Sam Liccardo Sam Liccardo went from putting rapists and child abusers in jail to navigating the tricky political waters in San Jose's downtown District 3. Photograph by Jenifer Anderson

The Stickler

Even in his romantic life, Liccardo is a stickler for the rules. While charismatic and tall, dark and handsome, he is also a complete nerd.

Ten weeks into his first term as a San Jose city councilman, Liccardo, who is unmarried, fell in love with his chief of staff.

While office affairs might not matter in some workplaces, discreet relationships in the political arena have a decorated history of public relations disasters. Cupid's arrows derailed a promising political career in 2002, when Mayor Ron Gonzales confessed in a press conference to an extramarital affair with one of his interns while hiding it from even his closest aides.

But in early 2007, love was yet again in the air at City Hall, and Liccardo had his eye on Jessica Garcia-Kohl.

"About two and half months in I professed my undying love," Liccardo says with a sheepish smile, pausing to recall the nerve-wracking moment. "And she said, 'No, I like my job.'" Garcia-Kohl wasn't so sure she wanted to give up her job for a relationship that might not last.

Liccardo ruined any intrigue by doing things by the book. "You can have all the facts, but if I know the rules, I'll beat you every time," Liccardo recalls a professor telling him during his law school days at Harvard.

He persisted, and Kohl-Garcia gave in. At Liccardo's insistence, the couple went to see newly sworn-in Mayor Reed to disclose the unfolding relationship.

"When he first expressed interest, before we had barely held hands, he wanted to go talk to the mayor," Kohl-Garcia says. "I wasn't ready to pursue anything, because I enjoyed working for him so much. I'm thinking, 'I don't even know if we're going to be talking in two weeks, why would I want to make this public?' We hadn't even kissed. But that's his ethical side."

Kohl-Garcia soon moved over to the mayor's office, and Liccardo found a new chief of staff in Ragan Henninger.

Aside from one notable indiscretion, in which Liccardo accepted tickets to a San Jose Sharks game (which is curiously impermissible, according to city rules, because public officials can accept free tickets to any event as long as it's not sports-related), his ethical conduct has been consistent. But that hasn't always made him popular or politically savvy.

In the last year, Liccardo took several positions that he saw as principled while others wondered whether he was a step out of touch.

When the City Council had the chance to regulate the budding medical marijuana industry in San Jose, Liccardo shirked the opportunity to lead and sided with the council majority by instituting an arbitrary cap of 10 on collectives.

Liccardo pleaded ignorance on how to handle the situation—a surprise coming from someone who left the U.S. Attorney's office in San Diego because he felt the war on drugs was ineffective.

Last spring, when police and firefighters agreed to take a 10 percent pay cut, Liccardo was the lone person on the council to vote against the deal, because he said the concessions didn't go far enough to solve the city's budget woes.

Having already aligned himself with Mayor Reed's public employee pension-reform push, Liccardo's posturing only further enraged angry police officers and firefighters. Further criticism came when he joined Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen and Councilmembers Pete Constant, Rose Herrera and Pierluigi Oliverio in supporting Mayor Reed's fiscal emergency declaration.

But halfway through his second term, Liccardo, 41, has toed the line adeptly during his six years in office. His missteps have been relatively undamaging, and he has picked up numerous allies while representing the downtown district interests.

He sits in a good position to slide over a few seats to the middle of the council dais, where the mayor of the nation's 10th largest city sits. And Liccardo no longer acts coy about his interest in the job.

"A few years ago I would have said hell no," he says, "but there's a really good chance."

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