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[whitespace] Erik Schoennauer Dando's young sidekick steers a steady course

By Michael Learmonth

AT AGE 30, Erik Schoennauer has a lottery ticket in his hand. Should his boss win in June, or in November, he is the odds-on favorite to become Mayor Dando's chief of staff. It would be a remarkable ascendancy for a local kid who was a senior at Stanford when the current mayor was first elected.

But even as a college student, Schoennauer was already a veteran of local politics. As a sophomore, he spent the summer in Norm Mineta's office in Washington. Then he worked part time in former Mayor Tom McEnery's office.

In 1994, he worked on McEnery's congressional campaign. Had it been successful, Schoennauer might be living near Capitol Hill instead of a Victorian at Fourth and Empire.

But if Schoennauer is disappointed, he never lets on. Tirelessly adhering to Dando's party line, he seldom cracks jokes or lets down his professional veneer. He never misses an opportunity to promote his candidate, and not everyone on the sixth floor appreciates it. One City Hall insider describes his style as "Machiavellian" and typical of the young people Dando leans toward. "They want to orchestrate everything," the source said.

Schoennauer hitched his wagon to Pat Dando in 1995 when he managed her District 10 campaign. Before that, he had done a stint at the San Jose Redevelopment Agency, where he worked as an aide.

But Schoennauer was well-connected long before that. His father, Gary Schoennauer, began his career in San Jose city government the year Erik was born. By the time Erik was a teenager, Gary was city planning director.

As Dando's campaign manager, Schoennauer has his candidate well-prepared and on message. Making a serious effort to refer to his boss as "Patricia," Schoennauer gives his typically over-the-top spin on the race.

"Patricia's story is San Jose's story," he says, "from mother and PTA president to mayor of the 11th-largest city." Yawn.

These sound-bite replies are integral to Schoennauer's approach. When Dando gets gang-tackled in the council, instead of hashing it out with members one by one, Schoennauer dutifully works the fax machine, sending the Dando spin out in a headline-seeking release to the media.

The consensus-loving council majority hates it.

The focus is not on luring other councilmembers into their camp but raising the rolled newspaper when they vote the wrong way.

Where Erik shows the green in his gills, says his father, is when the rest of the council doesn't do the "right thing."

"He could be a bit more tolerant of people who screw up," his father says. "No matter who you are, you don't like someone becoming impatient with you or intolerant of your actions."

One council observer predicted that if Dando is elected, Schoennauer's ability to win a majority on the council would be tested. The observer said that Frank Fiscalini, the most conciliatory member of the council with a working relationship with Dando, could be the one to call the shots.

"Joe Guerra will run the city," the observer said, referring to Frank Fiscalini's chief of staff.

Before Dando's candidacy Erik toyed with his own political options. Friends say he talked about running for the District 3 council seat.

When asked if he has any ambition to seek elected office, he says, "I don't know. Probably not. In my mind working with Pat is the opportunity to make a difference in the future of San Jose. There's no need for me to run for any office."

But father Gary says Erik's decision not to run was harder than he lets on.

"There are other 30-year-olds who are running for City Council right now this year," he says. "Erik could have been one of them in District 3. Quite frankly, I wish he were."

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From the May 14-20, 1998 issue of Metro.

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