Political theater, like a good novel or legend, needs strong central characters. Last Friday, we saw the district attorney ride in like Sir Lancelot, with Queen Guinevere by his side, to mete out a quick and final blow to the morally depraved Saxon, in this case George Shirakawa, Jr.
If it were only that simple.
The triumph of Good over Evil story line quickly morphed into a human tragedy as the county supervisor fell on his sword, resigned his position, agreed to plead guilty and attributed his betrayal of public trust to a gambling addiction. Case closed.
Or maybe not.
A political actor cannot go on a two-decade graft spree without an army of enablers, and anyone who buys the lone gunman theory is welcome to join me in a game of three-card Monte. Or maybe a booze-fueled jaunt down to the Mexican border with easy women funded by the local emergency response provider. What we have here is a sophisticated political machine that pumps money through multiple sectors to support its own—and a coalition of economically interconnected special interests. The Machine tolerates and may even prefer personal weaknesses in a public office holder if the votes are reliable.
George Shirakawa Jr. was a pocket vote for the South Bay Labor Council, which In its June 7, 2012 letter to members, bragged, “Labor made strong showings in the June Primary. Three Santa Clara County Supervisor candidates who champion the middle class sailed through the primary election—George Shirakawa, Dave Cortese and Joe Simitian.”
It’s no accident that Shirakawa gave a shout out to SBLC sister organization Working Partnerships USA in his 2012 State of the County speech, including WPUSA’s Healthy Corner Store initiative in point one of his five-point program as board president.
SBLC funds its political activities, in part, through a network of county-dependent foundations, nonprofits and government-funded health care initiatives, so majority control of the board can prove useful. Having lost its majority control of the San Jose City Council last year— and with that, the ability to easily dole out perks to public employees whose payroll deductions generate membership revenues—SBLC was not about to cede its influence over the $4.2 billion county budget.
So boss Cindy Chavez, like any competent strategist, developed a plan with a fall-back position. The first course of action would be to try and keep Shirakawa in office, just as she had stuck by the last local politician convicted of taking money while in office: San Jose City Councilman Terry Gregory.
Chavez maintained a public silence during Shirakawa’s freefall. Behind the scenes, she went to bat to try and derail the Shirakawa prosecution, throwing down the race card and suggesting that letting justice take its course would be viewed unfavorably on the East Side. Then, anticipating that implied threats might not sway an honest D.A., she resigned her labor council post, slid over to the well-funded SBLC-controlled nonprofit Working Partnerships and prepared herself to run for her close ally’s seat should Shirakawa fall.
If Chavez runs for the District 2 supervisor’s seat, and some think she will, she’ll no doubt have to answer questions about subjects she’d hoped would be forgotten, such as the $4 million subsidy to the Grand Prix that subsequently abandoned San Jose before going bankrupt; her support for garbage rate increases prompted by Mayor Ron Gonzales’ concocted stories to the council; her attempts to derail sunshine initiatives to protect secret labor contract deal-making; and fiscal policies that nearly bankrupted San Jose.
After losing the mayor’s race by the largest margin a credible candidate incurred since Tom McEnery defeated Claude Fletcher in 1982, Chavez’s post-political career has not been without controversy. Her consultancy to create a subsequently decertified East Side Union School District foundation produced little evidence of any real work and was suspected as being a payoff by Shirakawa to buy her out of the supervisor’s race. Incompetent governance and millions lost characterized her tenure as co-chair of Team San Jose. And the porous flow of funds between the organizations on whose boards she sits will no doubt prompt further questions, which she’ll most likely dodge, as is Chavez’s practice with any reporting organization that asks critical questions.
The systemic corruption goes beyond cronyism and machine politics. It extends to the bureaucratic functionaries, such as the Registrar of Voters who failed to alert the district attorney that campaign filing laws were being broken; auditors who slid internal controls aside; senior county executives who failed to promulgate a culture of transparency and accountability; law enforcement leaders who won’t talk about what they know. And it extends to the financial and advertising communities that defunded media watchdogs in favor of contextual Facebook and Google ads and email campaigns.
This time, one individual got caught. Who else knew of, supported or benefited from his activities? And has the flurry of activity improved anything so that the public trust won’t be betrayed again?
I don’t think so
A version of this story appears in the March 6, 2013 issue of Metro Silicon Valley.