'Mom, I Ran Away to Join the City Council Race!'
District 3 has historically been the most important seat on the San Jose City Council, and the issues facing downtown make the race to represent it more important than ever. But this year's campaign feels like a circus, and not the fun kind with the faux-gypsy acrobats. Grab a bag of peanuts and pull up ringside.
By Gary Singh
THE AUDIENCE, at least, is ready for the District 3 debate. They're directing questions about downtown's most pressing issues—the homeless problem, jobs, eminent domain, public transportation, the lack of a downtown hospital—to the seven candidates for the District 3 council seat gathered in the John XXIII Senior Center on San Fernando Street.
Meanwhile, here's what the candidates are doing: Manny Diaz tells the audience that anyone can become homeless at any given time and that San Jose needs to change its housing policies. Candidate Candy Russell, who can usually be spotted rifling through the free food at gallery receptions, is complaining to the audience that supermarkets don't let homeless people use the bathrooms. Candidate Dennis Kyne, a Gulf War veteran, winds up talking about greenhouse gas emissions and depleted uranium. Deputy District Attorney Sam Liccardo, former mayoral candidate Jose Posadas and Joel Wyrick, president of the Black Chamber of Commerce and former owner of Waves Smokehouse, are trying to get a word in edgewise, as Russell continues to interrupt everyone. Not present is everyone's favorite cowboy-hat-wearing rollerskater, Bill Chew.
If it sounds like a circus—well, that's exactly what it is.
But neither the circus atmosphere nor the oddball slate of candidates can change the fact that these contenders are facing a race defined by downtown's hot-button issues, one of which is the toxic stew of drugs, cruising, violence, prostitution and anarchy that emerges on Santa Clara Street every Friday and Saturday night. Another is the ever-growing suburban apathy toward downtown in general. It will take more than being a business owner, a career politician or a district attorney to prove to voters that they can handle the demands of District 3. Are any of these guys up to it?
Who Wants This Job?
In case you don't go downtown, here's what usually transpires on Santa Clara Street on a Friday or Saturday night: From the HP Pavilion eastward, throngs of cruisers drive back and forth down the street, and the area has become a destination spot for crime of all kinds—a lot of which goes unreported. And when the clubs empty out in the wee hours of the morning, it only adds to the agitation. Basically, it's the folks who aren't going to the clubs who are causing all the problems, and a majority of these folks are not even from downtown San Jose to begin with.
Whoever becomes city councilmember for District 3 will inherit these issues and will be held accountable if he or she ignores it.
"Most of the folks who go to the clubs are not the problem," says Deputy District Attorney Sam Liccardo. "It's the people who can't get into the clubs that's the problem. And it's kids. We need to be willing to enforce the curfew. Now, that may raise issues in terms of how the police are enforcing the law. And it may mean we need to be diligent about tracking the demographics of exactly who's there and who's getting stopped. But we should not be handcuffing the police from doing their jobs at keeping kids off the street past 11:30."
Manny Diaz's answer is a lot more, well ... general. "My highest priority is obviously to make our downtown the best place it can be, for people that not only work downtown, but also live downtown, especially if we're looking at additional people living downtown," he says. "So, I want to make sure it's a safe community for everybody. I'm going to work with our community leaders and those stakeholders that are involved with all the activity that occurs in our downtown. And also working very closely with our local law enforcement to make sure there's going to be adequate safety measures for that."
He also noted that downtown needs more retail and other activities for teenagers and families. "We don't have enough venues for our young people," he said. "So that's one of the areas I would definitely want to explore."
In a bit more offbeat approach, Joel Wyrick says that cruising is a part of Latino culture and that you can't necessarily blame the problems on every single person who's cruising. "Being from downtown forever—20 years east side and 20 years downtown—I used to cruise too," he said. "And it wasn't a gang thing ... we all agree it's the 5 percent [that are causing problems], it's not the 95 percent."
So what's the solution?
"I am all for going back to a no-cruising zone," he said. "Literally identifying cars. We as a community can decide how often that car can drive the street before we cite him. We don't want to impact our residents ... I do not think it's racial profiling."
Candidate Dennis Kyne says it all begins with solving the homeless problem, and that the criminal activity taking over Santa Clara Street stems from the fact that the criminals are deliberately blending in with the homeless population.
"From a battlefield perspective, they're using the homeless people as a shield," he says. "If we can take care of some of the [homeless population] and clear it out of our vision, then we'll really be able to identify those pimps that are marching around down there. Some of those pimps are professionals at blending in."
Making Downtown Matter
Perhaps an even more pressing problem facing downtown is that a lot of people in other San Jose neighborhoods don't even care if there actually exists a downtown or not. Every time a showcase project occurs downtown, they complain and say things like, "Why are we still spending money downtown? Why aren't we spending money in my neighborhood instead? I don't care about downtown. I never go there." Call it anti-urban apathy if you must. But whoever becomes city councilmember for District 3 will be expected to make a case to the rest of San Jose about the importance of having a strong central city core that benefits all San Jose residents.
"As a city councilman I'd like to overcome the perception some have that San Jose is always trying to become something else," says Liccardo. "We've got to take pride in what we have that is unique in downtown San Jose. We don't have big-box retail like Santana Row and we may not be as cute as Los Gatos, but we're much more hip. We've got culture and art that they don't have. We've got San Jose Stage Company, we've got MACLA. We've got unique, cutting-edge artistic expression. We've got a great public university and we've got diversity. And we need to celebrate those elements and market them."
He won't get any argument from his opponents.
"The difference between downtown and the other [districts] is that this is something that we are all a part of," says Wyrick. "Downtown is not just for the residents of downtown. It's for the city at large. And that's where the difference comes in. That's something that needs to be conveyed to people in the suburbs."
Kyne says that San Jose should market its downtown to downtowners first, then market it to the rest of suburbia. "One of the things the redevelopment agency doesn't even bother to do is to market their downtown to their downtown residents," he says. "They think they have to market to somewhere in Milpitas or somewhere at the end of the lightrail line to bring them in here. ... We have to remember that downtown is its own little city of a hundred thousand people and that there's 900,000 other people in San Jose that live in suburbia. And we have to treat it that way."
And he believes that San Jose has to reconsider its priorities with regard to downtown. "Even though we like Dave Cortese and Chuck Reed for pushing on the mayor, we can't be letting them in on the parking meter money for downtown," Kyne says. "We'll use that to clean up the [neighborhood]. They're spending all the resources that downtown generates and using 'em out there [in the suburbs] for other things."
As the spectacle that is the District 3 race weaves its way toward the finish line, it's hard not to throw your hands into the air and ask: What does it all mean? For example, Candy Russell is the latest candidate pronouncing that she won't try to raise any funds. You have Wyrick, who always carries on about what a big jazz fan he is. He even includes that in his bio, as if it had anything to do with anything. You have Kyne, who keeps mentioning that he has the endorsement of San Jose's Ambassador of Jazz, Eddie Gale. And then there's Bill Chew, who has an irritating habit of following a journalist down the street for 10 minutes, talking the journalist's ear off, while the journalist is walking to go get some lunch. In any event, one just has to ask what the candidates think about the freak show this race has become. Does it make it more difficult to run a campaign?
Not according to Liccardo. "Our message is the same no matter who we're running against," he says.
Wyrick thinks it's a mistake for District 3 voters to treat their candidates as a joke, or for a District 3 candidate to act like one.
"Whoever is the leader of D3," he says, "they better be a leader among the leaders. ... This is the most powerful district in San Jose, so I don't expect this person to be at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to rest of the city council members." He says he's been a leader his whole life.
"District 3 has a very diverse group of candidates," Diaz says. "It's a crowded field. It's one of the busiest districts, by far, in San Jose. And there's a lot of activism, there's a lot of neighborhood groups involved, and there's a lot of activity, so it definitely doesn't surprise me that there are so many people that are interested in District 3."
But he says it won't change his campaign. "You have to get your message out to the voters and hopefully there's a good turnout come June."
Kyne says he was frustrated with the circus atmosphere of the forum sponsored by the Horace Mann Neighborhood Association at the Senior Center.
"Candy was talking about the toilets," he recalls. "Manny was saying he's the only candidate who's ever won an election. And he created this adversarial thing right off the bat. ... It really felt like a circus. ... There was a little old lady in the corner, and she wanted to know if the bus would get her to the hospital or not. [The other candidates] were not ready to even think about that. They're thinking about whether the zoning laws are correct or not. I don't even want to talk about zoning laws. That's like a byproduct of being a councilman, it's not my mission in life. ... [The other candidates] are just implying that the correct rhetoric or the politically correct conversation is about zoning, about developers, about eminent domain and about stuff like that, and kind of forgetting—like Candy is saying—that some suckers around here are just looking for a place to go to the bathroom. That's the reality of it, really."
Another reality is that this council seat is possibly the most important. The last four District 3 councilmembers have all run for mayor; two of them, Tom McEnery and Susan Hammer, won. The other two, David Pandori and Cindy Chavez, are currently campaigning for the city's top job.
The winner of the District 3 race is going to have to be a relentless optimist. He or she should realize that San Jose as a whole has a massive amount of potential, despite all the missed opportunities. Since the engines are just beginning to start, there's only one thing left to say regarding this race: Let the circus begin.
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