Book Review: Life in the Fishbowl by Ron Gonzales and Guisselle Nuñez

Ron Gonzales and ex-wife Guisselle Nuñez will roll out their 102-page Independently published paperback, “Life in the FishBowl: Lessons to Help you Survive and Thrive in Elected Office” this evening at Books Inc. in Campbell.

It’s ostensibly a manual to help future candidates for elective office understand what’s in store for them as they enter public service. Between the lines, however, it’s a bid to rehabilitate his reputation 18 years after his mayorship ended.

WIth his political career safely over and a decade and a half of community service as a nonprofit executive, Gonzales’ friends hope that the Berryessa BART station will be named for him in his sunset years, just as the convention center, the airport and a downtown performing arts center were named for his predecessors.

During Ron Gonzales’ millennium-straddling mayoralty, a slew of schools and fire stations and libraries were built around San Jose. The city added 10,000 units of affordable housing, and another 20,000 at market rate. The new city hall was completed under his watch. The civic center dome that he bullied architect Richard Meier into incorporating proved functional and iconic. He broke through decades of paralysis to fund and put BART on track.

Despite these accomplishments, Gonzales will be remembered for the scandals that plagued his administration. A love affair with a member of his staff ended his marriage. He was arrested for cutting a secret deal with a union representing trash sorters. His colleagues, whom he lied to about the garbage deal, censured him, stripped him of perks and voted to demand his resignation.

The notion that Gonzales was involuntarily thrown into the fishbowl or even unaware of its protocols is a bit of a stretch. When the former Sunnyvale mayor ran for office, he embedded expert handlers like the late public relations wizard Peter Carter and media-friendly tax assessor Larry Stone. Gonzales regularly took editors and reporters to breakfast to cultivate relationships, stories and endorsements. San Jose hired his close associate, highly regarded former Sunnyvale public information officer Dave Vossbrink, as the city’s PIO.

Now retired, Vossbrink is credited with editing “Fishbowl,” published with the support of ghostwriter Shareen Rivera. In it, Gonzales is keen to reopen discussion about the events that caused his mayorship to unravel. He claims that he was “vindicated” when a judge tossed out—and a new district attorney elected not to refile—the felony criminal charges against him.

Still smarting from the thrashing he underwent, Gonzales remains bitter with the press, the prosecutor and the disloyal political colleagues whom he holds responsible for his unfair treatment–without any self reflection or acceptance of personal responsibility.

His score-settling includes having thrown a launch party for Spotlight, a digital news site that competes with the publications that chronicled his career and to which he refers to in his book as “ugly.” Now, now.

With an introduction by former San Jose State University political science department chair Terry Christensen and a book jacket quote from former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown Jr,. the paperback contains some common sense advice, such as seeking the support of one’s spouse and family before running for public office and conducting opposition research on oneself to anticipate negative campaign messages likely to surface in the heat of a campaign.

In “Fishbowl,” the authors cast themselves as victims of “vitriol” and “gossip,” getting “pounded” by the “snarky” media. The authors take aim at “the media’s intense spotlight and relentless narrative machine that relishes in creating caricatures of villains and heroes, irrespective of truth.”

“It took many years for us to work through the pain of this experience that affected our whole family. Ron’s mother and Guisselle’s parents never forgave the loudest naysayers and never voted for any of them again,” the authors write.

The unrepentant Gonzales was asked in a 2019 video interview by political scientist and introduction writer Christensen, “Do you think you were just wrongfully accused or in retrospect do you think you erred in some way?”

Without missing a beat, Gonzales replied, “I do think I was wrongfully accused” and then went on to blame “an overzealous deputy district attorney” who came up with a “bogus bribery charge.” Contacted this week, Gonzales confirmed that he was referring to Julius Finkelstein, a veteran prosecutor who once ran for district attorney.

After being indicted on felony charges, Gonzales writes in his book that he was then subjected to a “political hanging by [my] colleagues on the city council,” who in Gonzales’ eyes were career climbers who could care less about friendship, loyalty or the public interest in their quest for higher office.

One of the big takeaways the authors hope readers will absorb is the difference between political allies and friends. The former will of course peel off when the going gets tough.

Gonzales won’t identify the backstabbers, though Cindy Chavez and Nora Campos are two former allies who turned on him. “Not going to go into that,” the ex-mayor said this week when asked to confirm identities. “It's not about telling secrets. It’s about educating the reader.”

The secrecy around public business proved to be Gonzales’ undoing. One of the most progressive outcomes of the personal and political scandals of the early aughts was the enactment in 2008 of a series of “Sunshine Reforms” that require greater transparency in public business. In 2006, Gonzales called the sunshine movement, “a bunch of nonsense.”

Despite the voter approved 1996 Measure I, which limited the funds that could be spent on a new city hall, the building cost around $1 billion including interest, triple the promised amount. Then, a $45 million furniture budget was sprung on the council. In 2006, Vice Mayor Chavez introduced a motion to give $4 million to the San Jose Grand Prix a day before a council vote. (It later came out that the mayor and vice mayor had met with the Grand Prix’s CEO to discuss the subsidy five months earlier.)

Due to the sunshine reforms Gonzales opposed, advance notice requirements have eliminated the last minute spending surprises, and there is now easier access to public records.

The elephant, however, was Gonzales’ secret garbage deal, of which Nuñez contends in one Fishbowl passage that Gonzales was “vindicated” when the felony charges were dropped against the ex-mayor. The deceptive deal cost San Jose residents and businesses an additional $11.25 million in extra fees.

The Mercury News wrote in an editorial, “the ruling was no vindication, as Judge John Herlihy made clear: ‘There is no question that Norcal, Defendant Guerra and Defendant Gonzales were delinquent in their responsibility to be open and to fully disclose their knowledge, actions and policies.’ ”

In a democracy, we hold our leaders accountable. A Grand Jury found that Gonzales engaged in “deceptive conduct” when he cut a secret deal and concealed it from his colleagues and the public. Here’s the report.

He was charged with felonies and hired a really good lawyer who convinced the judge the charges didn’t meet the test of a bribe, since there was not a tangible quid pro quo.

The new DA’s decision not to pursue charges may well have may well have been a political one. Dolores Carr was later accused of improper conduct in another prosecution and voted out of office after a single term.

Though he apologized at the time, when his career was on the line, Gonzales is now unapologetic. He missed the opportunity to take personal responsibility in response to Professor Christensen’s softball on-camera questioning as well as in the book that purports to advise future public servants.

Instead, why not coach tomorrow’s office holders to tell the truth and be transparent? To lead their lives and conduct the public’s business in a way that if it’s written about, it won’t cause shame, or damage to the public interest?

Sunshine may be the best disinfectant for cloudy fishbowl water.

One Comment

  1. Good recall of historical events.
    Good article, well investigated, focused and researched.
    Looks like Bay-Area Journalism lives to write another day!

    Many Thanks Mr. Pulcrano, your article brought back many memories of my times at city hall.
    David S. Wall

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