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Go, Gary!

Gary Schoennauer
Big Plans? Departing San Jose Planning Director Gary Schoennauer says he's keeping his options open and won't rule out a future in politics.

San Jose's shrewd planning director spent 30 years working behind the scenes, taking orders from politicians. Is it time for Gary Schoennauer to come out from the shadows and into the political spotlight?

By Will Harper

Gary Schoennauer spent his three decades in San Jose City Hall taking his marching orders from others: mayors, city council members, city managers. That's not to say Schoennauer, San Jose's planning director for the last 17 years, was a boot-licking lackey. On the contrary. Armed with land-use policies he helped write and rewrite, Schoennauer flexed a lot of regulatory muscle over projects, at times frustrating developers who were nostalgic for the good ol' days of San Jose's cancerous sprawl.

A man of "Napoleonic temperament," as former Mayor Tom McEnery describes him, Schoennauer wasn't afraid to tell his bosses when he thought they were doing something dumb. "Gary would have the guts to tell people they were wrong and they were stupid," says attorney Chuck Reed, who served on the Planning Commission for eight years. "But," Reed adds, "he did that privately. When it came to a public fight, he'd already have said his piece."

Ultimately, however, Schoennauer spent his 30-year public career doing someone else's bidding. Such is the life of a bureaucrat, even a powerful one like Schoennauer. Not making waves, stoic impartiality--in other words, being painfully dull--are professional virtues among bureaucrats. Occasionally, Schoennauer confesses, he'd imagine seeing his name in lights--the green and red lights of the San Jose City Council's voting switchboard. Being an elected official might be kind of fun, Schoennauer muses. Speaking your mind. Giving orders to staff. Always going with your conscience. "You can't help being in this business 30 years and thinking, 'Just give me four years to raise hell,'" Schoennauer says.

The architect of San Jose's modern controlled-growth philosophy, Schoennauer leaves the city's employ atop his profession with a bounty of accolades and awards. His peers consider him a guru of urban planning: innovative, flexible, wise and resilient. Maybe that's why he chose to retire at the relatively green age of 52; à la Michael Jordan, Schoennauer accomplished all there was to accomplish in his chosen profession--so he called it quits. Even Schoennauer's vague explanation for his early retirement is reminiscent of Jordan's farewell: It's time for a change. Of course, His Airness, having conquered all that was basketball, tried to work his magic for baseball, a lifelong dream, only to return to basketball the following year. Schoennauer, on the other hand, has no plans to try out a minor- league baseball career. City managers in other cities have asked him to do some work for them as a private consultant, he says. Maybe he'll teach a couple of courses at San Jose State University, his alma mater. With the straitjacket of professional objectivity lifted, he floats the possibility of getting involved in some "political stuff."

Political stuff? Hmmm.

Gary Schoennauer
Character Development: In his reign as planning chief, Gary Schoennaur toed the line between growth and preservation.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Would he ever run for public office? Schoennauer says it's something he hasn't looked at very carefully, yet he won't rule out the possibility. What about mayor? He'd think it over if urged to run by the powers that be. Being an elected official might be kind of fun, Schoennauer confides. He definitely wouldn't run for City Council. "Too much work and not enough influence," he says about the latter option. (His son Erik, an aide to Councilwoman Pat Dando, has been testing the waters for a downtown council seat.) Besides, districts and term limits force councilmembers these days to be more parochial and short-sighted: too focused on picking up trash in a neighborhood park rather than figuring out where new parks are needed, Schoennauer says. Mayor would be a much better fit for him: As a planner he's trained to think big. The mayor's got to have a citywide vision. "As somebody whose profession forces you to think long-term, therefore with some amount of vision," Schoennauer brags, "I'm very concerned about the general tendency of electing government officials who, because of term limits, are invariably forced to think about tomorrow instead of envisioning the next generation."

Schoennauer possesses other essential candidate qualities for San Jose: He's a longtime Democrat in a town run by Democrats, with the requisite animus for Republicans. (He derides the brief Republican controlled Assembly as having been infiltrated by "radical, crazy people.") He's even got a great local-boy-makes-good, Horatio Alger-like rags to riches story, having grown up in rough East Palo Alto--a fact of which he was fond of reminding his colleagues--and being the first person in his family to go to college. He's also got the ego to run for public office. Take his initial explanation for why he lasted so long as planning director: "A high degree of competency is part of it." As his many fans will tell you, Schoennauer is an honest man with strong convictions. And he's smart.

Maybe a little too smart, says Terry Christensen, a political science professor at San Jose State University. Developers, the special interests who bankroll local campaigns, aren't going to donate money to a planner to run the mayor's office. A planner/mayor would be too difficult to manipulate, Christensen says. "Can he [Schoennauer] raise $1 million? I don't think so," Christensen says. While he's made a few powerful friends as planning director, he's also pissed off a lot of developers and people in neighborhoods.

Furthermore, Christensen explains, it's rare for modern bureaucrats to cross over into the political arena. Robert Moses, New York's legendary public works maverick, tried in the '30s when he ran for governor. The result was disastrous. The subtle procedural manipulations Moses had mastered as a bureaucrat didn't translate well in public. Christensen suspects that Schoennauer, too, would have trouble translating his success as a bureaucrat into political success. A politician needs to have some showmanship. Schoennauer spent his career speaking a language foreign to most Americans, in which a house is called "a residential habitat" and shade from a tree "passive solar cooling."

"I don't think Gary's a likely candidate," Christensen says, adding, "He's got the public personality of a bureaucrat."

Other observers, particularly those at Schoennauer's retirement bash last Friday night, might disagree. At the invitation-only gathering held in the Hayes Mansion, hundreds of the most influential citizens in the city danced and schmoozed against the backdrop of a campaign sign playfully bearing the words "Gary Schoennauer for Mayor." Schoenauer did nothing to discourage the prank.

As Schoennauer imagines it, running for public office would mean rhetorical liberation. Instead of couching everything in measured bureaucratese, he could just say what's really on his mind. "I'd never be reelected because I'd piss off so many would-be contributors to my campaign, I'd probably never raise a nickel. But, you know, every once in a while politicians like that get elected. ... If I were a politician," Schoennauer concludes, "I'd like to be that kind of politician."

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From the March 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro

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