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Photograph by Paul Myers

Gonzo the ... Great?

Halfway to eight years, Ron Gonzales still has enough time left to transform San Jose. Or he can leave a legacy of random projects and missed opportunities. It's the difference between leading and governing

By Jeff Kearns

AFTER nearly two hours of testimony on the new City Hall by--it seemed--everyone in town, Ron Gonzales couldn't hold back any longer. "I think it's time for San Jose to grow up," the mayor scolded the packed council chambers on North First Street, a mile up the street from the city's downtown.

"I think it's time for us to understand that we are a great city. It's time for us to act like a great city, and it's time for us to be bold."

It was as much eloquence as Gonzales could muster at a career-defining moment, but the words rang hollow coming from Gonzales, a cautious and sometimes hesitant political player known for carefully scripted execution.

He's a mayor who thinks more tactically than strategically and confuses projects with vision. While he has taken leadership on issues with formidable results, he hasn't inspired or led. He'll leave San Jose with better transit systems and facilities, but what will be the content and character of the city that Gonzales envisions?

Nothing embodies Gonzales' shortage of imagination more painfully than San Jose's downtown. Three and a half years into his mayorship, despite much cheerleading and massive investment, San Jose's core is still something of a joke. This is hard to fathom after 20 years of public initiatives, $2 billion in expenditures and an unprecedented decade-long economic boom.

With a second four-year term in front of him, Gonzales has the opportunity to pursue whatever legacy he fancies. But given the mayor's history, incrementalism rather than grand dreams will carry the day. And if that's true, Gonzales couldn't have picked a worse time to come up short.

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Reinventing Ron: A checklist of bulletproof ideas on how Ron Gonzales can become San Jose's first truly metropolitan mayor.

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Waiting for Gonzales

No one openly accuses Ron Gonzales of being a rotten mayor. He's not incompetent, corrupt or evil. Like a well-trained corporate foot soldier, Gonzales keeps an exhaustive schedule and has delivered on most of his campaign promises--in fact, he'll probably have them all finished up and included in a tidy report when he's finally ready to leave office. But to put greatness and Gonzo in the same sentence invites snickering.

Like his mayorship, the city Gonzales guides remains poised to become something greater than the sum of its parts--exactly where San Jose has been sitting now for two whole decades. It's starting to read like a spoof of Waiting for Godot, though the mayor correctly insists that any great city is a work in progress. Worse, at a time when the city desperately needs a leader with a clear idea of where it should go and how it should get there, Gonzales seems to be missing in action.

Gonzales has been labeled absent and autocratic in the past; although those charges haven't crippled him politically, the stakes are higher now for both the city and his future. While he's focused on major projects like the new City Hall and a BART line, which will leave an imprint on the city that will last for 50 years or more, the mayor's inner marketing manager comes out in the form of customer service-related projects that aren't exactly transformative governmental reforms--things like the city call center and litter removal. This week the mayor announced a new $583 million program for--drumroll, please!--recycling and street sweeping.

Certainly, during his long political career, he's never been shy about crossing the Rubicon on a big project or power play. But though Gonzales has plenty to boast about, he remains a manager. He's a good manager, of course, but that's not exactly Churchillian.

In interviews, for example, Gonzales is stiff and disengaged. Reporters who throw questions at Gonzales frequently get pat responses in which the mayor points predictably to his record and his accomplishments.

When Metro sat down for a short interview with Gonzales earlier this month, the mayor recited his achievements but dodged even easy questions about how the council is becoming more independent and who his closest advisers are.

Asked if he'd like to respond to unfair criticisms and myths about himself, Gonzales simply said, "No one who's ever had a critic thinks they've been treated fairly ... I view myself as a dedicated public servant who works hard," then returned to familiar territory about his efforts to improve education, traffic, neighborhoods and housing.

Gonzales has never worn his heart on his sleeve. Unlike some politicians, he doesn't have a network of longtime friends and supporters to whom he continually returns for guidance. He's a Latino Democrat from working class roots, but he's never positioned himself as an ethnic or labor candidate--in fact, while he's been close to both constituencies throughout his career, he has had lingering differences with both.

The mayor's opposition to a children's health initiative angered the labor backers who supported him as a supervisorial and mayoral candidate. This year, labor wanted him to take a stronger stance on "just cause" evictions, but the mayor, a moderate, pro-business Democrat, wasn't there.

Gonzales has had a seesaw relationship with the G.I. Forum, a Latino group that the mayor alienated early on but later made nice with. As a supervisor, Gonzales opposed an expansion of the Valley Medical Center. Latino groups showed up at one meeting with signs that said vendido, or sellout. And Gonzales has always had a rocky relationship with Blanca Alvarado, the torchbearer for mainstream Chicano political activism. None of this, however, stopped Gonzales from winning big on the East Side.

These are just a couple examples of many, but the picture that emerges is of a guy who is uncomplicated yet difficult to pin down. And as Gonzales nears the beginning of his second term, the question that begs to be asked is, Who exactly is Ron Gonzales, and where is he headed? Does Ron Gonzales even know?

Playing Mean

"First Latino governor." That's what some political spinmeisters suggested when Gonzales, a relatively young Democrat with a high-tech background, strode confidently into office in the early days of 1999. The feeling among many South Bay political observers was that Gonzales wasn't going to stop at mayor, and some accused him of seeking the job as a stepping stone. Gonzales himself talked with his inner circle about running for governor. After all, he was the Latino mayor of the largest city in Northern California at a time when Silicon Valley was the hottest thing around, both economically and politically.

Gonzales even cemented his rising star status by speaking at the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

As a new mayor, he was thinking big. At his first state of the city address, Gonzales declared that "mayors should be bold" and renewed his 10-year-old vow to connect BART to San Jose.

But that was just one of many things on the newbie mayor's agenda. Flash back to how Gonzales wrapped up his first address:

    We will have safe neighborhoods and be considered America's safest city. We will have graffiti-free parks. We will connect San Jose to BART before I leave office. We will build 50 percent more affordable housing units in the next five years. We will increase our small-business loans by 500 percent to encourage and help businesses in our City. We will be the Internet capital of the world. We will be the most teacher-friendly city in California and the home of the best teachers in America. We will provide training for 15,000 parents on how to best help their children be successful in school. We will establish 10 Smart Start centers in the next five years. We will be a city where children learn to read and every first- and second-grader in San Jose has a library card. We will have an online permitting and licensing system within one year. And we will be the best-managed city in the world."

But even as Gonzales basked in the spotlight of a new office, cracks were showing. And they were familiar to those close to the mayor.

After a speech to the downtown San Jose Rotary Club, the nest of the city's old guard and business elite, Gonzales lingered afterwards to press the flesh.

One who waited for the chance to meet him was Ernie Renzel, a San Jose mayor and councilman in the 1940s who bought the land for both San Jose International Airport and Kelly Park with his personal funds. When a mutual acquaintance tapped Gonzales on the shoulder and introduced him to his legendary predecessor, now in his 90s, Gonzales shook Renzel's hand, offered a quick "Howya-doin'-nice-tameecha," then turned his back.

Few noticed, but those who did couldn't fathom the snub. Did Gonzales really not have the time to engage an elderly ex-mayor in a few minutes of polite conversation?

Then there was the mayor's recent appearance at the opening of Cinequest, a season after the famous film festival almost collapsed because of a lack of city support. Gonzales showed up to welcome the VIPs, donors and film buffs. But after his remarks, Gonzales disappeared out the door instead of staying for the film and opening night party, missing an opportunity to bond with some of the city's leading arts patrons.

It's little things like these, things that happen outside the spotlight, that have earned Gonzales a reputation as a soulless robot.

There have been other speed bumps. When Gonzales opposed the children's health plan, which would have used tobacco money to fund health care for uninsured kids. Gonzales initially opposed the initiative, and while he eventually reversed his position, his initial opposition made Gonzales look like a grinch--even if it wasn't helping poor kids but rather the specifics of the plan that he opposed. In any case, his stance drove a wedge into his relationship with labor, one that has not healed easily.

Then there was the Calpine power plant, which the mayor opposed, more than a few people suspected, to please his new buddy, Cisco president John Chambers, while disingenuously citing neighborhood concerns. His timing was inopportune, as the state slid into a crippling energy crisis. The mayor reversed himself when it became clear the state Energy Commission was going to overrule the city.

The last mayor, Susan Hammer, was more popular. Even though she was often criticized for lacking imagination and eloquence and couldn't boast in her eight years of achieving a fraction of what Gonzales already accomplished has in four, she was liked.

Meanwhile, Gonzales has the opposite problem. He's done more, but he's not liked and certainly not loved. It seems to have a lot to do with his style. Personal relationships aren't the mayor's strong suit. And it's not really that Gonzales isn't a likable guy; he hasn't noticeably broadened his contacts or network since he first punched in at City Hall. In fact, there are signs he has withdrawn.

Part of the problem may be the legions of midlevel insiders--business owners, activists, other elected officials--that Gonzales courted aggressively as a candidate. Now that he's mayor, some of these players feel as if he's has turned his back on them. He no longer seeks their advice through email or at breakfast meetings.

Even the big win of the BART tax initiative came with a price. The victory reinforced the mayor's reputation for winning ugly. County Supervisors Jim Beall and Blanca Alvarado opposed putting the tax on the ballot, preferring instead to wait for a more solid plan. But when they wouldn't go along with the mayor's request, Gonzales steered around them and took the tax plan to the more pliant VTA board.

The mayor's showdown with Beall and Alvarado was an echo of the mayor's early days as a supervisor. Back then, Gonzales alienated board colleagues Rod Diridon Sr. and Zoe Lofgren, who had been working on a transit link to the East Bay, by forging ahead with a different plan.

The same hardball streak showed up this spring at the vituperative City Hall vote. Before casting his yea, the mayor suggested that the names of two members of the council opposed to the plan--Chuck Reed and Linda Lezotte--should be engraved on a plaque and put on display so future generations could remember them as naysayers. The comment prompted some sharp remarks from Lezotte.

His interpersonal weaknesses may come back to bite him at City Hall sooner rather than later: Gonzales will lose two of his most dependable votes at the end of this year. As George Shirakawa Jr. and John Diquisto leave, they'll be replaced by newer faces that probably won't be so quick to line up with the mayor on key votes. Turning them into allies will take finessing. But Gonzales won't acknowledge that the council is changing, simply saying, "The council is kind of a moving target. It's always been since I've been here."

Ron Gonzales
Photograph by Paul Myers

City Affairs

Gonzales' strange brew of missteps and sharpness was on full display Sept. 7, 2000, when he stood in front of TV cameras and issued a terse statement about his affair with Guisselle Nuñez, a staff aide half his age. As the scandal unfolded, the strong, confident mayor had been replaced by someone who appeared shaken and cornered.

He handled it well under the circumstances, delivering a humble televised confessional. He had separated from his wife; he came clean about what had transpired and apologized to the people whose trust he had betrayed.

Even better, on the day the story broke in Metro, he pre-empted what could have been a dodgy spectacle of appearing on the evening news being chased by news crews and responding to shouted questions with "No comment." Instead, by lunchtime, the mayor expertly offered his mea culpa before the reporters who stood quietly in his office and respectfully lobbed questions afterwards.

His handling of the incident kept his mayorship from unraveling, but a man doesn't dump his wife of more than 20 years and take up with a twentysomething staffer without losing some political capital. Gonzales' negative ratings jumped. The Mercury News didn't help, running excerpts from kissy private emails between the mayor and Nuñez.

The scandal was serious enough that staffers debated how much of a role Gonzales should take in promoting his upcoming marquee project: Measure A, the sales tax extension that would help bring BART to San Jose.

Even now, the mayor refuses to talk about the affair or his relationship with Nuñez, who quit her city job a short time after the announcement. He told voters on the day of his admission that the affair had "ceased." But he resumed the relationship, which continues today.

Since the news broke, the mayor has played turtle whenever the question arises, pulling back into a shell and refusing to talk. Asked a reasonable question about how his affair changed him as a person and affected his ability to govern, Gonzales repeated that he wouldn't go there with his private life--even though governing hardly counts as private life.

"I've said since I came public on that issue that I'm going to focus on issues and questions about public policy," Gonzales told Metro. "I think the people rewarded me with a re-election because I stayed focused on their needs and performed the job they wanted done, and I'm going to continue to do that in my second term."

Gonzales seems frustrated that the affair topic is still alive, and he surely must be. He's a methodical guy who successfully planned his career and major policy announcements. But one thing he can't stop being remembered for is a sex story.

The fall of 2000, however, brought the mayor his biggest triumph. Measure A passed with a whopping majority, helped considerably by the mayor's ability to force it on the ballot.

In December, Gonzales suffered another setback: he lost his most important aide, Chief of Staff Jude Barry, who led Gonzales to victory in his first supervisorial race 10 years earlier and had been the key architect of his ascent to power.

And by leaving his wife, Alvina, Gonzales lost another important supporter, one who had been instrumental in his electoral victories. Supporters and even Gonzales himself said Alvina was one of the most important parts of the team because of her personality, the charming, warm yang to her husband's businesslike yin.

Back to Downtown

And now, the man whom many thought of as gubernatorial material a couple years ago appears to be losing momentum. His re-election didn't help. By winning in the March primary without facing a real challenge, he got that second term he was looking for, but he lost the opportunity to prove himself.

The low-turnout election means Gonzales clinched another four years with the support of only 57,315 San Joseans, only 16 percent of the city's registered voters, and less than 7 percent of San Jose's residents. By comparison, George W. Bush was elected with the support of 31 percent of the nation's registered voters, and Los Angeles mayor James Hahn was approved by 20 percent of that city's registered voters.

This fall, there will be no big-name candidate to challenge Gonzales to a high-profile life-or-death battle that could hone the mayor's political survival skills and pump up his name ID outside of the South Bay.

For a guy whose first mayoral election was a bang, his second was a whimper. And then ... there's downtown.

The $1 billion Palladium redevelopment plan imploded this year. For years, hopes for a major boost to downtown rested on that plan, and when it fell apart, Gonzales couldn't help but watch his stock slip.

The year before, House of Blues, a big nightclub slated to occupy a prime location in the old Woolworth's building in the middle of downtown, was delayed indefinitely. The Improv comedy club also suffered schedule setbacks.

And even though these things aren't necessarily the mayor's fault, they don't exactly make him look good.

Then there's Susan Shick, director of the Redevelopment Agency. Gonzales plucked her from the city of Long Beach as a replacement for longtime director Frank Taylor, who had accumulated sweeping powers under previous administrations. But Shick's star has dimmed. The setbacks with major projects didn't help, but the main problem with Shick is that the agency has earned a reputation for giving the cold shoulder to homeowners, little retailers and minority-owned businesses.

Homeowners first revolted last year, when Redevelopment sent notices to many addresses in and around downtown informing them that their homes could be bulldozed to make way for big residential projects. At the same time, downtown business owners have grown fed up with watching the agency throw millions at signature projects while they get relatively little assistance and, in some cases, eviction notices.

This spring, business owners tired of the lack of progress coalesced into an insurgent activist group called Downtown Retail Advocates. Even now, as the city inches ahead with the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative, a popular and sorely needed plan to revitalize the city's weakest districts, even the hint of eminent domain sends home and business owners over the edge.

Redevelopment is a tricky business. Complex state laws govern agencies like San Jose's--the state's largest. The problem is, Shick hasn't been able to make her case in a way that builds trust with the public. Couple that with failed and stalled plans, and some wonder how much longer Shick can keep her job. Gonzales says he still supports Shick, but it'll be interesting to watch how much longer that stays true if Shick's fumbles further tarnish the mayor.

Sting Like a Bee

If Gonzales were to leave a legacy, it might be to keep repeating what he he's been saying, that San Jose must grow up, and that it must be great.

As a college kid at UC-Santa Cruz, long before his days as a midlevel manager at HP, Gonzales majored in urban planning--a pursuit that is, like the young Gonzales was, both idealistic and practical at the same time. Could this be his salvation? Gonzales could make that bold push that's been lacking, but only he can formulate what that will be. And while he can take credit for a number of positive changes in the city, he must reach further for a true transformation.

San Jose exploded during the postwar era, killing downtown and filling the valley floor with sprawl. Renewal plans that replaced historic buildings with parking lots made it worse. The Redevelopment Agency focused more on creating a destination than building a true urban environment. With some great change always just around the corner, transition has become as much a part of the landscape as palm trees.

Today, downtown is improving, and the mayor can take credit for bringing thousands of new residents to the core. For the first time, the city's political leadership is getting serious about building more than a token amount of housing downtown, and that may be his administration's biggest unheralded accomplishment. But there is more to do, downtown and elsewhere. Yet, after all this, San Jose begs to be liked and demands to be taken seriously--while doing little to earn that respect.

That's where a catalyzing mayor comes in--the person who writes the plan to rebuild the city, then sells it as a vision.

And despite the mayor's shortcomings, it's not too late.

Gonzales has demonstrated a talent for turning old enemies into allies. He patched over differences with old Board of Supervisors colleagues Diridon and Mike Honda. And he can be knowledgeable and articulate with the media, though he has been less accessible to the press than previous mayors.

The best advice for Gonzales, however, is his own, the same he delivered when the council approved the new City Hall: "It's time to be bold."

San Jose can build all the subways, convention centers and city halls it wants, but it won't truly arrive as a big city until it can finally boast a Brown, a Koch, a Guiliani who speaks his mind and interacts with the press and community on a consistent, informal and unorchestrated basis. That's the kind of political discourse that builds consensus, hones ideas, mutes the grumbling and gives rise to greatness.

Instead of just a one-man show.


To contact Jeff Kearns: jkearns@metronews.com

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From the June 27-July 3, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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

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