I do like give and take; it’s healthy, it’s in my nature, and I believe that is the tradition of San Jose—a hallowed one. But if our next mayor’s race becomes the traditional American election, one full of personalities but short of vision, replete with attacks, more thunder than light, then we all lose. Our city needs the next campaign to be about ideas and issues rather than platitudes and endorsements and who is the “nicest.” With that goal in mind, I’d like to speak about issues and an idea or two—those things that we need to be the focal points of the next mayoral election, namely growth, a big park, safety and ethics.
These candidates must know the real state of our city, and it is not an abstract concept for demographers or political scientists, pundits or headline writers. It is real, something that provides the muscle and sinew of how we live—the essence of this place: confidence and peace of mind.
We are not learning from history. The development tail is again wagging the dog. This is the issue that has advanced and bedeviled our community for sixty years. We must grow but it must be sensible. It is no secret that “let’s make San Jose better before we make it bigger” and “let’s stop growing out and start growing up,” were the successful slogans of two recent mayors. Why? Because they reinforced moderation and common sense, not blind boosterism or mere greed.
In Coyote we are now in the process of creating a city the size of Milpitas, and who it benefits here is an open question. If we are sacrificing the quality of life, worsening traffic and lengthening police response time just to provide a few thousand more homes, I fail to see the positives.
The jobs and housing imbalance—remember that topic? Apparently few do; no, now Coyote is the mantra, howl and all. We are planning 20 million square feet in north San Jose. Isn’t it funny that the traditional strategy of balance—good in our city, in business, in life—is never spoken of anymore. The city council not only is failing to provide the answer, they don’t even seem to know the question to ask. If left unasked and unanswered it will produce a harsh reckoning.
How about some balance on BART? Don’t get me wrong, I’m in favor of it, but let’s not destroy the village to save it. And when it comes to the construction phase, don’t forget the last time we tore up downtown. Never gloss over that painful experience; learn, please learn.
And one other thing on transit: the city has committed to funding a long-needed connection to our airport. The issue is what to connect, the light rail system on First Street that operates today, versus a people mover system to the unfunded BART terminus planned for the mythical Santa Clara Caltrain station, involving a tunnel under the landing field. David Pandori and a neighborhood group thought of the light rail connection; it’s a good idea—certainly the one that makes the most sense.
Our Big Park
No, not the baseball one. We have a great beginning on our own Central Park, perhaps 1000 acres, from the watershed of the Diablo and Santa Cruz Mountains to the center of our city; one to rival Olmstead’s in New York or McClaran’s Golden Gate. Let’s connect all the creeks and rivers and trails of our valley to it. And, remembering that the transcontinental railroad was built in less time than the spur light rail line from Campbell to downtown San Jose and that we are all mortal, move more quickly and do it now!
We are the safest big city in America but we are not safe enough! Mayors can trumpet polls in national surveys—just don’t believe them. Have you been downtown after 10:30 at night? I hope so! I have, I live here. It’s a wonderful place. Have you called a cop at midnight lately? I hope not. Our police department is the best, but you might be shocked if you make that call. When it takes the chief of police to remind us of where we need to be going as a city and what our plan should be, that says two things: fine chief, sad city vision. Cindy Chavez has led the city council in the right direction on this issue, but there are miles still to go. Within the last year a university student was nearly murdered in a gang knifing downtown. You didn’t read about it in the paper. You should have—it’s real and frightening.
In the recent movie, “Oh Brother where Art Thou,” the Governor of a small southern state is assailed during a heated election, by reformers, and one of his advisors in his tarnished, corrupt administration says, “hey, Gov, we got to get us some of that ‘reform.’” He looks with distain at the sycophant and replies, “We can’t get any reform, you damn fool, we’s the incumbent!”
But we do need some of “that reform” now—it’s a San Jose tradition. Honesty, intellectual and otherwise, is not a virtue to be discovered in the dictionary or in the obligatory ethics seminar. It is like a Supreme Court justice once said of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” It is not present at our City Hall.
More worrisome, we have so surrendered codes of good conduct that we have now arrived at the most institutionalized corruption and, professionally, the weakest administration in the history of the city. They are connected. They must not be accepted.
San Jose will always survive the single miscreant, the crook, the unethical one, the craven—we always do. The flawed Terry Gregorys will commit political suicide or be unmasked. But remember the words of Franklin to the inquiry from a man asking what form of government we were to have: “a republic,” he said, “if you can keep it.” Good government, if we can keep it.
Make no mistake, there is a cult of lobbyists and former employees that now play an ever-increasing role in all matters at City Hall. I cautioned you about this a few years ago. Some thought I exaggerated; I underestimated.
Chuck Reed, Linda Lezotte, and Dave Cortese have gone up the down staircase on ethics and deserve much credit, and Dave has pressed on accountability for the city manager. This is not what I and the citizens meant in 1986 when I proposed and they consented to put more power in the mayor’s office. This is not as it should be. It is up to the next mayor to redress this or, here also, there will be a reckoning.
Now let’s give a bit of credit.
Many of the mistakes, ethical lapses, and seemingly illegal activities would never have seen the light of day if not for the crusading journalism of the San Jose Mercury News. I know, we all have things we don’t like about it: too much negative, not enough coverage of our favorite team. I have been called a dunce and worse on its front page; I have railed at it many times, and will again. But a large debt is owed here—the Mercury fulfilled its public trust.
As always in the course of human and political events, the fault lies not in the stars but in us. So as we approach a new year, and a new mayor, let’s look further at our current condition and ourselves.
We all have our duties and silence is not one of them. It is not a virtue in San Jose and it has never been associated with our business community.
And what else can we do while speaking out? Well, we might set the bar high on ethics once again. We could include an end to independent expenditures and free campaign workers—no matter who pays for them. We should never say, “well, everyone is doing it.”
And then let’s get back on track downtown, create some magic; connect our river and creek trails in one magnificent Guadalupe River Park; make the “safest city in America” title really mean something; and let’s put some sense back into our long-range planning, for our sake and for our children’s. We can also reach for some special projects that make our city a more exciting place to live, like the Tech Museum, Children’s Discovery Museum, Rep Theater, and Arena.
Archibald MacLeish once commented that the essence of America—its real greatness—was in its promise. We have the bits and bytes of greatness here in this valley, we always have. We just forget it occasionally. To fulfill the promise would be a fine goal for our next mayor. The banner is waiting to be lifted; the standard lies in the dust. We can become the city that we want and we can follow a leader worthy of carrying such a banner and such a burden. The choice lies before us.
Editor’s Note: This piece is an edited, abridged version of the speech given by Tom to the San Jose Rotary Club on November 30, 2005.