Susan Hammer Transformed City’s Political Landscape

Former San Jose Mayor Susan Hammer, a key figure in the revitalization of the city’s downtown as well as the strengthening of its neighborhoods, died Saturday March 7, family members announced. She was 81 and had been battling Alzheimer’s disease.

District 3 voters elected Hammer to the city council in 1982, the year Tom McEnery won the mayor’s race and championed an ambitious redevelopment of the city’s core, which fell into Hammer’s district. She narrowly defeated educator Frank Fiscalini, an old-guard favorite, in 1990 to become San Jose’s 62nd mayor.

Entering office amidst the recession that followed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Hammer was unable to match McEnery’s juggernaut of construction projects, which included a convention center, a luxury hotel, a downtown shopping center, office towers, a sports arena, a children’s museum and a transit system.

Less eloquent and telegenic than her predecessor, she also lacked the celebrity of her mentor, Janet Gray Hayes, the nation’s first big city female mayor. Hammer nonetheless employed humility and coalition-building to rack up an impressive roster of accomplishments during her eight years in the city’s top political office.

Though she’d defeated Tony Estramera in her first council race and lived in one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, the Rose Garden, Hammer forged strong ties to the local Latino community. Under her mayorship, California’s oldest public space was renamed Plaza de César Chávez, a statue of the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl was unveiled, an innovative gang prevention task force was launched, San Jose’s first Latino police chief was appointed and the Independent Police Auditor’s office was established as a permanent arm of city government.

In 1992, she announced an agreement to relocate the San Francisco Giants to an $185 million stadium in San Jose. Major League Baseball extended San Francisco’s territorial rights to the South Bay to prevent the team’s loss to Florida, but San Francisco ultimately succeeded in building a new ballpark. The unintended consequences of the territorial pact prevented the A’s from moving to San Jose two decades later, and in a further ironic twist, enabled Google to purchase land aggregated for the never-built major league stadium, kickstarting downtown’s largest yet wave of real estate activity.

In 1993, the Menlo Park-based Cisco Systems announced its relocation to northern San Jose, and it subsequently became the city’s largest employer. Adobe relocated in 1996, with the help of $35 million in redevelopment subsidies, bringing downtown its first corporate headquarters.

Hammer negotiated with San Jose State University’s president and in 1997, and, calling the existing library system “grossly inadequate,” proposed the construction of a single new library serving both the campus and residents. The new Martin Luther King Library on S. 4th Street is the realization of that vision.

A longtime supporter of the arts stretching back to her role as a founder of a community art museum in 1969 that became the San Jose Museum of Art, one of Hammer’s signature projects was the opening of the San Jose Repertory Theater in 1997. The building, now operated by San Jose State, was renamed in 2004 after Hammer and her husband, Phil, and is now known simply as The Hammer Theatre. Hammer was awarded the second annual Cornerstone of the Arts Award in September 2014 at an event held to honor the 85 recipients of city Cultural Affairs grants.

One of Hammer’s most significant legacies is the ascendance of organized labor as a local political force. Policy initiatives by the South Bay Labor Council and its foundation-funded nonprofit Working Partnerships USA found their way into local ordinances, and Hammer’s budget and policy director, Bob Brownstein, became WPUSA’s policy architect when his boss termed out. Hammer backed South Bay Labor’s political director, Cindy Chavez, for the District 3 seat she once held, paving the way for a contemporary council divided between business and labor camps.

Hammer’s 1996 State of City speech, during the ascendancy of the Internet economy, spoke to the issue of division. “We tackled crime, we made our schools better, and our economy is among the strongest in the state. And we should acknowledge not just the progress we have made, but the process we used,” she said.

“Particularly in this era of political gridlock and infighting—here in San José we have proven there is a better way. We did not attack our opponents—we listened to them. We showed that there is still a place for civility and reason in public discourse, even when the stakes are high and the pressure is on.”

The daughter of insurance agent and a stay-at-home mother and community activist, Hammer was born in Altadena, California. She attended Santa Barbara College (later UC Santa Barbara) and, in her sophomore year, transferred to UC Berkeley, where she earned her B.A. in Latin American History. She met San Jose native Phil Hammer, then a law student at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall. They married and raised three children in San Jose, where Phil established a family law practice.

Her involvement in local politics began in 1966, when she volunteered for California Assemblyman John Vasconcellos’ first campaign. In 1978, Hammer co-chaired the mayoral campaign of Janet Gray Hayes, for whom she also worked as a special assistant. In 1980, Hayes appointed her to fill an interim vacancy on the City Council. Following her 16 years in elected office, California Governor Gray Davis appointed her to a state education post.

Hammer, who died at home in the company of her family, is survived by her husband Phil, children Phil, Hali and Matt, and six grandchildren.


  1. “Particularly in this era of political gridlock and infighting—here in San José we have proven there is a better way. We did not attack our opponents—we listened to them. We showed that there is still a place for civility and reason in public discourse, even when the stakes are high and the pressure is on.”

    Councilmembers Peralez and Jimenez, perhaps you can take a lesson from history. Perhaps you will cause less misery, homelessness, and evictions if you listen more and put a cap on your arrogance.

  2. Although “Hammer was unable to match McEnery’s juggernaut of construction projects,” she still chalked up an impressive list of accomplishments, like the main library shared by the university, and whether you like it or not, the statue of Quetzalcoatl in César Chávez Plaza (as well as the renamed plaza after the one-time SJ resident).

    Dan, thank you for this thoughtful and comprehensive write up of Mayor Hammer’s legacy.

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