Mayor started on good footing, leaves on badBy Scott Herhold
Ron Gonzales' tenure as San Jose's mayor has many of the earmarks of tragedy: An ambitious Latino leader takes office in the middle of the boom and within 22 months creates a program that includes BART, new libraries, parks and neighborhood assistance. His favorable-to-unfavorable ratio is a stratospheric 63-9 percent. He's talked about for state office, maybe even governor some day.
When he leaves the job more than six years later, he has lost his first wife, been censured by his colleagues, suffered a stroke midway through a State of the City speech and been hit with a criminal indictment. With a favorability rating of less than 20 percent, his political career is finished.
What happened? Does this guy have an instinct for inviting trouble? Or has the world ganged up on him? Is he victim or perpetrator?
A complex man
The answers aren't as clear-cut as you might think. Gonzales is a complicated man, sensitive to criticism and lacking the kind of public warmth that has saved other politicians who fall into trouble.
A fair summation of his eight years has to begin with his accomplishments, which are real. He pushed through Measure A for BART in 2000 (I disagree with him on BART, but it was still a political achievement). He pushed winning bond measures for libraries and fire stations. He saved the Montgomery Hotel, funneled millions into neighborhood improvements, helped teachers buy homes and went a long way toward ridding San Jose of graffiti.
Most mayors would call that a successful run. Gonzales seized the window of opportunity in his first two years and should have reaped the benefits of a builder.
But something happened to the mayor in the fall of 2000, when he took a very public flogging for his affair with staffer Guisselle Nunez, who later became his wife. Fairly or unfairly, he lost a chunk of public trust.
Even more serious was the loss of moorings he had always counted upon. Gonzales already had lost his charismatic father, Bob Gonzales, to death. The affair resulted in the loss of his well-liked wife, Alvina, and contributed to the departure of his trusted chief of staff, Jude Barry.
For a politician who always relied on his staff to offer him a range of choices, this was particularly damaging. Dependent on his sharp-tongued budget and policy chief, Joe Guerra, who boasted of being an "old-world Italian" who didn't forget, Gonzales was like a boat cut loose on stormy seas with a malfunctioning rudder.
Was there a tragic flaw to Gonzales? If you had to pinpoint one cause, hubris is a likely candidate. Gonzales boasted that he was the CEO of the city, even though San Jose has a charter halfway between a strong-mayor and council-city manager system. That pride led him to broker the Norcal deal, which led to his indictment.
There was also the issue of just what his core beliefs were. From his legacy in Sunnyvale, he believed in efficiencies -- yes -- but gave way to cops or home builders when politics dictated it. Unable to summon the kind of friends who served Bill Clinton in trouble, Gonzales was curiously unsuited to the slings and arrows of political misfortune.
But rather than kick Gonzales on the way out, we ought to thank him twice over. First, for his real achievements, which are not to be dismissed. Second, and paradoxically, for offering us a template of mayor that ultimately didn't fit. In San Jose, we're better off with a collaborative chairman of the board rather than a CEO.
Copyright ©2006 Mercury News. Published 12/24/2006.