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Pull-litical Leanings: Candidates Terry Gregory and Ed Voss have become victims of their supporters and larger-than-life negative campaigns. But the truth is much more amusing.

Taut Race

San Jose's two candidates, in a pitched battle for the District 7 council seat, are really two very similar guys being pulled in opposite directions

By Allie Gottlieb

FOLLOWERS OF the San Jose City Council race in the mainstream press would believe that voters in District 7 have to choose between labor or business this Nov. 5, and that the candidates are both hopelessly riddled with flaws.

Ever since candidate Terry Gregory won backing from the South Bay Labor Council and Ed Voss scored the San Jose/Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce's endorsement, the campaigns have come off as a mudfest between warring factions. And the root of it all is that this seat supposedly holds the potential swing vote on a divided council. Currently, only five of the 10 councilmembers (Ken Yeager, Cindy Chavez, Linda LeZotte, Forrest Williams and Nora Campos) reliably vote with the labor lobby. Since it takes six votes to make a majority, all that the local labor contingent needs to run the city is Gregory.

This is what the San Jose Mercury News has reported all summer following the two candidates' emergence from the primary. "Most political junkies expect an all-out slugfest for a seat that could decide the business-labor balance on the council," the Mercury reported on Aug. 18, in a news brief boasting that the mayor called the newspaper with his decision to back Voss.

It's "a tough race for a council seat that could tip the balance of power on the City Council and help shape government policies for years to come," the Mercury told readers on Aug. 20. "Unions and business groups have declared the race a must-win, with labor groups generally lining up behind [Terry] Gregory and business interests backing his opponent, Ed Voss."

But on Sunday, Oct. 20, the Merc had a change of heart. Two weeks before the election, the Merc reported that "long interviews with the candidates reveal that their assigned labels--Voss as the Chamber of Commerce candidate, and Gregory as labor's surrogate--in many cases don't fit."

Candidate Gregory says the Merc's new perspective on the race surprised him. "I'm glad that our true positions finally got out," he says. But the polarization premise, many say, was flawed to begin with.

In fact, some say the swing-vote issue dictating the significance of this race is imaginary. The head of the local labor council, Amy Dean, says Councilmember David Cortese already adds that sixth vote. She also points out that Judy Chirco, who won the race to replace outgoing Councilmember John DiQuisto in District 9 without a runoff in the March primary, promises to bring a seventh labor-friendly vote to the council in January. Nevertheless, Dean is rooting for Gregory, who she says has more "real-life experience" and sounds "more sure of himself" when talking local politics.

Gregory is a little less diplomatic, but likewise distinguishes himself from his opponent by claiming a broader foundation. "I think he's been concerned about his neighborhood, and I've been concerned about all the neighborhoods in this district," Gregory says.

Voss counterattacks, emphasizing the breadth of his background. "My background's broader," he says, pointing out that he was a founding board member of the Franklin-McKinley Education Foundation, as well as a planning commissioner and the owner of a graphics company. "I have a more in-depth understanding of policy."

Despite all attempts at portraying the District 7 race as San Jose's great dichotomy, here's a little secret: Gregory and Voss are very similar in the scheme of things.

San Jose's Choice

"This is a race between two liberal Democrats. That's the bottom line," San Jose/Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce head Jim Cunneen says. A Republican and politically active former state assemblyman, he's backing Voss because he thinks he'll be more independent than Gregory and has vowed to help balance San Jose's mighty labor lobby with a powerful business voice. He's there to temper the power of people like Cindy Chavez, the former director of education and outreach for the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council and current member of the City Council.

These two reflect the divergent San Jose personalities supposedly coming to a head in the Voss-Gregory race. Interestingly, however, they have exactly the same take on the race.

"It's the beauty of being in San Jose," says Chavez, who represents downtown San Jose's District 3. "We tend to have very thoughtful, progressive people run for office." Chavez supports Gregory because he represents "more experience and vision vs. a really nice guy who wants to run for City Council." Nevertheless, she adds, even if Voss beats Gregory, "the Chamber doesn't win with a red-meat Republican. So I believe it really is a race between two liberal Democrats."

Voss and Gregory do look remarkably alike on the issues. They both support extending the Redevelopment Agency's contract past 2004. They both support giving a living wage to employees working under contract with the RDA. Each talks about the need to preserve affordable housing and to keep renters' and landlords' rights in mind when voting on laws like the just cause eviction ordinance. Both point to a need to increase resources for the police and fire departments. They're both NAACP members and favor collecting demographic data on people arrested. Neither supports a civilian review board to police the police.

What's more, each camp has conducted fruitful opposition research. Gregory's closet skeleton is financial. He failed to pay debts to his homeowners association, the IRS and others--and came close to losing his condo about a decade ago. Voss supporters used that information to publicly question Gregory's ability to manage taxpayers' funds when, the refrain went, "he can't even balance his own checkbook."

Gregory repaid almost all of his debts and says he's nearly resolved a dispute over what he owes the IRS.

Voss is currently embroiled in a campaign-finance ethics-violation case, wherein his handlers and a campaign volunteer who works at City Hall for his day job are accused of orchestrating a $20,000 expenditure, thus rendering the donation not independent and, as a result, illegal. The next hearing for these allegations comes on Oct. 28, only a week before the election.

Mouse Race

Of course, there are actual differences between the candidates. And they're easy to miss with all the scandalous fireworks lighting up the District 7 campaign landscape.

This part of town, District 7, features the Rock Spring, Tully, Senter, Santee and Kennedy neighborhoods. Concerns include protecting the area's industrial core and providing enough affordable housing.

And there's the Tropicana Shopping Center, which, depending on the take, is a den of nasty code violations or the home of some small-time neighborhood merchants threatened with displacement--not to mention the subject of a lawsuit by property owner Dennis Fong, who alleges the city improperly used eminent domain to take over his property.

The district comprises roughly 95,000 people who are about 47 percent Latino, 35 percent Asian, 11 percent white and 3.5 percent African American. Only 27 percent of the residents are registered to vote. "Nobody up in my area leaves in the morning to go play golf," says Dave Hennessy, the state president of the California Mobile Home Resource and Action Association (CMRAA). Hennessy describes his neighborhood as blue collar.

For Hennessy, all political races are about one thing: does the candidate support the mobile home ordinance (which he says protects the mobile home lifestyle)? In this case, the CMRAA tenants endorsed Gregory.

The new Los Lagos Golf Course on Tuers Road, where Voss chose to meet for his Metro interview last week, doesn't much reflect the district's challenges. Instead, the sun shines on the greens and the pond glistens--and the neighborhood seems like
it could be out in the country.

A three-term president of the McLaughlin Corridor Neighborhood Association and a Strong Neighborhoods Initiative Tully/Senter neighborhood committee member, Voss brings up his pride in having planted daffodils with his neighbors. He's well versed in specific upcoming neighborhood development projects. He's a strong supporter of Measure F, the proposed hotel tax increase on the November ballot meant to pay for the convention center expansion, a stand that made him fast friends with the business community. (Gregory supports Measure F as well.)

Voss is less ready to discuss concerns about other citywide issues, such as the preponderance of police downtown and whether that's a deterrent to a healthy night life, or if there's any truth to Tropicana merchants' feelings that racism plays a role in the city's plans to redevelop.

The candidates' comfort zone during interviews exposes a slight but noticeable difference in their personalities. Voss, focused on flowers and local developments, seems like the country mouse in a children's story, while Gregory, a member of the governing board of the Franklin-McKinley School District and, among other things, a former diversity commissioner for San Jose, comes off more like the city mouse, with an ambitious agenda for widespread change.

Gregory's interview was held at a conference table in the hallway of his campaign office on Tully Road. One of Gregory's campaign staffers sat in and took notes. Meanwhile, Gregory's cell phone rang every few minutes as a constant reminder of how busy he is.

"We have to find out what makes a city desirable and have that be part of the vision for San Jose," Gregory says. "San Jose does not have a vision. At least, I haven't seen it. And we're doing a block at a time and so forth, and that's how we've been moving along.

Voss responds to a question about how well the police are deployed around nightclubs downtown by saying, "I think there's a harmony." Gregory, on the other hand, has concerns that too many police can make the place look "like a police state."

The clearest difference between Voss and Gregory on a campaign point is that Voss supports the Redevelopment Agency in general and its plan for seizing the Tropicana through eminent domain, whereas Gregory has "some serious questions about the plan." Both candidates point to good things and bad things they think the RDA has done.

Gregory says bringing Adobe to the city was good. He likes the San Jose neighborhood initiative concept and the "notion of helping existing businesses downtown." He says the Pavilion was a failure. Voss credits the RDA with pushing for the convention center expansion. But when asked to assess the RDA's shortcomings, Voss doesn't. He responds, "You know, I haven't really worked with them."

Blame Game

How did these two friendly, middle-aged, balding, non-Asian, non-Latino men with glasses get sent to the farthest, most opposing peaks? Everyone's got somebody to pin it on.

"I think it's curious in these races how candidates sort of get boxed into corners by who supports them," says Terry Christensen, San Jose State University political science professor and Gregory supporter. "First of all, labor and business work together on a lot of stuff. Second of all, Terry's a businessman, and Voss sides with labor on a lot of stuff."

Voss is the first to plead for a different tag line. "Until June 12, I was the neighborhood candidate," Voss recalls. "I was given the Chamber endorsement--and I'm very proud of it--but the next day in the Merc, I was the business candidate." He's clear that "the media created it."

That's not what South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council executive officer Amy Dean thinks. She says it was Jim Cunneen. "He has created this whole thing," she says. "He's trying to create a name for himself." Business leaders, however, say it's Dean who has created the polarization.

But they're all wrong, according to Cunneen, who says he's firmly against pigeonholing the race unrealistically as labor against business. "Wouldn't it be fun if life just worked in categories like that?" Cunneen asks rhetorically. "We really are talking about more personal styles--the ability to be open, independent.

Chavez puts it this way. "This is not a fight over control of the council. ... It's less about the city's identity and more about the Chamber's identity."

But theory variation aside, with the possible exception of the Mercury News, which gives no explanation for the creation of the labor vs. business facade, no one seems to think the candidates chose their own corners.

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From the October 24-30, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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