On the morning of July 8, County Assessor Larry Stone met District 1 Supervisor candidate Mike Wasserman at Bill’s Café on the Alameda. By the end of breakfast, Stone, a lifelong Democrat, offered Republican Wasserman his endorsement in the upcoming November election.
“I knew going into the meeting that if in fact our values were comparable that I was prepared to endorse him,” Stone says. “I called Forrest [Williams]. I guess I wanted him to hear my decision, not find out from the press. It was a very short but cordial conversation.”
After the June primary shook off three of the five candidates vying for the seat, the two men left standing are Wasserman, former mayor of Los Gatos, and Williams, former District 2 San Jose City Council member.
Stone’s decision that morning was remarkable because of the fact that the four-time re-elected assessor—who coasted unopposed to another term in June—is such a prominent and staunch Democrat. “I run non-partisan, but I don’t think there’s too many people that don’t know I’m a Democrat,” Stone says. “I can’t think of the last time I endorsed a Republican.”
Stone is the latest in a lengthening list of Democrats crossing party lines to support Wasserman; some of them high-profile supporters of Democratic candidate Teresa Alvarado, who lost the chance at the run-off by a narrow margin to Williams.
While Wasserman is entering the general election as the clear favorite—he received more than twice the number of votes of either of his closest opponents—the November election is sure to draw more Dems, who will no longer be split between two Democratic candidates.
Wasserman says he’s been pushing ever since the primary to win the support of those who would, based solely on the letter behind their names, naturally gravitate from Alvarado to Williams. Stone, who served as Alvarado’s finance director and was quoted in her campaign literature, is just the latest trophy.
“It’s a very significant endorsement,” says Wasserman. “A moderate Dem endorsing a moderate Republican is a very good thing. I think we’re both doing what’s best for the county.”
Williams dismisses the idea that Stone’s endorsement is a big deal, and waves it off with a joke: “I just concluded it’s probably OK because most people hate tax assessors,” he says. “I don’t know what the loss is.”
He also dismisses the notion that it’s somehow indicative of a sea change, and is able to name a few Democrats who have come over from Alvarado’s failed campaign to his—San Jose City Council member Ash Kalra and Assembly member Joe Coto.
Wasserman has spent much of the campaign so far stressing his fiscal conservatism, a message that seems to be playing well in the current economic climate. Though the county recently closed a $223.2 million shortfall in its 2011 budget without much fur flying, Wasserman is attempting to position himself as the guy who can right the ship permanently.
Taking on Public Employees’ Unions?
Stone was particularly happy to hear about Wasserman’s views on pension reform.
“I’m a very strong advocate for reforming the public pension system, even though I’m a beneficiary,” says Stone, who believes the age of retirement in Santa Clara County is too low and the 90 percent of salary payout is too high. “Obviously the employee unions don’t agree with me, but I think it’s inevitable that a ballot box solution is on the horizon and an angry public punishes, it does not equalize.”
Williams has had strong support, throughout his career and in the most recent election, from the South Bay Labor Council. That’s becoming an increasingly tricky affiliation when it comes time to talk tough about negotiating with county employees—particularly when balancing the budget relies on reducing pensions and cutting jobs.
The organized labor issue was foremost in Assistant District Attorney Karyn Sinunu-Towery’s mind when she, another Democrat and former Alvarado supporter, endorsed Wasserman.
“Forrest is very hard working and very dedicated to this community,” Sinunu-Towery says. “But at this time, labor is a little bit unrealistic as to what is important for the county as a whole.
“I see Forrest as a labor candidate, not a Democrat or a Republican.”
Norm Kline, the former mayor of Saratoga who currently sits on the San Jose Planning Commission, says when it comes to dollars and cents, a small town mayor who doesn’t balance his budget with reserves is more attractive than yet another alum of the San Jose City Council, which has had increasingly messy budget problems. Counting himself as another Dem for Wasserman, Kline says he does see a trend emerging that could spell trouble for Williams.
“[Wasserman] looks further ahead in the fiscal year. That’s a trait most small cities have. After one or two years of making cuts, you know you have a new norm. You hit a reset button and balance your budget not with reserves, but with the revenues of today,” he says. “Jeff Smith, the new county executive, he’s a numbers person too. I think with a new board and a new norm, the county’s going to be OK.”
Williams rejects the idea that he is in the pocket of labor, but also that the solution to the county’s woes can be blamed on the employees. He says he is also open to reformulating the pension plan, but stresses a collaborative approach. “I believe we will be able to do some of that work. We gotta do that work,” he says. “The key is to respect everyone’s ideas, come up with a way that we can all agree that this is the way we want to go.” He also seems genuinely surprised that anyone would say that he can’t handle the budget as well as Wasserman, or that all his decisions are made from a pro-labor standpoint. “I want to have a dialogue with those people who say I’m going to do this or that. I want them to look at my record,” he says. “I represent the Democratic party in regards to moving forward to win this primary. We need everyone. Let’s get together and let’s go.”
It remains to be seen whether a handful of well-known Democrats will be able to sway the casual Dem voter come this November, and whether or not the real affiliation voters are concerned with will be “labor” or “independent.”
“Mike cares deeply about workers and their conditions and how they’re treated,” says Sinunu-Towery. “I’m not saying he’s anti-labor. But he won’t be controlled by labor.”