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Captain America's Rebellion

He's been described as the Anti-Ron and an iconoclast, but Chuck Reed just wants to do his job. Could he be in the perfect position to be San Jose's next mayor?

By Allie Gottlieb

CHUCK REED is an unlikely rebel. A respectable, button-down square, he doesn't rack up tardies, mince words, succumb to peer pressure or rely on secondhand reports. Every Tuesday, the man his peers call "Captain America" suits up in his trademark Stars-and-Stripes tie and heads into San Jose City Hall.

Unlike colleagues on the San Jose City Council who work from staff-report summaries to prepare for votes, Reed generally comes toting his own research, tireless in his pursuit to understand even the most mind-numbing topics and political slam-dunks like the planned downtown City Hall. He'll talk earnestly with ignored political gadflies and knowledgeable city staff alike. He submerges himself in user-unfriendly legalese and policy jargon and emerges with conclusions.

Then he says what he thinks. Calmly. Respectfully. And with supporting documentation.

Yes, Chuck Reed is a policy wonk--one who has quietly risen to leadership positions in the legal profession, business groups and now local government. But even those who call him Captain America may not know how well that moniker suits him.

Here's a guy who grew up poor in Middle America, applied to only two institutions after graduating from high school and ended up turning Princeton down in favor of what he saw as the greater challenge, which was the U.S. Air Force. (He later earned a master's degree from Princeton.)

The Air Force Academy has minimum and maximum standards for passing its physical fitness tests. In his second year at the academy, Reed was in such great physical condition that he "maxed" on all sections of the test and, unlike his non-Mr. Universe classmates, never had to take it again. He subsequently graduated from the academy second in his class of 750 and became a cadet wing commander, a position of high honor and ability. His daughter followed his example, and the two became the first father-daughter cadet wing commander team in Air Force history.

Even with all of his seeming overachievement, the consensus is that Reed is fair, honest and smart. Elected officials listen to him. Staff members respect him. And it took weeks to find any critics to hash out his weaknesses--personal or professional--even off the record.

The fact is, there's nothing more admirable or more annoying to normal people than a guy like Chuck Reed. And he inspires both responses. Reed's peers in the legal community gave him the top rating in Martindale-Hubbell, a 133-year-old law directory that rates attorneys based on legal ability and ethical standards. His council colleagues say things like "You're writing a story on a real live Boy Scout," as did Cindy Chavez a few weeks ago. Or, in the words of fellow Councilman Forrest Williams, "If he wants to be mayor, I think he'd do a good job."

Some City Hall insiders, however, complain that Reed's independence irritates his colleagues and undermines his policy initiatives. He doesn't act like a political pack animal, and the political power structure appears to not know what to do with him.

Question Man

Since entering office in November 2000, Reed has spoken out and voted against the council majority on an impressive list of both key and subtle issues. He's stood up against the city's use of eminent domain to take over the Tropicana Shopping Center in order to defend the property rights of the current owners. He also raised his voice against settling on certain budget priorities, exempting airport retail businesses from having to bid on contracts, bailing out the cash-drained Hayes Mansion, leasing Fairmont Hotel space to restaurant chain McCormick & Schmick and attaching labor-initiated business requirements to a downtown development contract.

But probably Reed's most visible protest vote to date has been on the issue of building a new City Hall, a pet project of Mayor Ron Gonzales and a $343 million building that, post-groundbreaking, is looking more and more frivolous as the economic world around San Jose crumbles and just-built office towers sit empty.

The original City Hall was relocated out of downtown in the 1950s, in a move that current Vice Mayor Pat Dando has called "the beginning of the murder of downtown." Nearly a decade ago, under former Mayor Susan Hammer, the City Council decided it should cut leasing costs for its scattered offices north of the city center. The council put together Measure I and sold voters on the need to consolidate city offices into a single, ostensibly cheaper downtown location. Sold to the public by backers as a cost-saving initiative, Measure I was passed by the voters in 1996.

Reed says he supported Measure I and has always supported moving City Hall downtown in an effort to save space and cost. So why, on May 14, 2002, when the council approved a Fourth and Santa Clara streets site for building a brand-new City Hall from the ground up, did Reed refuse to go along with 99 percent of the political establishment?

"I've spent a great deal of time over the last 20 years working on the rebuilding of downtown," Reed said at the council meeting before the vote. "I was the president of the Downtown Association, chairman of the board of the Chamber, and so I find it odd to be arguing against a project downtown."

Reed voted no because the budget had grown out of hand, and the site, he said, wouldn't accomplish the city's consolidation goal. "It'll be a grand building," he conceded. "But I know I'm going to have to sit there and talk about the programs and the capital facilities that we can't build because we don't have the money."

Councilmember Linda LeZotte also voted no, because she opposes the move to downtown. But the hit for opposing the mayor and his band of yes-voters has been taken by Reed, probably because he's been the most vocal critic of the status quo, and voting no--on this and dozens of other issues--has become his trademark.

Rocking the Vote

"Reed's noes are usually on higher-profile issues," notes one political watcher, explaining why he raises the ire of colleagues. "That's where a lot of people put a lot of work into it. And he's criticizing it. There are ways for you to bring up issues without publicly embarrassing people."

As a result, the mayor didn't give Reed anything for his district in last year's budget, the source says. And lifting a page from the textbook of punish-and-reward politics, Gonzales stripped Reed of his position on the powerful Rules Committee this year.

Also denied was Reed's recent request for the council to publish staff reports earlier in the week to allow more time for review on issues before they come to a vote. Word has it, the mayor and the city manager didn't want to let Reed's proposal land him in the spotlight, and other members of the council questioned whether Reed's request was purely politically motivated, i.e., designed to embarrass people for not doing their homework.

Reed dismisses criticism that he sacrificed district pork by crossing Gonzales, saying that he's gotten plenty of projects funded in his district; it just didn't come out of the last $6 million that the council routinely argues over for show.

Nancy Heckman, Berryessa Citizens Advisory Council president, is watching Reed's back. "He has been outspoken about the cost of the new City Hall and ways this could be reduced," she points out. "Someone needed to say this, and he has."

Reed and Right

Like any good lawyer, Reed says, he only wants to take positions that he feels he can defend well later. "It's really important to me to get to where I think that I'm making the right decision," says Reed, who is an attorney with San Jose's Reed, Elliott, Creech & Roth firm and practices environmental, real estate, employment and land-use law.

"And once I get to that point, I don't really care what's happening around me with other people, with the mayor or the rest of the council."

During a civic career that's spanned 25 years, Reed has paid his diplomatic dues. He's served on boards, committees and task forces, including having been appointed by former mayors Janet Gray Hayes and Tom McEnery to task forces on ballot initiatives and on the homeless in 1982 and 1987, respectively.

He repeatedly rose to leadership positions, acting as chair of the San Jose Planning Commission in 1986 and 1987, vice chair of the housing subcommittee for the city's Downtown Working Review Committee in 1988 and 1989, co-chair of San Jose's 2020 General Plan Update Task Force from 1992 to 1994, chair of the Santa Clara County Planning Commission in 1995 and 1996, and both secretary and director of the Land Trust for Santa Clara County in 1997 and 1998. He was a District 4 Community Service Honoree in 1988, and Berryessa Citizen of the Year in 1994; he founded the Sweigert Road Area Neighborhood Association in 1994 and was director of the Rotary Club of San Jose from 1996 to 1999. But listing Reed's civic participation just gets silly after a while. The cherry on his list of treats he's given back to the community includes having offered his legal services free to tenants in housing discrimination disputes and local do-gooder groups like People Acting in Community Together.

Some people are keeping score.

"Even though I'm a Republican, and Chuck Reed is a Democrat, I would still vote for him," says the new civic center's public enemy No. 1, Pete Campbell, "because he is the best leader that San Jose has right now."

Campbell bases his support of candidates on three votes: the new City Hall, renaming the airport and the Tropicana Shopping Center. "It was clear that the majority of San Jose voters didn't want those to go through. Chuck was the only one to vote against all three."

A chorus of community voices sings Reed's praise. "He learns a lot about issues," Steve Tedesco, former head of the San Jose/Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce, says of Reed, who was Chamber board member from 1984 to 1992 and is a former president. "If you sent him something--background information on an issue--he would read it. ... He's very thorough."

City Attorney Rick Doyle agrees. "It's a joy to have Chuck on the council," he says. "As a lawyer, he makes my job easier."

Scott Knies, head of the Downtown Association says, "You can take any issue to him. Certainly, he understands downtown issues. ... He gets it. He does his homework."

He earned the same sort of reputation from his stint on the city Planning Commission, where he served from 1982 to 1990, including a stint as chair in 1986 and 1987.

Councilmember Chavez says, "He's a smart, thoughtful elected official, and it's an honor to serve with him," despite the fact that her votes are often on the other side of Reed's. "I really mean that. He's a really good guy. I think he's enormously fair."

City Manager Del Borgsdorf goes further in addressing what he sees as Reed's effectiveness. "It contributes to sort of a cultural change," he says. "It raises the bar. But the changes are realized more over time."

Odd Man Out

But for all the tepid-to-warm political flattery from inside and outside the council chambers, Reed can't claim any solid allies on the council. Other councilmembers avoid signing on to his memos. "What can he do for you?" asks one insider.

"Nothing," because he has no leverage.

"He's known as the anti-Ron," says Councilmember Ken Yeager, referring to Reed's experience going up against Mayor Ron Gonzales on highly publicized issues like the weight given to the mayor's vote on budget allocations.

Ironically, Reed is wired in many ways like the mayor, who is highly disciplined and independent and as a Santa Clara County supervisor was despised by his peers for his lone-wolf initiatives and refusal to participate in collegial back-scratching.

Now that there's been an infusion of new blood on the council, the comparison may become more obvious. Yeager adds, "It'll be very interesting to see if he'll continue that, or if there will be a lot of 8-3 votes with Chuck [and perhaps Dando] siding with Ron. If he does that, it'll be very interesting to see how he carves out his separate identity."

Indeed, the council has experienced a minor changing of the guard. With the recent addition of Councilmembers Terry Gregory and Judy Chirco and the exit of veterans George Shirakawa Jr. and John Diquisto, the mayor now has fewer dependable council allies. Reed predicts that the shift on the council will "mean that my independence is a little less glaring."

It could also mean he gets some new allies, perhaps a protégé and, at the very least, some backup vocals when he questions the status quo.

Gonzales didn't return multiple requests for comment about his colleague. His spokesperson, David Vossbrink, would only say that Reed and Gonzales have been voting on the same side lately and really aren't that far apart after all.

In December, they both voted in the minority against a last-minute labor-friendly amendment to a $189 million mixed-use project agreement between the San Jose Redevelopment Agency and CIM Group of Hollywood to pay employees of the project a living wage and let the local labor council act as watchdog.

Reed acknowledges that they've shared some votes recently and is uncharacteristically shy about highlighting his criticism of the mayor on points where they disagree. He does stress, however, that for him, voting just isn't about politics and popularity, it's about doing the right thing.

Whether people side with or against him seems irrelevant to Reed. Some insiders doubt this and think it could be Reed's undoing if he decides to make a run for mayor in 2006.

Because of his history of publicly challenging the mayor on high-profile issues like budget processes, the new City Hall and power dynamics, some politicos feel certain that Reed is aiming for the mayorship in 2006.

The implication is that ambition rather than ideology underlies Reed's independent streak, unlike past council naysayers such as conservative Almaden Valley representative Lu Ryden, dubbed "Madame No" during Tom McEnery's reign, or '70s-era Councilman Joe "No" Colla.

But at this point, Reed only says he'll consider running for mayor or even county supervisor. The other option? Returning to his law practice full-time.

Does his casual indifference to the city's top job indicate a lack of political ambition on Reed's part or simply a pragmatic approach to public life? In an age when people tend to be drawn to reluctant politicians and to distrust ambitious ones, the irony is that Reed's wavering may make him a more appealing candidate to many. The question is, if ambition doesn't drive him, what does?

Pools and Planes

The decision to run or not is really in the hands of Reed's wife of 32 years, Paula, who, as a cancer-nursing specialist, works longer and harder than Reed and whom he wants to keep happy.

Reed, who as a small child lived in a Kansas housing project, now lives in an upper-middle-class house in the Eastern foothills, with a pool. Reed and his wife designed the house and landscaped the property. It has huge windows that bathe the rooms in natural light, a noticeable change of scene from his dark City Hall office.

Reed's campaign office is still set up downstairs, and in it hangs a picture of Winston Churchill, a London souvenir. One of the front windows has a bullet hole, which he leaves in place as a reminder that it was the last straw inspiring Reed to start a neighborhood group to clean up the criminal element about six years ago.

Reed pledged at his inauguration that he'd come out of his first council term with his family and integrity intact. With the family pledge, he unwittingly reinvigorated chats about the mayor's affair with a staffer and the very public division from his wife, foreshadowing the wedge between the two men that would grow.

His daughter, Kim, is an Air Force fighter pilot who flies something called the A-10 Warthog, Reed proudly reveals in his District 4 Dispatch newsletter, a review of his first 18 months in office. (Reed never flew in the Air Force, because an unidentified childhood illness kept him from passing the medical flight test. But he says he didn't want to be a pilot, because he gets airsick.)

His son, Alex, is a 19-year-old sophomore at Santa Clara University.

"I've learned so much from him," Alex says about his dad. "He's definitely the smartest person I know."

Mixed Metaphor

At casual glance, Reed would seem to be a man of contradictions. Flying makes him sick. But of all the military branches, he chose to join the Air Force. He's a jock who's taken most of his personal mottoes from the manly Air Force and the even manlier Declaration of Independence. But at home, he sews. In fact, he sewed his wife's maternity dresses when she was pregnant with Kim.

During an interview earlier this month, Reed showed off his Berryessa neighborhood with a minitour. We passed by the Penitencia Creek Trail, one of his pet open-space projects, which leads into Alum Rock Park. We passed by three deer grazing in someone's front yard. Reed talked about his efforts to push the city to buy up the land strips on the side of the road to create a safer path for bicycles.

"I hate cars when I'm riding my bike," he says. "They always try to kill me." Reed is considered one of the City Council's two top environmentalists. The other is Linda LeZotte.

Yet Reed gave his tour in his bicycle alternative of choice: a giant SUV. He is not the same kind of environmentalist, he assures me, as journalist and recovering right-winger Arianna Huffington, whom he calls "part of the wacky fringe." Instead, he takes the position that one can't attack SUV drivers for encouraging dependence on oil-producing countries like Iraq (and by extension for fueling terrorism) when all cars depend on oil in one form or another. And we're all still driving.

In a related, and also befuddling manner, news articles alternately describe Reed as a real estate attorney or an environmental lawyer, two specialties that would seem to be a world apart.

Reed has been both a litigator and a transactional attorney. He prefers transactions, he says, because litigation is a "negative force," based on confrontation. Since starting on the council, Reed has kept his law firm going, sticking with transactions, which he considers positive and creative solutions to problems.

Reed's legal career, it turns out, offers some clues to his political predispositions. For instance, in 1984 Reed unsuccessfully defended a forklift manufacturer against a products-liability suit, after a pallet struck a worker in the head, causing permanent brain damage. In 1995, Reed argued on behalf of a Santa Clara company in a light-industrial zone in its effort to ward off a Muslim community center because the new use would impose stricter pollution standards.

"I tend to be more fiscally conservative, more cautious about the use of eminent domain and respectful of private property rights," Reed says, trying to summarize the pro-business values that veer to the right of most of his labor-friendly colleagues (except sole Republican Dando).

These distinctions add a flair of platform personality, which shows up in several of Reed's dissenting votes. His December vote against amending the CIM Group deal displayed his desire to protect the developer from overreaching labor requirements. Indicating his by-the-book approach, he voted against naming the airport after former San Jose Mayor and current U.S. Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta because, he said, city policy discouraged that sort of thing.

He opposed using the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative money for blight, because he predicted it wouldn't stand up in court. He opposed spending $343 million on a new City Hall, in part because he said the city should consider cheaper options. With his votes on the Tropicana Shopping Center and an expansion of the downtown redevelopment area, he supported existing business owners over City Hall initiatives.

"I don't think it's easy to come up with a general description about where I might be politically compared to the rest of the council and the mayor, in part because I don't know where they are on a lot of issues," Reed says.

"On some issues I would fall to the right, and some I would fall to the left," he offers.

Reed supports President George W. Bush's effort to use military force to disarm Iraq. He says that he read Bush's State of the Union speech and reports of evidence that Iraq is a threat because, if there's a war, he wants to be able to say that his daughter, the Air Force fighter pilot, is there for the right reasons. He believes attacking Iraq may be the only way to avoid an inevitable repeat of terrorist acts in the United States.

Ultimately, though, Reed denies that he's a walking contradiction. Yes, he supports a Republican-led effort toward a pre-emptive strike in Iraq. Yes, he's SUV-friendly, but an environmentalist; pro-private property rights; not much of a champion for labor. (Although in December 2001, he spent $300 to attend, with two staffers, a dinner for Working Partnerships, a nonprofit workers' rights group, whose founding director is labor queen Amy Dean.)

He's a civil rights activist and pro-affirmative action; he's a feminist; and he's wary of big developments that trample on the little guy. But that's all consistent in his mind. "It's unusual because people don't usually find all those things inhabiting the same mind," he says. But his positions all jive with the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

"I don't think Chuck can be put into any category," agrees Councilmember Chavez. "I don't think he's anti-Ron any more than he's pro-Cindy. I think he's just pro-San Jose."

In what is one of his boldest--and most refreshing--stances, Reed champions public access to government and is pushing to expand what are known as local "sunshine laws" to define city policy around what information citizens can access.

He recently achieved some success on this front. Reed recommended to the city attorney that the city follow the Public Records Act and make all budget, contracts, bids, proposals, lawsuit and draft document records public unless they're exempt by federal or state law. "It appears that the city attorney will incorporate all of my recommendations into the protocol," Reed wrote in a Feb. 11 memo to the council's Rules Committee.

But while remaining engaged in ideological issues, he still maintains a Top 10 neighborhood to-do list for District 4's Berryessa, Alviso, Alum Rock, Orchard and north San Jose neighborhoods, containing chores and concerns for typical for the average councilman. His list includes fixing up creek trails, adding parks and bike lanes, boosting businesses in the Innovation Triangle area, bringing firehouses and grocery stores to the neighborhoods and improving police response time.

Left at Mississippi

Strenuously ethical and born to be mild, Reed's demeanor is calm. His ideology shows up as passion in only one area: racial discrimination. And Reed reveals a very personal connection to the issue of racism.

Reed's grandfather, he says, was a Baptist preacher in Mississippi. Ever since visiting his grandfather in 1960, Reed says he's been trying to figure out how a guy can be a devout Christian and a racist at the same time. Reed says most of his extended family--his parents, cousins, aunts and uncles--are all racist. They were all originally from Mississippi, just like the now-infamous Trent Lott, who recently made a whirlwind cleanup media tour to try to cover his pro-segregationist tracks.

"In Mississippi, they had one view of black people, and in Kansas, we had a different view," Reed says. Reed went to integrated public schools. But he recalls his cousins back in Mississippi, even in the 1960s, saying they would fight before they would go to school with black kids.

"I grew up in a different place," Reed says. "When I went to Mississippi and would hear all this racist bullshit, it struck me as wrong."

Reed has a solid track record of defending the rights of the downtrodden and the persecuted. He investigated discrimination complaints as an Equal Opportunity Officer in the Air Force from 1972 to 1975. While at Stanford Law School, he interned with Equal Rights Advocates, a San Francisco-based women's rights legal organization. His council mates regard him, unconditionally, as a feminist.

"He's been a strong supporter of women's issues for a while," Councilmember Chavez said through an aide.

During the Gulf War, he called up the Bay Area's most visible Arab-American, Palestinian Vic Ajlouny, and offered his law firm's services pro bono if needed during that volatile and xenophobic time. Ajlouny, a political consultant, has since become Reed's campaign point man and is working on Reed's council re-election campaign for 2004.

Reed was also the only City Councilmember to show up at local protests last October against the firing of noncitizen airport screeners, an action that affects many of San Jose's Filipino residents.

His family's racial views clearly had a powerful impact. But Reed keeps things in perspective. "My grandfather was a decent man and a good guy," Reed says. "He had a character defect."

Mayor Reed?

Political consultant Jude Barry, the force behind Gonzales' 1998 mayoral win and his former chief of staff, sizes up Reed's political presence and future (perhaps as a mayoral candidate). "I think he's doing a good job," Barry says. "I think he's staking out a position as a fiscal conservative. There's always room for a fiscal conservative in a multicandidate field. He just has to continue to stake out that ground, which I think would be a natural position for him."

Barry would likely support former state Assemblymember and Chamber chief Jim Cunneen over Reed if they were to compete, as some speculate will occur. But Barry says he isn't backing anyone at this point, since no one is officially running yet.

Vice Mayor Pat Dando, who makes no secret of her own desire for the mayor's slot in 2006, says Reed's famous independence on the council is not so unusual. "When people first come on the council, they're much more independent," she says. "As time goes on, you realize that it's equally important to get things done. You need to be able to work with people and you need to collaborate.

"I think Chuck is very savvy when it comes to politics. He has wanted to be in politics for at least the last decade that I know," Dando continues. "I don't think he's conniving. I think he's very upfront, aboveboard and always well prepared."

When asked what Reed is lacking, Dando replies. "You have to be able to communicate to people on a very personable level. ... You've got to be a good leader, but you have to have people who are willing to follow you."

Reed acknowledges that Dando might be right about his needing to work harder to win people over. But he doesn't apologize for anything.

"I didn't come with plans to be independent of anybody or anti-anybody, and I don't think I'm anti-Ron. It's just that I'm independent and do my own thinking, and when I disagree, I say so," Reed says. "That's sort of different from what other people were doing when I first got on the council. ... I think it's had an effect on the whole process."


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From the February 20-26, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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