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Little Red Corvette

[whitespace] Kathy Napoli
Christopher Gardner

Scrappy Napoli: Businesswoman Kathy Napoli's run for San Jose mayor stems from her extreme dissatisfaction with the status quo.

By courting the angry vote in this year's San Jose mayoral race, Kathy Napoli has succeeded again in making her opponents' lives more difficult. Certainly more expensive.

By Will Harper

BEHIND HER DESK at Santa Clara Auto Wreckers, San Jose mayoral candidate Kathy Chavez Napoli is shuffling through invoices. She's wearing her standard work uniform: an industrial-strength polyester blue smock with an embroidered white-and-red "Kathy" name tag, diamond earrings, a gold watch, a diamond-and-gold bracelet and a fat multicarat wedding ring.

Outside the fake-wood walls of her modest office, her red '97 Corvette sits in a gravel driveway, just a few yards away from the dismantled Ford trucks which compose the bread and butter of her multimillion-dollar auto-parts resale business.

Today, Napoli's office looks as though one of her wrecking crews might have swept through it. There are papers everywhere, but she assures me that she does have an organizational system despite the apparent chaos. She points to a pile of newspapers in a corner next to a green chalkboard. Those contain a collection of stories about the disastrous Raiders deal, one which she intends to keep from repeating in San Jose. Below that, she keeps a collection of reports done by the city auditor.

Napoli makes no secret of the fact that she is suspicious of the world around her, particularly when it comes to government. Behind her hangs a sign, "IT'S OUR MONEY, NOT THEIRS," with the last three letters--"IRS"--in red.

Shuffling through the invoices in front of her, she asks that I don't print anything about the company's internal financial information.

"I've gotten death threats before, when I fought the stadium measure," she explains, referring to the taxpayer-subsidized ballpark ballot measure she helped defeat in 1992.

The feisty 4-foot-11-inch Latina from San Jose's Eastside knows she has a knack for getting under people's skin.

When she ran against Mayor Susan Hammer in 1994, Napoli's in-your-face style and constant ripping of Redevelopment's cost overruns for pet projects like the Arena pierced Hammer's usually stoic veneer.

"I think Kathy Napoli is a disgruntled woman ... who knows and understands very little about San Jose," Hammer told Metro back then. "She's certainly never come forward with any positive project or program. She's a gadfly."

WHAT ROSS PEROT was to the 1992 presidential race, Kathy Napoli is to this year's mayoral contest. Like the Texas billionaire, she raises issues the other candidates ignore, as Perot might say, "like the crazy aunt in the attic." But instead of the federal budget deficit, Napoli rants about the Redevelopment Agency's $2.4 billion bond debt. When fellow candidates Ron Gonzales and Patricia Dando fawn over projects like the Arena, Napoli bursts into a tirade about how the project went nearly $40 million over budget.

One of her pet proposals is to raise the agency's minimum contribution to affordable housing from 20 percent to 50 percent of the agency's budget.

She brags that no one ever did her any special favors in her journey from poor Eastside girl picking prunes in the fields to co-owner of a multimillion-dollar business. She subtly contrasts her background to that of well-connected developers who soak the city for subsidies and flake on loans in Redevelopment's never-never land. Napoli likes to say that she worked her way through San Jose State University and she paid back her loans.

Napoli even has a few Perot-like one-liners, such as her quip during a recent debate that the city needs to focus its resources on helping kids "instead of paying $4,000 for palm trees," referring to Redevelopment's penchant for the tropical stalks.

She is even financing her own campaign, though to a much lesser degree than the Texas tycoon. By mid-March, she had invested $55,000 of her own money to pay for signs, brochures and a television ad on KNTV (for which she had her hair specially styled) in which she bashes the Redevelopment Agency while standing in front of the development-threatened Jose Theater. Napoli boasts that because she's financing her campaign, she won't owe anything to contributors like developers and land-owners.

While Napoli acts a splinter under the thumbnails of the establishment, her feisty persona and we're-not-gonna-take-it-anymore message has a way of winning over audiences.

During an April Democratic Club forum, a woman in the audience slipped her companions a note saying, "I like Kathy--she has it right."

Even those who think they don't like her find themselves surprised by Napoli's appeal. At the recent debate sponsored by the Commonwealth Club and held at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, a downtown lawyer confessed afterward, "I usually don't like what she has to say, but she did really well."

"A lot of people are afraid to speak their mind, and she's not," says Yolanda Reynolds, a writer for the bilingual newspaper La Oferta Review who met Napoli 10 years ago. "People admire that."

Despite her reputation for being the political equivalent of a stun gun, Napoli insists she's an old soul who never had a wild streak, even as a teenager. She drives a '97 Corvette, but points out it's an automatic. When driving the Corvette to work from her Coyote Valley home, she tunes in to an easy-listening station, KOIT. "Old lady music," she laughs.

But, she quickly adds, she's "not afraid to say what I believe in."

Of course, that's why the city's opinion-leaders can't stand her.

HER DETRACTORS are quick to accuse Napoli of being a consummate naysayer who knows what she opposes but has no positive ideas.

"She's a crank posing as a credible candidate," says Eric Jaye, a San Francisco-based political consultant who ran Hammer's campaign against Napoli in 1994. "She won't win. At a certain point, you've got to do more than stake a position that is no to everything."

Indeed, most of her positions are of the negative variety: She opposes moving City Hall downtown; she opposes the airport expansion approved by the City Council; she opposes banning junk guns; she opposes raising taxes to pay for a new ballpark and frowns on tax hikes in general.

Two of her proactive positions still contain a reformist edge: televising City Council meetings and auditing the Redevelopment Agency.

Napoli is clearly more comfortable being the outsider. She has made a name for herself by fighting City Hall, not embracing it.

Her first bitter taste of Realpolitik came in the mid to late '80s when Pick Your Part, a powerful wrecking company from Southern California, wanted to locate in San Jose. Local auto wreckers like Napoli feared, with some validity, that Pick Your Part would put them all out of business.

The Southern California company hired local lobbyists like Willow Glen real estate agent Jerry Strangis to grease the deal, and the City Council approved the company's request to rezone 15 acres on Senter Road.

Napoli says she felt disillusioned. "I was naive. I thought, 'We're native San Joseans who work hard and pay our taxes, so [the City Council] has to listen to us. It was a life-altering lesson. Being a good citizen meant nothing to them; it was all about money."

The local auto wreckers and nearby neighborhoods took the city to court and won. The judge denied the Pick Your Part project because the company hadn't done an environmental impact report. A few years later, Pick Your Part came back again, this time with a completed EIR. Again Napoli fought back. This time, Strangis knew he had a new weapon he could count on at a City Council hearing--Napoli herself.

"No one on our side could have been more effective than her, the way she pissed off the mayor and everyone else," Strangis says.

The council approved the project, which was later killed by a ballot measure.

The Pick Your Part battles, however, aren't Napoli's most famous. She earned more headlines battling ex-Mayor Tom McEnery over the closure of the Studio Theatre, a downtown movie house that showed Spanish-language films, and the $840,000 statue of San Jose's controversial first mayor, Capt. Thomas Fallon.

Then in 1992, against all odds and with little financial backing, she won her biggest battle: derailing Measure G, the proposed ballpark measure that would have built a new stadium with a utility tax which had the support of political heavyweights like the newly elected Mayor Hammer.

Such a Cinderella story won't happen in this year's mayoral contest, insiders all say. Napoli's "fiscal responsibility" theme doesn't resonate now that the economy's booming and most San Jose voters are telling pollsters that they think the city is headed in the right direction. But don't expect Napoli to shed any tears if she fails to make the runoff--she doesn't believe in the word failure. "I don't think that way," she says. "One of the important things I tell my kids and young people ... you're always better for having tried."

Don't be surprised if she tries again four years from now.

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From the May 21-27, 1998 issue of Metro.

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