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Price Your Name

By Dan Pulcrano

Ernie Renzel is a swell guy. I have enjoyed bumping into him from time to time at the St. James post office, because the former San Jose mayor is always ready to share a nugget from the city's history, which he knows so well. Ernie's getting on in years, though, and no longer checks his P.O. box. If they decide to name the airport or one of its terminals for him, I will be among the first to say it's a fine idea. For if it weren't for Ernie's willingness to place his personal assets at risk for the municipal good some decades ago, we wouldn't have an airport in the South Bay, and San Jose might be another suburban backwater without the powerful economy of an international trade center.

Clyde Arbuckle, for whom an East Side elementary school is named, showed up at a council hearing last week to sit through public testimony on the fate of the historic Jose Theater. Arbuckle remembers when his mother took him downtown for 20-cent movies, and of course his late brother, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, performed there. The city historian says it would be a shame to tear it down. By the way, a friend recently wrote him from Europe when he read about a crack problem in the neighborhood of Clyde Arbuckle School. Buildings named after the living, as Arbuckle well knows, can bring both fame and notoriety.

Today, making a name for a product is known among the business schooled as "branding." Establishing a good brand can sell cola in Malawi or make or break a Web site. Marketers spend millions to keep names on the tips of tongues, because a well-recognized one can drive up stock prices and keep their senior executives flying around in Learjets with wet bars. The value of a good mark can be quantified; accountants call it "goodwill" when it's listed as an asset on the balance sheet of a financial statement.

For politicians, who are marketed like products, the right name can mean the difference between being president of the United States or heading up a research institute at a small Midwestern college. For the right price, a political consultant can calculate just how many pieces of mail should be sent to get voters to remember the right few syllables on election day. And public awareness of a name can be leveraged into political office, a paying job or economic opportunity.

Of course, a name can be handed down, like inherited wealth. Receiving the benefits of such parental foresight is the modern equivalent of monarchic succession. Witness the electoral triumphs of former Gov. Edmund Brown Jr., Santa Clara Councilman Rod Diridon Jr., or Mayor Richard Daley Jr. Sometimes the name is married, as in the case of Assemblywoman Elaine Alquist.

And sometimes the free advertising is a thank you gift from one's political colleagues. Take the San Jose McEnery Convention Center, an honor bestowed upon its namesake after his accomplished tenure as San Jose's mayor, during which a number of impressive structures were erected in the city's downtown. As a result, not only did Tom McEnery and his siblings benefit from the appreciated value of their inherited downtown real estate holdings, but McEnery also landed a job with a sports team he helped recruit by turning over the keys to a state-of-the-art facility built with about $125 million, before interest, in taxpayer-funded borrowings. Still, those spoils can hardly compare with having one's name engraved on the portico of a major regional convention facility while still in one's young 40s, without the inconvenience of being murdered by a mentally unstable political adversary, as, tragically, was the fate of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, for whom that city's convention facility is named.

While some objected at the time to abandoning the tradition that namees be dead and buried--or at least have one thigh in the grave--McEnery still had enough pals on the City Council to bless the christening. The reworked cement sign became our region's largest political bumper sticker four years later when McEnery ran for office in the 16th Congressional District.

The question is not whether McEnery deserved the recognition--he wasn't a bad mayor, after all--but whether it is appropriate for political allies to use public facilities, in effect, as campaign donations to departing public servants with still-active political careers. It opens the door to a corruption of sorts. How will it affect votes on public matters when an individual's legacy and livelihood can be influenced by the votes of colleagues? An elected official's actions must never be tainted by the prospect of personal financial gain. And naming buildings for mid-career pols does just that.

Has San Jose learned its lesson? This week's cover story was written not to pick on Tom McEnery for what happened with the convention center--that's history now--but because the incident is the most famous local example of a modern political problem.

We are about to enter another round of bequests, I fear, as term limits force Mayor Hammer from the dais, as well as some of the councilmembers with whom she sat. Will Mayor Hammer have a theater named after her as she declares her intention to run for, say, lieutenant governor of the nation's most populous state? Will Frank Taylor lend his moniker to the arena, which would no doubt seal his legend and enhance his earning potential as a private development consultant?

These are only hypothetical questions, of course. Until they're brought up as motions and seconded.

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From the Sept. 25-Oct. 1, 1997 issue of Metro.

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