Norm Mineta, Janet Gray Hayes, Susan Hammer, Ron Gonzales and Reed all took part in Monday night’s installment of the Don Edwards Lecture Series at San Jose State University, and each of the current mayor’s predecessors voiced relief that never in their tenures were they forced to deal with the current mayor’s challenges.
A full decade of budget shortfalls, a workforce depleted and demoralized, the loss of the Redevelopment Agency and no certain economic rebound in the future was a tall order in every mayor’s eyes.
The never-ending pummeling a mayor experiences—from the press, constituents and colleagues—was reiterated consistently in the talk, which retiring SJSU political science professor Terry Christensen moderated.
Former Mayor Tom McEnery, who held office in the years between Hayes (1975-82) and Hammer (1991-98), didn’t attend the event, because he reportedly went out of town. The joke heard more than once was McEnery’s absence was not completely mourned because it meant other former mayors had a chance to speak.
No one accepted blame or cast it regarding the lack of foresight for the city’s unfunded liability due to pension and retirement benefits, but in one of the more interesting posits of the night, Gonzales attributed part of the city’s pension crisis to the post-9/11 public reverence for public safety workers.
‘That led a lot to the benefits created there,” Gonzales said. “I always say when 9/11 happened, no one questioned how much those men and women were paid” to respond.
A few points the former mayors cited as positive accomplishments could be debated, such as Gonzales (1999-2006) expanding affordable housing more than Los Angeles in his eight years, or Hammer’s insistence that “every nickel” of redevelopment money “spent has been well worth it, and I’ll stand by that until the day I die.”
One thing that united the former mayors most, though, was Christensen asking if public input ever changed their vote while sitting on the dais. The silence was deafening.
Hayes, 85, took a while to warm up in the discussion, seeming lost on the first few questions, but by the end her answers were among the most entertaining and candid. She said the worst failure of her time as mayor was not getting Apple to locate its headquarters in San Jose, not that she cared for the company’s CEO.
“Steve Jobs came to my office once and put his feet up on my desk,” Hayes said. “He was just awful. He was disrespectful as could be.”
Each panelist said their time as mayor of San Jose was the best job they ever had, although the conviction appeared more genuine the more removed each person was from the job. Reed sounded like a man that can’t wait to return to practicing law.
In conclusion, each mayor was given a couple minutes to sum up the meaning of the job to them, and Mineta delivered closing remarks about the difference between running a city and working at the Capitol or in Congress. He said real political training comes from running a city.
“(Most congressmen) have never been part of the other end of the legislative pipeline, trying to make these programs work,” he said. “So, whether a person came from a school district or sewage operating plant, whatever experience they had from local government, I felt it was better experience for Congress than state legislatures.”
According to the mayors of San Jose, their worst failures and best accomplishments:
Norm Mineta lamented his inability to control growth, but he was happy with his ability to deal “with the physical needs of the city” and get the city’s sewage treatment plant up and running.
Susan Hammer couldn’t persuade voters to build a stadium for the San Francisco Giants, yet she cashed in big by getting Cisco located in North San Jose and Adobe into downtown. (Hammer credited her city manager and planning department for dealing with the expedited timeline.)
Ron Gonzales couldn’t pass a hotel tax to expand the Convention Center, but he did get enough votes to start the process to bring BART to San Jose.