Perhaps no local political star shone brighter than Nora Campos’ three years ago. After rising through the San Jose City Hall ranks from entry-level staffer to Manny Diaz to becoming Eastside’s councilmember for nine years, Campos breezed to an easy victory in 2010 for a seat in the State Assembly. Along with her husband Neil Struthers, then-head of the formidable Santa Clara & San Benito Counties Building and Construction Trades Council, the pair seemed destined to become Sacramento’s newest power couple, giving labor and the Eastside a megaphone on K Street.
The Eastside, particularly hard hit by crime and the recession, has been especially in need of capable leadership and representation. Just last year, nearly half of San Jose’s 43 homicides took place there, most of them gang-related and near the 280-101 interchange, in places like Kelley Park, where a man was found dead in a nearby parking lot. Or across the street from Mildred Goss Elementary School, where an 18-year-old man was killed. The challenge to lead and improve an area plagued by governmental neglect and poverty would only be more complex due to the demographics of its neighborhoods, a quilted community of predominantly Hispanic and Vietnamese voters, many of whom speak only their native tongue.
But a sad reality has unfolded over the last three years, as crime has increased amidst the Eastside’s failed political leadership. No part of the nation’s 10th biggest city has been let down so consistently by its elected officials.
Last year, its former city council representative, George Shirakawa Jr., was forced to abdicate his county supervisor seat and plead guilty to stealing more than $130,000 in funds contributed by his political supporters. Months later, before he would be sentenced to a year in jail, the District Attorney’s office announced that it had evidence linking Shirakawa to fraudulent political mailers that helped steal a 2010 election for his friend and political ally, East San Jose Councilman Xavier Campos, brother of Assemblymember Campos. The DA and the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) both launched still-ongoing investigations into the campaign of Xavier Campos, who invoked the Fifth Amendment when a grand jury asked him about the illegal mailers in October.
His 2010 political opponent, Magdalena Carrasco, described to prosecutors a coffee meeting with Shirakawa that turned dark, when Shirakawa told her that her decision to run meant her future in San Jose was over. She took it as a joke at first, but Shirakawa was not kidding. Another Grand Jury witness, Lisa Jensen, described a hostile encounter with Campos’ big sister, not yet an assemblymember, who threatened her because she was working on Carrasco’s campaign.
“It was very negative,” Jensen told the grand jury. “And if I had thought about it at great length, I would have felt as though it was slightly threatening.”
Prosecutors also wondered if Assemblymember Campos’ $5,000 contribution to Shirakawa’s campaign may have been a payoff for the political mail fraud.
Since that time, Metro/San Jose Inside has learned that the bullying allegation fits a disturbing pattern of behavior on Nora Campos’ part. A portrait emerges, from interviews of more than a dozen former staffers and sources in and around the Capitol, of an elected official who has let the power and pressures of the position rage out of control. In addition to stories of Campos berating subordinates and firing employees at a rate unequaled by her Assembly peers—which led to wasting nearly half a million dollars that could have gone toward constituent services—there are also allegations that her temper has, at least once, involved a physical confrontation.
The Real Nora
Friends and foes will both admit that Nora Campos, 47, is not what she seems. The perfect smile and small frame belie an intensity that can be explosive behind closed doors. During her two terms as a San Jose councilmember, she developed a reputation for being extremely hard on her staff but pleasant in public—quick to smile when it came time to greet constituents.
Despite running through staff at a surprisingly swift pace early in her council tenure, the final few years led to some semblance of normalcy. But since arriving in Sacramento, Campos’ Assembly office has been consumed by employee turnover.
In just her first three years in Sacramento, Campos had 41 people work in her office. No one from her original staff remains. By comparison, assemblymembers Paul Fong and Rich Gordon, who represent neighboring districts, respectively had just 21 and 24 people work in their offices over the same time period, with both retaining roughly half of their original staffers.
“It’s extraordinary,” said a source at the Capitol, who agreed to speak with Metro/San Jose Inside on the condition of anonymity. “It’s unheard of. We’ve had some really bad offices at the Capitol with some explosive, volcanic tempers. But [Campos’ office] is unlike anything I’ve heard of in the modern era.”
In describing Campos, another source added, “They’re people they call ‘staff abusers,’ and they’re people who treat their staff with disdain and disrespect.”
Based on numerous interviews, the reputation Campos has developed during her short time in Sacramento has not been that of a rising star or fierce advocate for her community. Rather, Campos, second in charge of the Assembly after being named speaker pro tempore in August 2012, is known for the turnstile nature of her office—and the horror stories her former staffers leave with.
“The tension just rose as you got closer to noon on Monday, when she would arrive just before session,” a former employee said.
Added another former staffer, “By the second week, I would get up in the morning and be physically ill thinking about going into work.”
Multiple sources told Metro/San Jose Inside that so many people have hightailed it out of Campos’ Sacramento and local district offices that Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez admonished her and threatened to revoke Campos’ ability to hire and fire her own staff.
Flawed political careers are not unique to the Eastside. Saratoga assemblyman Chuck Quackenbush served for eight years in the State Assembly and rose to California’s insurance commissioner before his career spectacularly imploded in 2000 amidst charges that insurers steered millions to Quackenbush’s private foundations to avoid paying billions in fines. Another Saratogan, Ernest Konnyu, was bounced out of Congress by voters in 1988 after just one term following reports of inappropriate behavior toward female staff members and a lobbyist. Former state assemblymembers Sally Lieber and Carole Migden were both known for verbally abusing staff, and West San Jose’s Rebecca Cohn rose to majority leader in the Assembly before having staff control taken away by the speaker.
What appears to set Campos apart is her tendency to take things out on staffers—and more commonly female minions—damaging her office’s ability to help constituents.
“Staffers die of a thousand cuts and she lets them know that she’s superior,” a former staffer said. “They’re certainly not going to have your back in a political firefight if this is how you treat them—in a demeaning, subservient manner. I don’t know why she needs to do it.”
The constant changes in staff have resulted in Campos’ office giving back $495,118 to the state’s general fund. This money could have been used to hire staff and conduct community outreach on the Eastside, where a fully-staffed multilingual team is useful to interact with constituents, but Campos’ toxic reputation hamstrung her ability to retain and recruit employees.
According to office budget summaries provided by the Assembly’s Committee on Rules, Campos had a $115,643 surplus in her first year in Sacramento. In 2012, when she changed mid-year from chairing the Committee on Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism and Internet Media to being appointed speaker pro tem, budget summaries show that Campos left $257,188 on the table, which then went back into the state’s general fund. Last year, Campos yet again had a six-figure surplus—$122,287.
A Rules Committee staffer told Metro/San Jose Inside, “Anything above $60,000 is way more of a balance than would normally be left.”
Right after being named speaker pro tem of the Assembly, Campos’ staffing level hovered between six or seven people for a six-month period. Most Assembly staffs operate with a minimum of 10. Assemblymember Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) has had 33 employees since the beginning of 2011, but he also has had a staff of 19 so he can chair the Judiciary Committee. There have been times in the last three years when only one person—or even no one—was assigned to work in Campos’ local district office in San Jose.
“You are kind of missing in action then,” a source said. “There’s only so much you can do—have a microphone and press conference and wax [poetic]. That is a reflection that no constituent services are being performed, that there is little to no representation.”
“At the capitol, you’re as good as your staff,” added a former employee. “And if you can’t keep staff, that’s huge.” One of the more bizarre incidents in Campos’ office occurred last year, when she left open session on the Assembly floor and returned to her office for the sole purpose of castigating staff. “All of a sudden she came into the office and paced up and down the hall. Basically, she told all of us that she didn’t know how she could get her work done if she had to do everything and none of us were doing anything. She said she didn’t understand why no one was stepping up to the plate. She left her job to tell us. It was one of the most surreal things I had witnessed in an office in any setting.”
Campos went nine months in 2012 without having a chief of staff to help patrol her office. Sources tell Metro/San Jose Inside that her reputation was already so damaged after just one year in the Assembly that it became almost impossible to get anyone to agree to take the job. Sailaja Rajappan came aboard in November 2012, and has passed the one-year mark. Known to operate in a brusque manner similar to Campos, Rajappan has had one of the longest tenures in Campos’ office. However, it certainly doesn’t hurt that she is paid $11,067 a month, among the highest in the Assembly. The next highest-paid chief of staff for a South Bay assemblymember, Sylvia Tang, of Fong’s office, makes nearly $2,000 less per month, at $9,333.
While these numbers and staff changes are all clearly laid out in records provided by the Assembly’s Committee on Rules, two other staffers have been a constant presence for Team Campos—despite not being employed by the State of California. The duo of Ryan Ford and Rolando Bonilla, who both worked on Campos’ staff when she was a San Jose councilmember, are paid in monthly installments from her campaign coffers. They advise her on most policy issues and have also helped hire her staff and arrange meetings with special interests.
“They are the constant,” said a former staffer. “They are her campaign managers, they are her consultants, they are the brains and the counselors. She has confidence in them and they think they have a better understanding of what she’s looking for. It’s not unheard of, but it’s obviously awkward—the blurring of that line.
“The brains of her operation is Rolando,” the source added. “And my understanding is staff was warned not to talk to you (Metro/San Jose Inside).”
Apparently, Ford didn’t get that memo.
Life as Coach
Ryan Ford freely admits that he’s never had a more demanding boss than Nora Campos. He compares her to a coach that wants the get the best out of a player. It’s unclear what kind of coach he means, but it sounds a bit like the legendarily temperamental Bobby Knight.
“The best coaches I had are the ones who pushed me, that drove me to push myself,” Ford said in a phone interview. “And I found that in Nora. I think that for many it is a bit surprising to find those qualities in a 4-foot-11 Latina, but my experience working for her was no different than playing for a coach, or studying under a great teacher that really wants to see you push yourself farther than you maybe knew you could. I think that’s a huge challenge for her staff members and some are able to meet those challenges and others are not.”
Ford added that Campos came up under the Eastside’s old guard. “She’s very candid in explaining where her mindset as a staff leader comes from,” he said. “It comes from her time in serving (as an aide to former) Councilmember Manny Diaz and under his chief of staff at the time, Tony Arreola. She’s very forthright in saying, ‘They pushed me. They made me better and stronger. I am who I am, and I am where I am, because they drove me to push myself.’”
What he doesn’t say is that Diaz and Arreola both went on to become lobbyists with reputations for playing fast and loose. Ford and Bonilla are not state registered lobbyists. Instead, they fall under the chameleonic term “political consultants.” Their clients are an eclectic mix, from an elected official to school districts, like Alum Rock Union in San Jose, and even big box chain Target.
According to Campos’ campaign records, which are filed with the Secretary of State, the pair were paid $18,000 in monthly installments of $1,500 all of last year. In 2012, when Campos was actually running for re-election, Ford and Bonilla received $21,815—again, payments were made throughout the year, usually in $1,500 denominations. In 2011, Campos paid them $9,000 in six equally distributed payments over the last half of the year.
When it came to hiring staff for Campos, however, Ford insisted that he and Bonilla were not paid to perform that function.
“She doesn’t pay us for that,” he said. “That is something that we do pro bono on our own time as supporters and friends and as trusted advisers. We get paid a relatively small amount from her campaign account in order to advise her on South Bay politics, statewide politics, on her campaign, on her ability to manage ongoing campaign finances. But our responsibilities as friends go well beyond what we’re paid on by her campaign account.”
Ford said that since Campos hired Rajappan as her chief of staff, he and Bonilla have not interviewed anyone to join the assemblymember’s office. He added that he’s never seen Campos act inappropriately with anybody.
“She places a very high value on showing respect and serving honorably,” he said.
Talk to My Attorney
Superstar criminal defense attorney Steve Manchester calls just after 11am on a Friday. He wants to let me know that he represents Assemblymember Nora Campos and that any suggestion that she threw a chair at one of her staffers couldn’t be further from the truth.
I tell Manchester that the image of Assemblymember Campos throwing a chair seems unlikely and “awfully WWE-style.” He laughs at this and realizes he meant to say telephone instead of chair.
Now, I have heard this story. Many times.
The story goes that during one of Campos’ “private tirades,” she threw a cell phone at the head of her district coordinator. She missed. The district coordinator was gone in a few months.
Manchester says any suggestion that Assemblymember Campos threw a telephone at one of her staffers is “patently untrue.” When it’s noted that Assemblymember Campos has historically dodged press inquiries that could set the record straight, Manchester agrees to assist.
But Manchester never calls back to facilitate a clarification call with Campos. Neither does the assemblymember’s $73,500-a-year communications director, Steve Harmon, a former Bay Area News Group reporter. Harmon was brought on to the staff in June of last year. Apparently it was time to get a better grip on controlling the message.
There is a theory in politics that perception is reality, and strength is roughly equivalent to the image of strength exuded. But when it comes to Campos, the real power she wields appears to come from the transferring of political contributions.
After chairing the Committee on Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism and Internet Media, Campos was named speaker pro tem, a largely ceremonial position. She oversees Assembly meetings when Speaker Pérez is unavailable.
“You’re not chairing a policy committee, dealing with complex and arcane policy issues,” a source said. “What you’re doing is you’re facilitating. But the majority of folks think because you have the gavel that you’re presiding with a position of power.”
Another Capitol source insists that if something were to ever happen to Pérez, an emergency meeting would result in Campos being replaced as speaker pro tem.
Campos’ key victories have been less on the policy side—her key bills have had a domestic violence and social media slant, with her first bill ironically focusing on bullying—and more on sustaining the status quo. If you can raise funds, the party will always have a place for you, and Campos, almost always in campaign mode due to the Assembly’s ridiculously brief two-year terms, has shown in her short time as an elected state official that she can amass dollars at an aggressive pace.
Since October 2010, the month before she won her Assembly seat, Campos has given $225,650 to the California Democratic Party. During that same time period, she has also transferred $35,700 in campaign funds to the Santa Clara County Democratic Party and its independent expenditure committee. And Campos has shown her appreciation to the South Bay Labor Council (SBLC) for its role mobilizing volunteers and campaigning to help her ascend to the state legislature. Since the month before she won her Assembly seat, Campos has steered $71,000 to the SBLC.
Support from these three entities has been vital to Campos’ political career, and her ability to return the favor has not gone unnoticed. In fact, it would stand to reason that transgressions with staff could be overlooked as long as the money continued to flow out from her campaign. Up for re-election in June, Campos currently has no opponent. Nonetheless, she raised more than $276,000 last year.
Meanwhile, East San Jose continues to lack true representation and meaningful change.
“These guys aren’t pro-labor,” said a source, describing the Campos siblings and Shirakawa. “They use labor. They use working people as a pretext. They use the Latino community as pretext. These guys are about themselves. When you have power, you should want to leverage power to improve the human condition. These guys are not about that.
“These guys are just about holding power for power’s sake. At any cost. At any cost.”