McEnery’s Big Idea

An Analysis Of The Evolution Of A Powerful Mayoralty

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By Philip J. Trounstine  Mercury News Political Editor
Mercury News Staff Writer Bert Robinson contributed to this report.


In just one term, San Jose Mayor Tom McEnery has transformed his office, once regarded as a ceremonial job of little genuine significance, into the most powerful political post in Silicon Valley.

Although aided by political circumstance and economic fortuity, McEnery’s influence results even more from his ability to win widespread acceptance of his Big Idea:  A thriving downtown San Jose as the heart of Silicon Valley.

Driven by this vision, he has since 1982 built a commanding coalition that enabled him to more than double his staff and budget, reward cronies and punish foes, seize control of San Jose’s billion-dollar government, rack up a string of high- profile successes and begin to play an instrumental role in major regional issues.

McEnery, 41, who will deliver his fifth State of the City speech Wednesday, has not yet and may never be widely perceived as the “mayor of Silicon Valley.” But as County Executive Sally Reed, a former San Jose deputy city manager and sometimes McEnery critic, put it:

”If there is a political leader of this county now, you would have to say it is the mayor of San Jose.”

Because power is more fragmented in other cities, City Manager Gerald Newfarmer added, “There is no elected official at the local government level in the state of California who has more power than Tom McEnery has as mayor of San Jose today.”

McEnery, heir to a valuable piece of downtown property and a long, colorful Irish political tradition, accepts such judgments with patrician nonchalance. ”I view the mayor’s office as setting the agenda of the city,” the mayor said recently. The office “has great ex cathedra power, great moral power. I believe I’m someone whose opinion is listened to, and that carries all kinds of burdens with it,” McEnery said.

”I don’t think I have six votes on the (11-member) council,” he added. But “I think the things that I stand for have nine, 10 and in some cases 11 votes on the council. . . . My personal agenda is my public agenda, and that gives me a lot of strength.”

In part, this concentration of clout was the inevitable result of a 1978 change in the city charter under which other City Council members are elected from individual districts, leaving the mayor as the only official with a citywide constituency.

McEnery also has benefited from the historical southward march of Silicon Valley businesses and the merger in 1981 of San Jose’s redevelopment areas, a maneuver that created a huge pot of tax funds to be dispensed for favored civic projects.

Yet beyond these circumstances, which would have boosted the authority of anyone elected mayor, even McEnery’s critics agree that he has skillfully altered the balance of power under San Jose’s “weak-mayor” system of government.

”He wasn’t elected as a strong mayor; he built the strong mayor,” said Bob Brownstein, an activist for low-income housing and an aide to Supervisor Susanne Wilson.

”I don’t know how in the hell you could be any stronger than Tom is, regardless of what you put in the city charter, because he has known how to be a strong mayor,” developer Charles W. Davidson added. “The evidence of that is that he can pretty well get done whatever he wants done, within reason.”

McEnery’s plans

Just a few of the things McEnery has wanted have included replacing former City Manager Francis Fox with Newfarmer, opening a portion of Coyote Valley to industrial development, increasing the business license tax to fund police and libraries, boosting his office budget 157 percent and helping to win countywide approval of a half-cent sales tax for transportation.

But his principal focus has been his native downtown, where he pushed approval of a $139 million convention center and much more.

”Downtown San Jose is now taken very seriously,” said Angelo Siracusa, executive director of the Bay Area Council, which represents the largest and most powerful corporations in the region.

”The momentum of the city and the redevelopment efforts have certainly given it a higher profile among the people in industry,” added Peter B. Giles, former president of the Santa Clara County Manufacturing Group, who now heads the effort to fund and construct — in downtown — a $65 million Technology Center of Silicon Valley.

”I can tell you, the office of mayor is taken seriously by the heads of companies in the valley,” added Giles, whose board of directors decided in 1985 to build in downtown San Jose after McEnery convinced the City Council to offer subsidies estimated at $40 million plus free land.

Vision of downtown

To a high-tech valley in search of its soul and a suburban city in search of itself, McEnery has proposed with consistent simplicity his vision of a central core. And he has found that, as long as San Jose maintains momentum, he and his city will be forgiven almost any calamity — even the 1984 squandering of $60 million in the bond market.

In fact, McEnery capitalized on San Jose’s $60 million bath, using the blunder to strengthen the city’s elected officials at the expense of Newfarmer’s professional administration.

Proof that the voters sanctioned the need for stronger political control over city government was delivered in November, with the approval of Measure J, a charter amendment that will further increase McEnery’s power by giving him a mandated role in crafting San Jose’s budget.

There are, however, some risks to McEnery and other council members in having seized greater control over city operations. Whereas the mayor and his colleagues were able to reproach the professional staff for the $60 million debacle, they may not so easily avoid blame for future fiascoes, should they occur.

Regaining power

Before he took office in January 1983, “there was more power consolidated outside of City Hall than within City Hall, and I thought it was important that more of that power be returned to the mayor and the council,” McEnery said.

Leadership wasn’t coming from the mayor and council, he said, but from business leaders, developers and political contributors.

After taking office, McEnery, who as a councilman had opposed efforts by former Mayor Janet Gray Hayes to increase her office budget, suddenly saw the civic wisdom in hiring more researchers and aides.

From fiscal 1982-83 to 1986-87, the budget for the mayor’s office grew from $203,587 to $522,724, while McEnery’s staff — including approved additions — increased from three full- time professionals to 12. In the same period, council members’ budgets grew from $123,627 to $173,478, an increase of 40 percent.

McEnery also gave greater emphasis to the council committees that Hayes had established, not only to improve the council’s efficiency but also to shift power away from the city administration, for example, by scrutinizing the manager’s budget.

Enhancing the role of council committees also “created more chits for the mayor,” explained Dean Munro, McEnery’s top aide.

Legislative dynamic

”The few chits you have, you share with people you’re closest to,” Munro said. “It’s a pretty basic dynamic of any legislative body.”

Another factor crucial to McEnery’s ability to control his council is the 1978 charter change under which council members are elected from districts while the mayor is elected citywide.

”That, by its very nature, gives the mayor an instant visibility that an individual council member doesn’t have and creates an opportunity to be used by an effective mayor,” said Robert Kirkwood, director of government affairs for Hewlett- Packard Co.

Hayes, by comparison, faced constant rebellion from the pro- development “Fearsome Foursome” on her council — Al Garza, David Runyon, Larry Pegram and Joe Colla. And on top of that, she and her vice mayor, Jim Self, were constantly at each other’s throat.

All were elected citywide and “they all wanted to be mayor,” Hayes recalled. Or, as McEnery put it, “Only one person could have handled that group: Rasputin.”

McEnery, however, “has a majority of the council behind him,” developer G. Drew Gibson observed. “That wields great power. That means, whatever the council can do, from an ordinance standpoint, can be done. And if he’s against it, generally it wouldn’t be done. And if he’s for it, generally it will be done.” Delivering the votes

According to Newfarmer, whose relationship with the mayor has not always been the best, “In terms of delivering the votes on a council, . . . Tom’s the most effective that I’ve seen, and I’ve been doing this 20 years.”

”McEnery operates more like an old-time speaker of the House would, where he controls a majority of the troops,” said developer Davidson. “He did exactly what I intended 22 years ago when I wrote the section (of the city charter) that defined the mayor as the political head of the city. That meant he could be as strong as whatever power he was capable of taking.”

Even McEnery’s most persistent City Hall foe, Councilwoman Lu Ryden, acknowledges the mayor’s deft use of his office.

”He has the carrots on a stick. He has more ways to buy power than council members do,” Ryden said.

Also, McEnery has pleased council members by helping shift power away from the city manager to the elected leaders. He and his colleagues meet independently with department heads and evaluate department budget proposals. They also have created an Office of Policy Analysis, strengthened the city auditor’s office and taken control over setting their own council meeting agendas.

Newfarmer, weakened by the city’s $60 million loss, exerts far less influence than did some of his predecessors who “determined everything, called the shots, lined up the votes,” as McEnery put it.

City manager’s role

”Jerry has a very clear understanding of the policy role of the mayor and the council, and he doesn’t have any problem with it,” McEnery said. In other words, this manager has been made to understand that he is hired help.

In dealing with other cities, McEnery’s ability to speak with confidence for his council and thus his city is a tremendous asset.

”When Tom, whether it’s on the Golden Triangle task force or some of the other issues we’re working on, says that San Jose’s position will be this, you can pretty well bank on it,” Sunnyvale Mayor Ron Gonzales observed.

McEnery’s good working relationship with other council members marks a clear change from his pattern as a council member during Hayes’ tenure.

”There’s been enormous growth in Tom McEnery,” Hayes said. “He’s matured in office. . . . There were times when we never knew if he was going to come to a meeting. He’d be late. We wouldn’t know where he was.”

McEnery, the loner, once voted against the city budget, opposed expansion of the sewage treatment plant, belittled his colleagues’ interest in the National League of Cities and even fought to prevent the council from moving into new sixth-floor offices.

Upscale office

Now he seeks unanimous votes on controversial issues, helps his colleagues win posts in the National League of Cities and has installed television lights in his finely furnished sixth- floor office.

McEnery “was not horribly effective as a council member,” said Councilwoman Susan Hammer, a close ally of the mayor’s and a former aide to Hayes. “It’s to his credit that he has become a team player.”

One small measure of the mayor’s evolution was evident at a December 1985 meeting of the National League of Cities, when he gave an impassioned and articulate nominating speech for Councilwoman Iola Williams, who was seeking a league office. The two had been barely civil to one another when McEnery was a councilman.

Yet, Reed noted, McEnery’s coalition “wasn’t a consensus built around Tom as a person but around a vision. . . . He spelled out a clear vision and sold it.” Moreover, McEnery has not preached his vision of downtown only to San Jose. Rather, he has sought to ensure that the regeneration of downtown San Jose is accepted as a critical goal by political and business leaders throughout Silicon Valley.

Traffic control

In part because downtown’s future depends on tax revenues generated by developing San Jose’s portion of the Golden Triangle industrial area, bounded by Highways 101, 880 and 237, McEnery has become deeply involved in regional efforts to control traffic in the area.

He has even organized private meetings at his home for mayors and leaders from the cities affected.

No other local political figure could have brought such meetings together, Sunnyvale Mayor Gonzales said. “But when San Jose and its mayor come to the table, it certainly has a great deal of drawing power,” he added.

And while McEnery has not preached downtown’s future to the other city leaders, Santa Clara Councilwoman Judy Nadler said she and others have grown to accept that “San Jose is going to be the major city; it’s going to be our big neighbor.”

Or as Gonzales put it, “He came in and said from the outset that San Jose was the largest city in the county and that it was no longer going to be a city that played second to anyone.”

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