George, Cindy & The Machine

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.


  1. Dan now that I see you actively trying to set things right, your “Man up” scorecard just got a few more points from me.

    There’s a lot of refutable things I could comment on, but I won’t.  You guys are on the right track.

    Just remember, endorsing people just because you buddy asks you to might not always be the best policy.  I guess on the flipside I can say, it forced me to play my nobility through my Don Quixote’esq quests.

    Keep up the good work, you sir are a gentleman and a scholar.  BTW how’s the new baby?  I think you should do an article about what it’s like to be a first time father, I’m sure you’ll find no shortage of inspiration from it now.  Life changing, isn’t it?

    Yours Truly,
    Robert Cortese

      • Josh was being an a—with his moderation, so I decided to not contribute good writing and content for a while.  Nothing worse than spending time writing a good comment only to have it moderate your hard work into oblivion, in an ill fated attempt to protect the newspapers interest (not pissing off a full page advertiser who has been found guilty of battery against yours truly).

        Oddly enough I saw last week that the metro writers (ahem commenters) were using one of my known handles (sjoutsider) to make comments. I figured if they missed me that much where they’d astroturf as me, I should step in and make an appearance again.

        Glad you’re glad to see me back.  A lot has changed in the last year. No need to brag, but life is good.

      • Oh what’s wrong Mr “I only work here because my daddy owns 1/2 this paper”?  Does egg on face constitute not letting a comment pass moderation?

        You’re such a tool.  You let my comments go into the nether one more time and I’ll be more than happy to not post here anymore.  Just do me a favor and don’t post as me OK?

        (absolutist, that comment wasn’t directed at you)

  2. This should be required reading for every voter in Santa Clara County and particularly for every voter in a district that Cindy Chavez throws her name on the ballot for.

    Corruption is corruption.  The leadership groups she aligns with promotes itself as homegrown leaders of experience but being in office and holding positions of power does not equal sound leadership.  They do have decades of experience too bad that experience is in fleecing and betraying the public trust. 

    Mr Pulcrano, your article alluded to a booze-fueled jaunt down to the Mexican border with easy women funded by the local emergency response provider which anyone tracking the Shirakawa Pcard scandal knows that it was the actual trip to San Diego that he took with his very married chief of staff Eddie Garcia not only on the EMT bribery dime but the taxpayers because George overcharged the personal part of that trip on his pcard.  There seems to be no end to the shame these guys bring to their families and community.  Makes me sick to my stomach that they were in charge of our tax payer money for so long!

    • Aware D5,
      If you look at Eddie Garcia’s Facebook entry about his sunny new future, now that he’s been sacked for God knows what, you will see the same supporters enabling his behavior that we saw with George. I just don’t get these people. It makes ME sick to my stomach!

      Thank you for your article, and for exposing this mess. The most frightening thing about what you have written, beside the fact that it seems to be true, is how deep the corruption in politics goes.

      How on earth will we ever have a system that holds people accountable, and keeps them honest when our our whole system is so devoid of decency, integrity, and accountability?

      When all is said and done, it is really rather depressing!

      BTW- Congratulations on being a new Dad!

      • Kathleen,

        That is truly sad.  I guess its better he has a private FB page so the supporters and brown nosers fake congratulations won’t cause stomach problems for any more voters than necessary.  Sad that so many otherwise bright individuals mistake personal loyalty with blind and stupid loyalty.  It just makes no sense.  If someone you call friend committed some other crime (car thief, drunk driving, rape, or even murder) would you excuse it with a shrug, a giggle and a well other than THAT, they’re a great person?  It makes no sense that there are so many that are doing this for Shirakawa, Garcia and that entire crew.  Its disgusting how far the heads are buried in the sand! His excuse of addiction only at the very moment he was being charged with felonies is scandalous.  What if we let every accused thief stand up and say “but my dad was an alcoholic or I suffer from sex addiction so I’m a victim”  would the judge & juries be expected to say sorry and go on your way?  WAKE UP SAN JOSE!

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