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Tight-lipped: After his personal life became a news topic, Mayor Gonzales grew suspicious of the press and now speaks to the media either through a spokesman or in tightly controlled situations.

The Quiet Mayor

After five years on the job, San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales doesn't want to talk about it. Or anything else.

By Allie Gottlieb

WHEN RON Gonzales was running for mayor, he took members of the local press to breakfast to court their support. He exchanged informal banter about city issues. He included editors in his email lists.

Five years later, it's nearly impossible to get the guy on the phone. He's surrounded by gatekeepers who control access, speak on his behalf and parcel out interviews in brief, structured bites. This is in contrast to previous mayors like Tom McEnery, who was known to call up writers to engage in freewheeling discussions and lobby for stories, or Susan Hammer, who invited editors out to lunch on a semiregular basis.

Is it any wonder the mayor isn't getting the kind of press he wants?

To do their jobs, reporters have been reduced to groveling, hounding or settling for filtered comments from polished public relations professionals. Local mainstream journalists and one expert PR guy swear that the best time to corner the mayor himself with a question comes just before the Tuesday City Council meeting starts. But that turns out not to be the case for a print reporter who's been gently but persistently stalking him for more than a year and a half.

"Your timing's off," Gonzales' press handler, David Vossbrink, tells the reporter. Vossbrink, an amiable, articulate fellow who looks like Family Ties and Tremors star Michael Gross, is seldom if ever at a loss for words when it comes to speaking for the mayor.

"It surprises me that even on basic stories, it's Vossbrink getting quoted," says San Jose State University political science professor Terry Christensen.

Rich Robinson, a political consultant and Gonzales critic, adds, "Compared to Susan Hammer, he's completely inaccessible."

Gonzo Journalism

Gonzales also plays favorites, parceling out access to those members of the press that either he views as more important or who engage in the kind of coverage the mayor views favorably. Vossbrink confirms that the mayor has invented a hierarchy of significance in terms of which press hounds deserve a response.

Metro has a hard time, for example, getting past Vossbrink, even though the recent Media Audit indicates that more people read this newspaper than any day's Valley section of the San Jose Mercury News. Maybe it's because Metro, like other alternative weeklies, is known for challenging conventional wisdom. Or maybe it's because Metro's Public Eye column broke the news that Gonzales was carrying on an affair with one of his employees ("Office Romance? No Comment," Sept. 7, 2000). But even before the crumbling of the mayor's marriage, longstanding interview requests had been ignored.

The firewall goes beyond the alternative press. Getting to the mayor proves a struggle for the hordes of reporters at the Mercury News as well--a complaint Vossbrink has himself acknowledged--and other local media outlets.

"Whenever we want a comment, it seems like we get Vossbrink," says a local radio reporter. "I think [Gonzales' growing silence] happened after the affair. ... He better snap out of it."

A daily print reporter adds that even before the affair, getting an interview with Gonzales "had been hit or miss."

And one observer of City Hall politics (who asked to be unnamed) sums up the situation this way: "I think he's held all of one open press conference in the last five years that he's been in office. I think he held one in 2001. ... Open press conferences are standards for other mayors. It's a demonstration really of how [Gonzales is] not comfortable with reporters."

Why Bother?

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan was legendary for dropping in on the offices of L.A. papers for chats with local reporters. Meanwhile, current L.A. Mayor Jim Hahn, who was on vacation until after presstime, has to fight for the attention of reporters, with Hollywood stars going through high-profile breakups and sex scandals.

"He's his own best spokesperson," says his communications director, Julie Wong, when I ask her why she thinks it matters that Hahn speak to the press himself. "It's important for him to be able to have positive relationships with reporters."

Former Mayor McEnery says talking directly with the press seemed to him safer and smarter than ducking calls when he was in office. "I had press secretaries," he says. "But on issues, I always spoke for myself. ... I have less chance of making mistakes, I find, if I speak for myself. Plus it's what I was elected to do."

Christensen notes that the use of press secretaries has increased since Hammer's mayorship. But he says, even former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani kept up his open press conferences, despite having developed a "hostile relationship" with the media. "I guess it kind of surprises me in San Jose," Christensen says about Gonzales' dodginess in dealing with the press, "because, even though we have a million people, it doesn't seem like the mayor needs to be that insulated."

Other area electeds aren't so reticent about facing the press. Rep. Mike Honda, for instance, was spotted the other day chatting up the public at an open town hall meeting. Rep. Zoe Lofgren held a cozy, hour-long but otherwise unlimited conversation with three local reporters earlier this month while hanging out in her district on a break from D.C.

Mostly, she freely criticized the Bush administration for screwing up the economy and foreign relations. She answered questions about what she thinks of gay marriage, the recall and the economy. She also talked about losing weight on Weight Watchers. All in all, she exhibited personality and reminded the media who she is.

Of course, Gonzales has his supporters and apologists. Take David Ginsborg, who worked as policy director under Gonzales during Gonzales' last year on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

"That's not atypical of people in the public spotlight," Ginsborg says. "Ron's comments are carefully thought out. That may not serve the interests of the media. But is that inaccessible? That does not mean he's inaccessible to the general public."

Ginsborg concedes that the politician he works for now, county Assessor Larry Stone (an extreme example of the media-friendly politician), would handle press calls differently than Gonzales. But he explains that the mayor's caution could be considered smart.

"For all the time that I've known Ron, he's not the type of person that's going to say something that he's going to regret," Ginsborg says.

But Ginsborg is outnumbered by those who criticize Gonzales as "unreachable," "unapproachable" and other euphemisms for "not there," as Mercury News writer Peter Delevett made clear in his multiweek rant in the beginning of this year berating Gonzales for lacking initiative and the skill to cheerlead.

"Ron's office seems to take criticism personally," says consultant Rich Robinson. "They're very quick to respond not publicly but behind the scenes to anything negative."

Even on Issues, No Comment

Gonzales' calendar for the last year and a half shows all scheduled appointments (except the ones made "on the fly"). The documented press appointments in 2002 included one half-hour meeting with Metro's City Hall reporter at the time and two interviews with the Mercury News' main City Hall reporter, Mike Zapler, who works in the same building as the mayor.

Vossbrink frames the mayor's press wariness in time-management terms. "It's just that there are so many better uses of his time than to respond to gossip questions," he wrote in an email.

Assuming Vossbrink, a straight-up communications specialist who makes it a rule never to go "off the record" with a reporter, is sincere with his contention that Gonzales just doesn't like to answer "gossip questions," comments were requested from the mayor on a series of serious news topics.

What does the mayor think of Barry Swenson Builders' high-density Tamien Place condo proposal? What are his concerns about the shooting death of Bich Cau Thi Tran by San Jose police in her kitchen? How well does he think California's representatives in Congress are responding to his pleas for BART-to­San Jose funding? What is his strategy for supporting the Redevelopment Agency's continued existence? That sort of thing.

The mayor would not respond to any of the questions, which were posed only as general topics through Vossbrink.

"He's not good thinking on his feet," one political observer believes. "When he does talk to reporters, he comes across as rehearsed and almost unfriendly. ... Accessibility is just one of his problems."

SJSU's Christensen expands on the theme of the missing mayor. "[Gonzales] has been out in the community less," he says. "I think his focus has shifted. I've been mostly in political circles and maybe that's not where he feels most comfortable right now."

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From the September 18-24, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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

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