AFTER 16 years of serving as a trustee at the East Side High School District, J. Manuel Herrera concedes that's he often asked why he hasn't yet stepped up to a higher political office.
After all, aren't school boards meant to launch local political careers? Even fellow East Side trustee Craig Mann, notoriously unelectable for wider office in Silicon Valley, managed to make the leap to a higher office by running virtually unopposed for a vacant county Board of Education seat this year (he was opposed only by a wooden post). Herrera has had two previous attempts to make the jump. In 2000, he threw himself into the District 4 City Council race late and got trounced by eventual run-off finalists Chuck Reed and Kansen Chu. This year, he dropped out of the San Jose mayoral race early after Michael Mulcahy and David Pandori jumped in.
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Neither result bodes particularly well for Herrera's political future in the valley, but remarkably, he hasn't given up. Instead, he's making another run for the District 4 seat recently vacated by Mayor-elect Reed. Ironically, the March 4 balloting puts him up against Chu again, as well as the Reed-endorsed Hon Lien.
Herrera says those who believe he's a political novice who can't rise above the school board scene have underestimated him.
"I chose to dedicate myself to work on the East Side," says Herrera. "While others have sought higher office, I've sat back and gone to a deeper level of contribution. ... I came to realize that I had a deeper passion that had less to do with advancing in the political system and had more to do with deepening my understanding of what public service can be."
That may not explain his past failures, but Herrera says the time is ripe for him to move on and up; he believes the leadership of new Superintendent Bob Nunez has turned around the normally tumultuous East Side district.
Indeed, it's Herrera's negotiation of East Side's tumult that provides the most clues on how the longtime trustee would perform in a higher public office. He likes to point out that, despite the fact that the East Side presidency is normally a rotating post, his colleagues have elected him president four out of the last five years because of his ability to mediate the strong-willed confrontations on the board.
The last such confrontation, however, didn't go so well. That incident, which led to the recent censure of trustee Patricia Martinez-Roach, provides a look at Herrera's style of dealing with political turmoil, something the City Council has seen plenty of in the last year.
During a vote about whether or not high school seniors who didn't pass the high school exit exam should be allowed to walk onstage with their fellow seniors, Martinez-Roach was especially insistent that they should. Board members Craig Mann and George Shirakawa voted against her, which she expected. But when Lan Nguyen, a third board member, voted with Shirakawa and Mann, Martinez-Roach become emotional and publicly reminded Nguyen about his own immigrant background and asserted that the exit exams disproportionately affect students who speak English as a second language. Martinez-Roach's outburst was politicized by Shirakawa and Mann, who both called for a formal investigation into her conduct to determine whether she broke any laws or board policies. Herrera, who was on Martinez-Roach's side on the issue, was adamantly against the outside investigation, feeling the board members were escalating the issue unnecessarily. He was outvoted and the investigation was carried out. It cleared Martinez-Roach of violating any laws or policies; Martinez-Roach's opponents reacted by calling for a vote on whether or not she should be censured by the school board.
This time, Herrera ended up siding with Martinez-Roach's opponents.
"When it came for censure vote, at that point I was struggling," says Herrera to explain his about-face. "I knew that the censure vote was only partially about the specific issue; in fact it was an accumulation of years of a certain type of behavior [by Martinez-Roach] that had driven the board to its edge. The question was, Will she ever have a consequence for her behavior? ... When they called the vote, the persons on my right, George Shirakawa and Lan Nguyen, [voted to censure], and so did Craig Mann, and I skipped a beat and decided that I would support the board majority, and I weighed in with the rest of the board."
Herrera has what can be described as a quirky political philosophy; a devotee of the prolific integral theory philosopher Ken Wilber (best known for teaming up with Princeton professor Cornel West on a commentary on the Matrix series of movies), Herrera says he wants to heal political divides by honing in on the human potential of all individuals—or, to use a term that Herrera uses frequently, the "heart-spirit" of every individual.
It sounds kitschy, yes, but Herrera's dead serious. He often draws comparisons to John Vasconcellos, who has been trying to change politics for the better through his John Vasconcellos Legacy Project since he left public office, and he accepts the comparison with a caveat: he shares Vasconcellos' trust in the idea that individual potential can transcend polarization, but differs with Vasconcellos' stridently secular approach to tapping individual potential. Herrera is the son of migrant Catholics who converted, early in Herrera's life, to the Pentecostal tradition; in other words, he grew up a holy roller and can still recall his family attending an Oral Roberts tent revival at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds when Herrera was still a child.
"I am by nature drawn to spiritual life," Herrera says. "To this day, I have a very deep sense of empathy for the Religious Right. I don't feel a sense of separation from those people who live by those values and principles. I understand the depth that there is in the simplicities that are traded in the public forum."
Herrera, who attended Barak Obama's seminal speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, likens himself, in some ways, to the senator. "I brought the sign that I was waving [at the convention] home because I knew I witnessed something historic," Herrera says. "He knows that it's not about him. He's a stand-in for a deep hunger for a more authentic politics, for more authenticity of self in the public process. Rather than come at it from a rational, realistic perspective and question its viability, I think that the [question] really is, Can we at least allow the possibility for something new to stir and emerge in our communities today? And that there are more people ready for that seems apparent to the insiders in the system."
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