Reed, Former San Jose Mayors Talk Shop

Norm Mineta, Janet Gray Hayes, Susan Hammer, Ron Gonzales and Reed all took part in Monday night’s installment of the Don Edwards Lecture Series at San Jose State University, and each of the current mayor’s predecessors voiced relief that never in their tenures were they forced to deal with the current mayor’s challenges.

A full decade of budget shortfalls, a workforce depleted and demoralized, the loss of the Redevelopment Agency and no certain economic rebound in the future was a tall order in every mayor’s eyes.

The never-ending pummeling a mayor experiences—from the press, constituents and colleagues—was reiterated consistently in the talk, which retiring SJSU political science professor Terry Christensen moderated.

Former Mayor Tom McEnery, who held office in the years between Hayes (1975-82) and Hammer (1991-98), didn’t attend the event, because he reportedly went out of town. The joke heard more than once was McEnery’s absence was not completely mourned because it meant other former mayors had a chance to speak.

No one accepted blame or cast it regarding the lack of foresight for the city’s unfunded liability due to pension and retirement benefits, but in one of the more interesting posits of the night, Gonzales attributed part of the city’s pension crisis to the post-9/11 public reverence for public safety workers.

‘That led a lot to the benefits created there,” Gonzales said. “I always say when 9/11 happened, no one questioned how much those men and women were paid” to respond.

A few points the former mayors cited as positive accomplishments could be debated, such as Gonzales (1999-2006) expanding affordable housing more than Los Angeles in his eight years, or Hammer’s insistence that “every nickel” of redevelopment money “spent has been well worth it, and I’ll stand by that until the day I die.”

One thing that united the former mayors most, though, was Christensen asking if public input ever changed their vote while sitting on the dais. The silence was deafening.

Hayes, 85, took a while to warm up in the discussion, seeming lost on the first few questions, but by the end her answers were among the most entertaining and candid. She said the worst failure of her time as mayor was not getting Apple to locate its headquarters in San Jose, not that she cared for the company’s CEO.

“Steve Jobs came to my office once and put his feet up on my desk,” Hayes said. “He was just awful. He was disrespectful as could be.”

Each panelist said their time as mayor of San Jose was the best job they ever had, although the conviction appeared more genuine the more removed each person was from the job. Reed sounded like a man that can’t wait to return to practicing law.

In conclusion, each mayor was given a couple minutes to sum up the meaning of the job to them, and Mineta delivered closing remarks about the difference between running a city and working at the Capitol or in Congress. He said real political training comes from running a city.

“(Most congressmen) have never been part of the other end of the legislative pipeline, trying to make these programs work,” he said. “So, whether a person came from a school district or sewage operating plant, whatever experience they had from local government, I felt it was better experience for Congress than state legislatures.”

According to the mayors of San Jose, their worst failures and best accomplishments:

Norm Mineta lamented his inability to control growth, but he was happy with his ability to deal “with the physical needs of the city” and get the city’s sewage treatment plant up and running.

Susan Hammer couldn’t persuade voters to build a stadium for the San Francisco Giants, yet she cashed in big by getting Cisco located in North San Jose and Adobe into downtown. (Hammer credited her city manager and planning department for dealing with the expedited timeline.)

Ron Gonzales couldn’t pass a hotel tax to expand the Convention Center, but he did get enough votes to start the process to bring BART to San Jose.

Josh Koehn is a former managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley.


  1. Reed seemed open to the idea of a stronger mayor system, mainly because it would mean he could skip City Council meetings. “There is that attraction to me,” he said to some laughter.

    Better yet Chuck, why don’t you just go away.  And talk the other 4 clowns with you, then citizens will get the last laugh.

  2. Some good people had a chance to talk and share their experience, stenghth and hope.  Thanks to SJSU and T. Christensen for hosting this cool event.

  3. > Norm Mineta lamented his inability to control growth, . . . .

    Wow!  An attack of candor.

    Translation:  he was trying to prevent new businesses and new jobs in San Jose so all you little people would just go somewhere else . . .

    or stop reproducing . . .

    or otherwise get the hell off of the Sierra Club’s planet.

  4. Gee, I hope no one was so rude as to point out to this distinguished group that, while they’re all in agreement regarding the devastating effect the current economic crisis has had on the city, a huge part of that effect is directly due to decisions they made during times of plenty. I wonder if the term “unfunded obligation” ever came up when discussing the good old days? Or if there was any mention of the tens of millions they withheld from the pension funds during boom years?

    There are a good many San Jose residents who lived through the administrations of these past mayors but today find their personal finances and property in much better shape than those of the city in which they live. Though affected by the same ups and downs of the economy, these people have somehow managed to arrive in the year 2012 with their obligations met and their property well-maintained. How did they do it? By using common sense in the management of their affairs and old-fashioned prudence in their spending decisions—two strategies all but foreign to San Jose city management.

    Janet Gray Hayes put women on the political map in San Jose, while Norm Mineta chose himself for that map; Susan Hammer preached diversity, while Tom McEnery appeased the gods of capitalism; Ron Gonzales bent the rules and broke the bank, while Chuck Reed bent the truth and broke the city’s spirit. Forty years of city administration, tens of billions of dollars spent, a lifetime of political nonsense, and San Jose is today a poster city for squandered promise.

    Drink up former mayors, and may ye drown all our sorrows.

  5. For every commenter here who expresses disgust, and disappointment, there are thousands more who feel the same yet lack the hope or energy to express it here. Keep that in mind , Council people.