SAN JOSE—If this city were a person, it would be a middle-aged man on the tail end of a spiraling career who, having just gone through a mid-life crisis, buys a glitzy new house and tries to hook up with younger women, then lies to his family about it. In other words, San Jose would be our current mayor, Ron Gonzales.
Until recently, most of San Jose associated scandal with Gonzales due to his soap opera-like affair with a young intern. Now Gonzales has been indicted on charges of felony bribery, conspiracy and misuse of public funds for a deal he made with Norcal Waste Systems, a garbage company. This latest scandal fits right into the narrative of San Jose in the post-dot-com era. Just like that mid-life crisis guy who still goes to dance clubs to reclaim a lost past, our city was destined for public disgrace.
Before the dot-come crash, we were the storied city that had moved from orchards to computer chips. Every region in the world seemed to want to be at our speed. There was Silicon Alley in New York, Silicon Forest in Portland, Ore., even Silicon Hills in Texas. Back then, in the late ‘90s, our new Latino mayor was addressing the Democratic National Convention and being talked about to succeed Gray Davis as governor of California.
After the crash, our economic and political blueprint lost its allure, and so did our mayor. But once famous, it’s hard to go back to being known as a San Francisco suburb (as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom called us at a mayors’ conference earlier this year). We have been desperate to save face ever since.
The Norcal deal with Gonzales was a result of the obsession with appearances that has become a strategy for governance in San Jose. In 2000, Gonzales and his aide struck a private deal with Norcal Waste Systems—the mayor would help get the city to pay an extra $11.25 million to Norcal to cover Teamster wages. Investigations say that Gonzales later convinced the city council, which did not know of his agreements with Norcal, to raise garbage rates to cover the cost.
Gonzales originally denied any previous talks with Norcal, but acknowledged last summer that he made the agreement to support a future pay increase. But even after having been indicted by a grand jury, Gonzales refuses to leave office. What the district attorney’s office is calling bribery, he calls an attempt at “labor peace.” According to Gonzales, he was doing what he could to avoid the most publicly embarrassing of labor conflicts—a garbage strike.
People seemed shocked by his audacity, but I can see why Gonzales feels justified in staying on as mayor. He got caught reaching for an end he and the rest of the city’s leadership has been pushing since the dot-com bust—maintaining San Jose’s appearance as utopian and conflict-free, regardless of the means or the cost.
Take, for example, our new City Hall. A $380 million Star Wars-esque monstrosity planted in the heart of downtown, it is a domed structure walled mainly by glass, with a constantly running spray of water in the entryway. It was built as the city was cutting millions in spending, having been decimated by the dot-com gamble, and we now owe $25 million a year for the foreseeable future to pay off the construction.
That construction was marked by a scandal similar to the current one—city officials worked a secret deal with Cisco Systems to ensure that Cisco would win an $8 million dollar contract for the telephone and wireless systems used in the building.
But even after that initial hiccup, San Jose got back on track to build the most futuristic City Hall/Death Star replica it could. Now the city council is trying to approve a $300,000 subsidy to build a Starbucks inside its walls.
Consider also the new moniker that we have taken on, now that “The heart of Silicon Valley” has lost its cache: “The safest big city in America.” We won the title four years in a row, making us some sort of safety dynasty. Every year the mayor puts out a press release on the topic, which our local paper embraces as front-page news.
To maintain such a title, we tolerate disturbingly high reports of conflict between the police and community. We had so many cases of officer-involved shootings that we became one of the first cities in the nation to give all officers tasers in 2005, a supposedly non-lethal option that had the added advantage of contributing to the whole high-tech look.
After implementation, reports found a disproportionate usage of tasers on people of color, and the rate of officer-involved shootings only got higher. And as the city goes for our fifth straight victory in the safest-city contest, we have ever increasing rates of racial profiling and complaints of overstepping by police—a 33 percent increase since 2003, according to the Independent Police Audit.
In the end, Gonzales likely will not do any time, and will be able to finish his term, which ends in December. Last week, the City Council—after having put on a fiery display in the media about forcing the mayor to resign—ended up only taking away roughly 6 percent of his budget and asking him to disclose his appointments calendar and phone logs. A lengthy attempt to force him out would result in more city dysfunction being talked about all over the country, and no one in San Jose leadership wants that.
But the damage has already been done. We have become a city that no longer has any confidence in its leadership. The two candidates who are battling to succeed Gonzales, Cindy Chavez and Chuck Reed, have shrunken their campaign promises to meet lowered expectations—“I won’t make backroom deals.”
Critics of the mayor say that it was pride—the same characteristic that brought him success in his early years—that led to his downfall. San Jose as a city has fallen on the same sword. We were a city that once seemed to be the future; now we’re stumbling as we reach back toward that once-glorious past.