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Poll Position: Metro interviewed 10 candidates for the most hotly contested races in the county. Our recommendations follow.

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Metro casts its votes early

THIS HAS BEEN an extraordinarily quiet campaign season, but voters still have some important decisions to make March 5.

San Jose voters were deprived of a spirited mayoral race after Mayor Ron Gonzales scared off the few high-profile candidates who stood a chance of knocking him out of office. Gonzales is faced with five challengers this year, but none of them is in a position to do much.

San Jose Councilmembers Linda Lezotte (District 1) and Nora Campos (District 5) are also facing weak challengers. Nobody signed up to challenge Councilwoman Cindy Chavez (District 3). The real races in San Jose are for the two open seats belonging to George Shirakawa Jr. (District 7) and John Diquisto (District 9).

There are no countywide races this year. Assessor Larry Stone, Sheriff Laurie Smith and District Attorney George Kennedy are all unopposed, as is Supervisor Jim Beall (District 4). Supervisor Don Gage (District 1) is playing it cool, though he has drawn a challenge from Morgan Hill Mayor Dennis Kennedy.

The only contentious race for state office is the battle to succeed termed-out Assemblywoman Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara). Three Democrats, Santa Clara Councilman Rod Diridon Jr., Mountain View Mayor Sally Lieber and Mountain View Councilwoman Rosemary Stasek, are all fighting to face ex-Sunnyvale Councilman Stan Kawczynski in the fall.

With that, here's a look at the four big races on the ballot this spring. Because it's an off-year with an early primary, turnout will be especially low, so registered and unregistered voters alike have even less reason to sit home and complain that their vote doesn't count. It does, especially this year.

State Assembly--District 22
(Cupertino, Mountain View, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale)

Metro recommends
Rosemary Stasek

What's interesting about the three-way battle for the Democratic nomination for Assembly District 22 is that the best candidate was completely overlooked by the political power structure of the valley.

And while she has less money and institutional support as a result, Rosemary Stasek is the best choice to represent the district. She's smart, principled, fiercely independent, and she gave excellent answers to our questions.

Examples? She heads a Catholic pro-choice group and made headlines by criticizing Microsoft's lack of support for affordable housing.

When we asked her about the death penalty, Stasek told us exactly what she believes--she's against it--then fired off her reasons: it's expensive, irreversible, discriminatory, not a deterrent. Stasek's two opponents--Santa Clara Councilman Rod Diridon Sr. and Mountain View Mayor Sally Lieber--both sounded as if they were on both sides of the issue.

Stasek, 38, grew up in Pennsylvania. Her parents, a civil engineer and a garment factory worker, sent her to Cornell, where she graduated with a degree in economics. She has more than a dozen years behind her as a pro-choice activist. She's a longtime high-tech worker who put in time with many of the industry's biggest names, including Microsoft. Stasek has spent many years getting her hands dirty as a systems administrator, programmer and web designer. Stasek also spent several years teaching Intro to Networking at De Anza College, so we believe her when she says she'd fight to make sure that community colleges, the real workhorses of the state education system, don't lose out on the funding they need. She's also articulate, thoughtful, and easygoing.

And while Stasek has solid Democratic credentials, she can also be a fiscal conservative. When we asked her about how to handle the budget crisis, she didn't flinch when she said legislators should consider spending cuts across the board, starting with cuts in prison expansion.

Stasek also impressed us with her strong stance on consumer privacy. She wasn't afraid to criticize Gov. Gray Davis for killing privacy protections for individuals. She said businesses don't need to share information to make money. Diridon didn't say he would take the same stance.

We think Stasek would be great in the Assembly, following a fine tradition of brainy local legislators like Assemblyman Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) and state Sen. Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto). Stasek says she admires Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) because she can trust that they'll never disappoint her with their conduct or decisions. We think the same of Stasek.

Sadly, Stasek is running a distant third in this race. If things don't go her way, we hope she sticks around to build on her momentum, possibly by running for supervisor or other local offices.

Diridon, 32, is also a very good candidate. If his name sounds familiar, it's because his dad is Rod Diridon Sr., a former county supervisor. The name ID can't hurt, but the younger Diridon is largely running on his record as a two-term councilman. Aside from his enthusiasum for converting Agnews into a headquarters for Sun, which displayed a ladder-climber's cozying up to big business, he has a credible record in local government to recommend him.

At the same time, we wish he could have given us more specifics about what he plans to do if he's elected. Diridon also comes off as an overprogrammed politician, giving rehearsed answers in our interview and even repeating phrases from his brochure. That can probably be chalked up to nerves. He has a lot riding on this one--though he's a solid candidate, so he shouldn't worry. And although it sounds corny when Diridon says he's running because he cares about the community, we think he really means it.

We have less faith in Lieber, 40, who is currently serving as mayor of Mountain View. As a councilwoman, Lieber has consistently demonstrated that she has the right stances on the issues and the guts to tackle tough problems. She has done good work, and the recall effort against her is a silly smear campaign.

But with less than one full term on the council, she has the least political experience of the three. Lieber instantly became a player in the race at the end of 2000 when she took out a $200,000 loan from her husband just before new campaign finance laws took effect. She has a style that borders on brash that has made her a lightning rod for controversy and has demonstrated her inexperience by making a series of gaffes during the campaign.

San Jose City Council--District 7
(Central San Jose)

Metro recommends
Terry Gregory

There are three great candidates for San Jose City Council District 7, but Franklin-McKinley School District board member Terry Gregory's star shines the brightest. County Planning Commissioner Ed Voss and San Jose Planning Commissioner Bob Dhillon are also fine choices, but they can't touch the level of readiness and experience held by Gregory.

The central San Jose district these candidates hope to represent has many of problems, and Gregory is most equipped to address those needs. During our interviews, Gregory offered the most specific answers to our questions and the best vision for the district and the city.

As a native of Guyana, Gregory understands the challenges faced by the many immigrant groups in District 7; as someone who grew up in Brooklyn, Gregory knows what an urban environment is. When we asked Gregory what the city needs to do to revitalize downtown, he replied that it was never vitalized to begin with, and added--correctly--that housing is key to building a true downtown.

After 20 years in the district and two terms on the school board, Gregory also knows how some parts of the community, especially the working poor, are neglected and underserved. He's seen it up close, working with students and parents.

But what's really impressive is that Gregory, as a school board member, demonstrated a better knowledge of planning and development issues than his two planning commissioner opponents. That's something that should come in handy over the next few years as District 7 tries to remake itself.

The Monterey Highway corridor is one of the areas likely to see redevelopment. Fixing up this unattractive, long-neglected part of town won't be easy, but Gregory isn't afraid to push high-density infill development. A lot of local politicians pepper their speech with the phrase "smart growth" but don't have a clue what it means. We think Gregory does.

In addition to his work on the school board, Gregory has also worked as a youth minister, giving him a unique vantage point from which to survey the problems kids face.

Gregory doesn't have a monopoly on some of these attributes, but he's the best total package on the ballot.

Voss is also a longtime district resident and dedicated community activist with some big-name backers. But his biggest cheerleader is the man he wants to replace: George Shirakawa Jr., who also became his boss last fall. There's no rule against a candidate working as an aide for the officeholder he wants to succeed, but it doesn't look good, either. The outgoing councilman's anointing of Voss is also slightly troublesome because Shirakawa and Gregory don't like one another.

We like Dhillon, too, and it's hard not to want a councilman with the nickname Bob Dhillon. But although he's a sharp candidate with good credentials, he isn't quite up to Gregory's level of experience yet. And he just moved back to the district last year to run for office.

The other two candidates on the ballot, Alfredo Benavides and Andy Diaz, aren't serious candidates.

San Jose City Council--District 9

Metro recommends
Judy Chirco

Sadly, southwestern San Jose voters must kiss feisty termed-out City Councilmember John Diquisto and his green thumb good-bye. Even sadder is the lukewarm temperature of the race for his District 9 (Cambrian) seat.

On one hand, there's Chris Hemingway, 33. Hemingway has worked as an aide to Diquisto for seven years, so he knows his way around City Hall and has plenty of experience handling district issues. But for a longtime staffer, we expected more knowledge and specifics than Hemingway could give us. On some issues, it seemed like he hadn't done his homework.

In several instances, Hemingway said he'd like to learn more about an issue once he was elected or hold neighborhood meetings to find out what neighbors want. There's a place for that, but his reluctance to take a stance seems weird for a guy who was nurtured in the political crib. Job experience is important, but it isn't a platform.

One of the few hot issues in the district is Hacienda Gardens, a shopping center that's being redeveloped as housing. Hemingway, citing neighbors' concerns, says he wanted a lower density than what Diquisto voted for.

Judy Chirco, 55, isn't afraid to take the correct stance--higher density--over the objections of neighbors. If anything, the project should have been more dense than what was approved, not less.

Now that San Jose has sprawled across the valley floor, the city must grow by adding density in established areas. Not a pleasant prospect, but smart growth dictates that councilmembers will have to give residents a dose of what they don't want.

Chirco may not be as familiar with the workings of City Hall. But she gave the right answers on housing and transportation issues along with more specifics than we'd expect from someone whose experience as an elected official consists of nine years on the Cambrian School District board of education.

Of the two, Chirco shows the most promise of bringing something to the table (although she confesses that she's not much of a gardener). She is bright, dedicated and has a history of involvement with PACT (People Acting in Community Together), the local faith-based do-gooder group. She also works as a volunteer homework tutor.

And even though Hemingway knows the needs and wants of District 9 constituents, Chirco knows every bit as much. She's lived there for 40 years. Hemingway moved there last year so he could run for council.

And Chirco, with her willingness to confront San Jose's growth without passing the buck to other neighborhoods, cities and regions, is more fit for a city leadership position.

Chirco's comparatively clearer view of the issues and her ability to have an opinion and (we hope) stand by it, makes her the best choice for District 9.

County Supervisor--District 1
(South County)

Metro recommends
Don Gage

When Morgan Hill Mayor Dennis Kennedy, 64, set out to unseat District 1 Supervisor Don Gage, 56, the burden of proof was on him to make the case that he had more to offer. But instead of doing that, most of Kennedy's campaign has focused on making Gage look bad.

Gage isn't perfect, but he's not the guy Kennedy makes him out to be either.

When Gage, a Republican, was first elected in 1997 and re-elected in 1998, his opponents made him out to be a right-winger whose conservative views would clash with the predominantly moderate, Democrat-heavy valley. They were wrong. Gage is the only Republican on the nonpartisan, five-member Board of Supervisors, but he's never done anything to indicate that his opponents were right about him being a closet conservative. He has labor backing him, and the local NAACP gave him an A-minus (Kennedy got a C-plus). And it's a vote of confidence that his fellow supervisors have made him chairman twice in recent years.

Kennedy isn't really taking the right-winger tack, but his insistence that Gage is a screw-up who panders for political gain doesn't fly.

In interviews, campaign appearances and even his ballot statement, Kennedy has labeled Gage a big spender who was asleep at the switch. Gage, however, isn't running the county by himself. He's one of five members, and some of the budget increases (like transit funding approved by voters) that Kennedy wants to pin on him aren't Gage's doing.

Planning and development are the most important issues in District 1, which encompasses Los Gatos, Almaden, Morgan Hill, Gilroy and almost all of the rural unincorporated areas.

Kennedy says he's the best candidate on this issue, but he couldn't point to specifics when asked what Gage had done wrong.

And while Kennedy says he's best on development issues, Morgan Hill under his leadership has shown few signs of changing its status as one of the most poorly planned cities in the Bay Area. While the city does have growth controls, it's a patchwork of haphazard annexations that make it the perfect embodiment of sprawl. Kennedy does have good ideas for preservation, but that won't stop growth. Both candidates are lukewarm on development issues. Maybe that's why key environmental groups haven't taken sides in the race.

Kennedy also impressed us with his understanding of the complex jails issue and gave good answers about how to sort it out.

But it's not enough for us to recommend tossing out an experienced supervisor who understands the issues--especially Gage, who is one of the most straightforward politicians around. We like Kennedy, but taking shots at Gage doesn't make him the better candidate.

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From the February 21-27, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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