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Mayoral Stumper

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Steven DeCinzo

With Tom McEnery still waffling and a protégé probably challenging, the race for San Jose mayor is on--fitfully

By Will Harper

One thousand of San Jose's glitterati mixed inside a banquet room at the Fairmont Hotel, chatting over cocktails about stock options and political ones, waiting for the reception to begin. They were there ostensibly to say goodbye to retiring county Supervisor Ron Gonzales, though everyone in attendance knew they would be saying hello to mayoral candidate Ron Gonzales--who had started running the day he sold his Sunnyvale home and moved to San Jose five years before.

Among those chatting it up that evening last December were two well-respected and well-connected Gonzales boosters--county tax assessor Larry Stone and local PR guru Peter Carter. As they spoke, a familiar voice with a slight Texas twang interrupted. It belonged to another mayoral aspirant: Councilmember Pat Dando.

"She got right in our faces," Stone recalls. "She said something like, 'I know both of you are already committed, but I know you're both open-minded.' "

As Dando continued, the two men realized she was trying to woo them into her camp--at her opponent's party. Though Stone and Carter didn't budge, they marveled at Dando's chutzpah.

When Gonzales finally approached the podium, Stone spotted Dando retreating to an open spot, distancing herself from possible distractions, crossing her arms, standing back, sizing up the competition. Stone, a noted baseball fan, likens Dando's focus that night to a hitter in the batter's box watching the pitcher's moves, gauging his stuff.

Ever since, Dando, a Republican, has been shmoozing and plotting her way toward the mayor's office. On the council, she has deftly picked her issues to situate herself in the electable center--adopting a conservative stance on Internet porn at the library and a liberal position in favor of some affirmative-action preferences.

Of the five people currently being touted as mayoral hopefuls, only Gonzales has campaigned longer and more aggressively than Dando. Frank Fiscalini, another hopeful who also ran in 1990, has rested on his name recognition and sat on the sidelines. (Fiscalini told Metro this week he's made up his mind, but isn't ready to announce his decision yet.) Environmental attorney Chuck Reed just made it public that he's thinking about running, but he says he won't run against ex-Mayor Tom McEnery.

Meanwhile, McEnery has spent the past year doing his best Mario Cuomo impression in a dance about whether or not he will run. This has presented a problem to every other potential contender, especially Dando, McEnery's closest loyalist and onetime key adviser.

Dando has been assembling her campaign steering committee. She's been talking with Los Angeles-based political consultant Ron Smith, who ran her 1995 council campaign, and tapped key advisers. "I'm ready to run," she repeats like a mantra to reporters, while McEnery stalls. But she ain't officially running yet.

Dando remained trapped in this political limbo until last week, when she told a confidant that she's going to run no matter what Tom McEnery does.

His Gal Friday

'LOYALTY IS A VERY RARE thing these days," McEnery tells me from his car phone as he's heading God-knows-where. It's the first time in at least a month that he's returned my phone call--my punishment for canceling a scheduled appearance on his weekly KEZR radio show. At the moment, however, he seems in good spirits, and my mentioning the word "loyalty" gets him reminiscing. "Isn't it amazing how well all my staff has done since I left office?"

One of those staffers was Pat Dando. Dando's ascension in San Jose politics began more than a decade ago, when she worked on then-mayor McEnery's re-election campaign. She stayed on as a staff aide to the mayor, who groomed her for elected office.

After term limits forced McEnery from office in 1990, Dando went to work for the redevelopment agency as Frank Taylor's gatekeeper and PR flack. There she established contacts with campaign-friendly developers such as Barry Swenson (who was fined $20,000 by the Fair Political Practices Commission for illegally funneling money to her 1995 council campaign, as has been widely reported). While at RDA, she toiled and succeeded in getting the convention center named after her old boss.

Throughout her unofficial mayoral campaign, Dando has remained carefully deferential to McEnery, who now works as an executive with the San Jose Sharks. After promising to announce by Labor Day, McEnery now talks about not having any timeline whatsoever, mischievously suggesting he could wait until March. That's the local equivalent of joining the presidential race after the New Hampshire primary.

For the average San Jose voter, thinking about the June election now is like buying Christmas presents before Halloween. But while there are plenty of shopping days until the primary, the campaign season is already upon the candidates, especially those like Dando and Gonzales who lack marquee-name recognition. In 1990, Fiscalini, then an unknown, started campaigning two years before election day.

Of course, McEnery, with his name ID and glib manner, can afford to sit out the beginning of the campaign.

Fundraising and spending can legally begin Dec. 4. Anticipating this, Dando's finally made public her frustration with McEnery's Hamlet act. "I've told him that he's got to make a decision in a timely fashion," Dando told Metro recently, with detectable irritation in her voice.

The longer McEnery waits, the more Dando risks falling behind robo-campaigner Gonzales, who will be depositing dozens of $250 checks into his campaign account the first day possible. In his 1988 campaign for county supervisor, Gonzales raised $500,000--the most ever spent in a supervisorial contest. His talent and zeal for fundraising is the stuff of local legend.

The Unlikely Candidate

'THERE'S NO WAY." That's how 99.9 percent of local politicos reacted when asked if Dando would ever run against McEnery. Ken Yeager's response is typical. "It's awfully hard to stand up and challenge someone who is your mentor," says Yeager, a former candidate for state Assembly and a political science teacher at San Jose State University.

Chuck Reed, who was working as treasurer for Margie Fernandes' truncated mayoral campaign, more pointedly observes that Dando would be trying to woo support from the same crowd of downtown developers and civic boosters as McEnery.

Indeed, the financial reports from her 1995 council campaign are filled with last names from McEnery's circle of supporters among local lawyers and developers: Biagini, Imwalle, DiNapoli, Cristina.

"I don't think it's plausible or do-able," Reed argues, "and I wouldn't run against Tom if it were me.

"There's a tremendous McEnery political base, and she's trying to draw from the same base. If McEnery runs, she doesn't have a lot left."

After a few unreturned phone calls, I shadowed Dando after a recent Redevelopment Board meeting to ask her about her career plans and McEnery. As she stormed past me, her chief aide, Erik Schoennauer, warned, "You can try and catch her, but she's not in a very good mood."

Dando was clearly in a hurry but politely agreed to answer my questions. She had to pick up her mother, whom Dando moved from Texas earlier in the year, and drive her to an afternoon doctor's appointment. On the elevator she told me that she would make a decision independent of what McEnery does. If necessary, she said, she'd run against him. "Then people will have two good candidates to choose from," she said, disappearing into her sixth-floor office.

In private, Dando has apparently been even more decisive, telling a high-profile friend that she was in for sure. All that's left is the official announcement.

It's hard to blame Dando for getting impatient. She gave McEnery as long as reasonably possible to make a decision, even pushing her own deadline back two months to accommodate him. "It's probably real frustrating for her," says Steve Preminger, the chair of the local Democratic Party. "I think a lot of people would say it's terribly arrogant and rude [of McEnery], but I don't think it bugs Tom a bit."

McEnery, meanwhile, explains that people, including his friend Dando, shouldn't decide what they do based on what he does. "I've told everybody for quite some period of time, 'Do whatever you want to do.' "

Behind the scenes, McEnery's told some friends that he's definitely running, while others from his inner circle insist they still have no clue what he intends to do. There are theories as to why he's delayed making an announcement. One is that the earlier he gets in, the earlier his opponents come after him.

But this week's Redevelopment Board agenda may have the best clue yet: a proposed $1.1 million low-interest loan and grant to McEnery and his brother, John, to rehabilitate the Vendome Apartments, a San Pedro Square building they own. An official candidate for mayor might have to answer a lot of questions about such a deal, although McEnery says the two issues are unrelated. (See Public Eye, p.18.)

As the official campaign season draws closer, a Dando vs. McEnery match-up in the primary seems more and more plausible. A longtime McEnery ally told Metro last week that if Dando announces soon, she'll force players in the McEnery machine to make a choice: Go with Pat or wait for Tom. To say the least, it could prove awkward if not divisive for David Pandori, another McEnery protégé who is toying with a mayoral bid. He has said he won't run if either McEnery or Dando does. What does he do if they both run?

With a track record as mayor and a large building named after him, McEnery's reputation puts him out in front even before he announces. But he also has a reputation--even among his boosters--as a lazy candidate. On election day in 1994, the day he lost to Zoe Lofgren for Congress, McEnery invited pals over for a barbecue in his back yard instead of hawking precincts like his opponent.

Just two weeks ago, it looked like it was going to be a two-person race between Gonzales and someone from the McEnery camp. This week, the race is starting to look more like a free-for-all, to the point that even Claude Fletcher, the born-again conservative Republican who ran against McEnery in 1982, has emerged from obscurity and is being mentioned as a possible candidate.

Ironically, even though there are more plausible contenders, San Jose voters won't be getting much political variety when it comes to issues. With the exception of Fletcher, all the candidates safely reside in the political center. The economy is good, everyone is happy. That means candidates will be emphasizing their record, style and character.

Which means, ironically, that it's going to be a brutal campaign.

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From the Nov. 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro.

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