Shaping a legacy

Daunting issues and lame-duck status shadow San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales


San Jose’s mayor is a busy man. After easily winning re-election to a second and final term, the mayor of the 11th-largest U.S. city is turning to childhood lessons as he faces the daunting tasks of dealing with a recession, launching new initiatives and shaking a lame-duck image.

Despite his large corner office with a panoramic view, being mayor of San Jose since 1999 has been an almost thankless job for Ron Gonzales regionally, as public attention in the Bay Area tends to focus on San Francisco and Oakland.

“I think for years, San Jose lived in the shadow of our two neighbors to the north,” Gonzales says. “I think we suffered from a lack of identity because we were trying to copy other people’s identity rather than shape our own.”

This from a man whose own image has remained enigmatic, despite having one of the most public jobs in the valley.

“He has a presence about him that says, ‘I know what I’m doing,'” says San Jose Councilman Ken Yeager, who met Gonzales 14 years ago when the mayor was running for county supervisor. “He has been more successful as mayor than he was on the board of supervisors.”

A guarded expression in Gonzales’ eyes betrays a painful first term in office. A Democrat, Gonzales has been savaged by the left wing of his party for not supporting expensive measures that would have benefited labor causes. His relationship with local media is icy after news reports dug into his personal life in 2000 and revealed his sexual relationship with a female aide and the break-up of his long-term marriage.

Two-and-a-half years later, a now-single Gonzales says he wants to focus on building a world-class city. With a population approaching 1 million, San Jose is the largest city in the Bay Area, beating San Francisco by a hefty margin of about 200,000.

Gonzales believes the days of the world ignoring San Jose are over, even if the rest of the Bay Area hasn’t caught up to reality.

“Because of our size and proximity to the high-tech industry, we’re getting more and more notoriety and recognition,” Gonzales says. “And certainly, we are taking our rightful place in the politics and economy of this state and this nation.”

When Gonzales speaks like that, you know you’re listening to a natural politician — someone with change-the-world dreams in his DNA. That genetic predisposition can be traced to his father, Bob Gonzales, a celebrated labor and Latino activist in the 1960s and 1970s.

The mayor says his life was irrevocably altered almost a generation ago because of the teachings of his father.

“My father was very involved in the community, social justice, the civil rights movement,” Gonzales says. “He was really the first person who instilled in my mind, and in the minds of my brothers and sisters, that whatever we were pursuing in terms of a career, that alongside of that, we had an obligation to find some way that improved the lives of others.”

The mayor’s cool demeanor thaws as he talks about his father, who died in 1994. Gonzales says he strives to keep lessons alive even though his views are not as liberal as his father’s.

“I have found that public service has been the best way that I have found to É improve the lives of others,” says Gonzales, pausing to collect his thoughts. “To provide an opportunity for a child to check out their first library book, to play their first soccer game and to feel safe doing it because they are living in the safest large city in America, to start public education at age three though our Smart Start center — these are the kinds of new things that you can bring to a community than can improve the lives of others.”

Besides his father, the mayor points to his career at Hewlett-Packard Co. as the other major influence in the way he approaches life. Many believe Gonzales’ 11-year career at HP tempered his father’s more leftist influence.

“One of the things you learn in business is to be results-oriented, and I pride myself on making sure to the extent that is possible that government can be run like a business,” Gonzales says. “You can be focused on results and outcomes rather than just spending.”

He says coming to politics from the private sector brought the experience of knowing the bottom line and how to manage costs, even though applying those lessons to a city can be difficult.

“I think the challenge we faced when I came in is that the city of San Jose is a large organization of 5,000 to 6,000 workers trying to serve over 900,000 residents. And big organizations, whether in the private or public sector, tend not to be very nimble,” Gonzales says.

He is fighting to keep control of the city’s agenda. For the first time in his political career, Gonzales may face a hostile council majority after two new members, Judy Chirco and Terry Gregory, won seats despite the mayor’s endorsement of their opponents. Some council members have voiced interest about being the city’s next mayor.

“The first four years, he got what he wanted,” Yeager says. “Now he is a lame duck, and I think the tough times are still ahead for him.”

Gonzales’ primary focus these days is San Jose’s Norman Mineta International Airport, which continues to deal with the double whammy of the dot-com recession and aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Gonzales is lobbying for a special March election to get voter approval of funds for emergency projects to improve the airport.

In that special election, city voters will decide on Measure A, which would allow San Jose to proceed with airport improvements, which can’t start under current regulations until the airport is linked to the county’s light-rail system.

“We have to meet federal safety inspections and we can’t do that now,” Gonzales says. “The federal government knows we can’t do it with the existing facilities and the public knows it.”

Although he is tight-lipped about his post-mayoral plans, he has formed an exploratory committee to possibly run for governor in 2006. So far, Gonzales says he is confident his father would be proud of the strides San Jose has taken under his watch with its school initiatives and efforts to build affordable housing.

“He’d be ecstatic about our effort to bring BART to San Jose, although it won’t be implemented by the time I leave office [Jan. 1, 2007].”