All politics is local except at Capitol Weekly, where we have an unhealthy obsession for the state variety.
So we thought we’d pull a fast one – what the Muckrakers call a change-up – and turn our gaze to California’s mayors, those local government executives on the front lines of nearly every political fight, large and small, in the state.
There are more than 400 mayors in California. Some are well-known – they know who they are, so we won’t say their names – and many are unknown outside their immediate jurisdictions. But all are dealing with Draconian budget problems, increasingly restive constituents, public safety, road potholes, a recession-weary public, rivals who want their job and a fractious relationship with the state.
It isn’t easy being a mayor, although it can be fun. It can also be a stepping stone, although to where isn’t exactly clear. An upwardly mobile mayor isn’t going to strive for a seat in the term-limited Legislature. In fact, the path now goes quite the other way. State lawmakers often seek out local government seats – mayoral positions or slots on boards of supervisors, for example – where influence can be greater, longevity easier and the chances for advancement better.
In short, a better job and more fun.
Hence, this list. It’s a selection of mayors who we thought were interesting, talented and, amazingly, seem to be having fun. Upward mobility is a factor, too, although not always – the mayor in San Rafael is retiring, for example.
Termed-out mayors had a tough time getting on the list, as did mayors appointed by their colleagues. There’s nothing wrong with either category, but we wanted to draw a dotted line somewhere.
Some of these names may come as a surprise to Capitol Weekly’s readers, although they certainly didn’t surprise many of the elected officials’ staffers, who keep a close eye on the local talent.
That’s because some day, those locals may be in Sacramento.
On to our 10 mayors….
AL BORO, San Rafael
How can you not include who’s been mayor for 20 years? The job of mayor isn’t known for its security – although it’s not as bad as city manager or school superintendent – so when one sticks around for two decades, you have to take notice.
Al Boro, a retired Pac Bell and Pacific Telesis executive, has served as mayor of San Rafael for a record 20 years. So we took notice, although we have to tell you, the Riverside mayor is hot on his heels.
More impressively he’s a Republican (of the dwindling liberal variety) and Marin County’s only directly elected mayor, winning 78 percent of the vote during his last election in 2007.
So how does Boro win, and keep winning, in a Democratic stronghold?
Maybe it’s because he has served the city in some capacity since he was named to the Planning Commission in 1971. He was elected to the City Council in 1987, before winning mayor in 1991.
He’s known for his community-based style of governance, meeting with the business community and school districts on a regular basis.
According to past interviews with the Marin Independent Journal, Boro dedicates 50 to 60 hours a week to city duties and serving on regional government boards.
He was past president of Golden Gate Bridge District and represents San Rafael on SMART (Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit boards). Add to that his membership on the Marin Commission on the Homeless, the Marin County Parks Commission, the San Rafael Child Care Task Force, the Central Marin Sanitation Agency, and the Marin County Fair Board of Directors.
Boro presided over the revitalization of San Rafael’s downtown, a refashioning that combined specialty businesses, entertainment venues, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, with mixed-income housing, breathing new life into the area.
He’s also led the way in introducing more affordable housing to the city.
Despite a good run, Boro has decided two decades in office is enough and won’t be seeking reelection in November.
MICHAEL GIN, Redondo Beach
Michael Gin has a lot of the qualities you see in many up-and-coming political figures in California.
He’s youngish (48), Asian American, and married. More unusually, he’s both married to another man — he and partner Christopher Kreidel were among the same-sex couples married in 2008, when it was legal — and a Republican.
In 2005, Gin won a runoff in a landslide after the conservative California Republican Assembly hit him with anti-gay attack mailers that even his opponent, councilman Gerard Bisignano, condemned.
In short, Gin is an intriguing up-and-coming career politician. But with his time as mayor set to run out in two years, the question is where could he go?
He ran for Jane Harman’s empty congressional seat and finished fifth. A run for the newly redistricted Legislature could be a possibility. If Republicans want to have a future in California, there’s an argument to be made they should be promoting people like Gin. But, at least in its current form, the party isn’t likely to get behind him for higher office.
BOB FOSTER, Long Beach
Long before he was mayor of Long Beach, Bob Foster was something of a legend in the Capitol Press Corps: He was the only ranking utility executive who could explain, clearly and concisely, the state’s complex electricity crisis and he actually seemed to enjoy the give-and-take with reporters. Both traits are unusual.
His is something of an unusual career trajectory and reflects a practical knowledge of politics and business.
Foster, former president of Southern California Edison, was elected mayor in 2006 and reelected last year. The politically savvy mayor – he started out as a staffer in the state Senate and worked at the California Energy Commission – maneuvered Edison through the misery of a poorly deregulated electricity market that ultimately cost California $50 billion in excess energy costs – and that was probably a low estimate.
That may have been a scarring experience: Before he retired in 2006, “Edison developed the largest renewable, clean energy programs (solar, geothermal, biomass and wind) in the United States,” according to his unofficial bio.
Foster clearly has an unerring sense of where power and influence reside.
He was named to the board of the Independent System Operator, the entity that was set up under electricity deregulation to manage most of the state’s grid and is one of the most influential electricity regulators in the U.S.
Prior to his election as mayor, he served as a trustee to the California State University – another power center.
KEVIN JOHNSON, Sacramento
The two words that probably best sum up Kevin Johnson are “star power.”
We’re not exactly sure what he does for a living, but the former all-NBA point guard is good-looking and articulate, and he gets free political advice from some of the most-successful political consultants in town, including David Townsend, Steve Maviglio, Adam Mendelsohn and Joe Redota.
Even his fiancée is prominent: former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor and “Waiting for Superman” star Michelle Rhee.
Many praise Johnson for something predecessor Heather Fargo is seen as having not done — connecting the mid-size city of Sacramento to the immense talent that lives in it as the Capitol of the largest state in the country.
So Johnson is an up-and-comer. But where’s he going? He h
as been criticized for style over substance, and he appears to have survived questions about his earlier personal conduct with little difficulty. The main issue he’s been directly involved in are charter schools — no surprise there — but the record of the charter schools he’s founded have been mixed.
Still, Johnson is a young (45), charismatic, well-connected, African American, business-friendly Democrat — so don’t be surprised if you’re still reading his name on these pages in a few years.
RON LOVERIDGE, Riverside
When one asks around in Sacramento about mayors, invariably the name of Ron Loveridge pops up. First, because he seems to have been a mentor to an array of Capitol staffers or political junkies. Second, because he’s been a major force in both the League of California Cities and the National League of Cities, as well. Third, he knows policy and he’s also a university professor – he’s taught at UC Riverside since 1965 – with a doctorate from Stanford, an unusual mix for a politician.
He’s also mayor of the city that’s at the hub of the so-called Inland Empire, the fast-growing, problem-plagued expanse east of Los Angeles where problems – the recession, air quality and aging infrastructure, just to name a few – seem to get magnified.
He’s been mayor for some 17 years – an eternity in one job in the roiling world of local politics – and he served on the city council for 15 years before that. That’s 32 years in or around the same institution in public service. The guy’s like a force of nature.
His local perch gives him a say-so in any number of state, local and regional boards and commissions, including the powerful Air Resources Board and the South Coast Air Quality Management District – both heavy hitters in world of anti-pollution regulation. Those are prime jobs in an area where the air quality is disgraceful, aggravated in part by the breezes flowing inland from the L.A. basin.
His official bio describes him as an “avid reader and hiking enthusiast. When not leading a meeting or discussing political philosophy, he is enjoying a brisk walk in the outdoors. Ron’s favorite hike is up Mt. Rubidoux which he has completed hundreds of times.”
But one wonders how he finds the time.
JEAN QUAN, Oakland
Jean Quan may be alone among big city mayors in California for one thing: Her name is still probably less well-known than that of the guy she beat. But she may have a little place in political history for the way she beat him.
Quan defeated former Senate Leader and longtime California political big-wig Don Perata in Oakland’s first mayor’s race using the instant runoff system. After the first round, she was 11,000 votes down to Perata, but shot past him when the bottom finishers were eliminated.
A Democrat, Quan started on the school board in 1990 and won a seat on City Council in 2002. Her pet issues have been education — particularly making teaching racially inclusive — and the environment helping create the types of green waste and recycling programs where Bay Area cities have been leaders.
In her brief time so far as mayor, she’s had to deal with that regular bugaboo of Oakland politics, criminal violence. There was a major uptick in otherwise falling violence rates in one part of town, then she came close to losing Police Chief Anthony Batts to San Jose early in her term. Unlike a lot of big city mayors, Quan was never expected to get this far, and indications are she wants to run Oakland for a full eight years if given a chance.
She’s the city’s first female and first Asian mayor, and the first Asian American female mayor of a large U.S. city.
CHUCK REED, San Jose
Mayor Chuck Reed is San Jose’s own “Captain America,” leading the Silicon Valley toward green tech, open governance, and, most recently, pension reform.
At least on paper, anyway: His resume is a wonder to behold.
He graduated at the top of his class from the U.S. Air Force Academy and was only the ninth person in the history of the Academy to max out on the Physical Fitness Test. He served in Thailand during the Vietnam war, earned degrees at both Princeton University and Stanford School of Law and began work as an attorney in San Jose.
Focusing on environmental, employment, land use and real estate law and commercial litigation, Reed possesses an unlikely ideological fusion of pro-enviro and pro-business.
Reed spent a few years offering free legal advice to tenants in housing disputes, helping local non-profits, and serving on various commissions, boards, and committees including the City Planning Commission and the San Jose Downtown Association.
After winning a spot on the City Council in 2000, he earned a reputation as a guy unafraid to vote against high profile issues, like former Mayor Ron Gonzales’ $343 million plan for building a new City Hall, despite San Jose’s budget troubles.
Reed successfully ran for mayor in 2007, and set to work on his two legacies: “Reed Reforms,” sunshine policies requiring greater disclosure from elected officials, and “Green Vision,” an ambitious plan to use energy efficiency strategies and attract clean tech business to bolster the local economy.
But recently Reed has become the unlikely champion of pension reform, in light of the city’s state of fiscal emergency that may leave San Jose unable to provide many of its basic services.
He hopes to put a measure on March ballot cutting pension benefits for current city workers, raising the retirement age, increasing the rate of accrual of benefits, using average salaries instead of the highest 12 months to calculate benefits, but leaves already accrued benefits unaffected.
If the measure holds up in court, it will set precedent as California’s first successful challenge against public employee “vested rights”, and could have national implications for cities facing similar fiscal challenges.
CHUCK DELLA SALA, Monterey
Monterey is a little city with a rich history — and old-school mayor Chuck Della Sala and his family have been around for a lot of it.
He was born in Monterey in 1955, graduated from Monterey Peninsula College, then ran the Monterey Chamber of Commerce and United Way chapter before running the city itself.
But concerns in the picturesque tourist town are the same as many other places: redevelopment, water and pot. Della Sala could be called “Chuck De Sal” for how hard he’s worked to get a desalinization plant to replace the water his town is in danger of losing to the growing Silicon Valley.
A veteran businessman himself — he’s been in real estate for 23 years — Della Sala has been a defender of redevelopment zones. And in July, he casts the deciding vote on the City Council to shut down the city’s medical marijuana dispensaries.
In many ways, Della Sala is a throwback — pro business, but also pro-environment, liberal in some ways, but anti-pot. His term is set to end next year, but no word yet if he’s interested in running for the Legislature in one of those new, moderate Central Coast districts.
ASHLEY SWEARENGIN, Fresno
Born in Texas and raised in Arkansas, Ashley Swearengin came to Fresno in high school and stayed. She’s got a marketing and business background – a master’s in business from Fresno State – but she’s also got a heavy interest in public service.
She was elected mayor three years ago and has faced interminable economic problems – budget cuts, dwindling revenues and the like. But she r
emains a major player in the San Joaquin Valley, where she works on regional issues – transportation, air quality, economy, crime – that transcend her own town. Outside the valley, she is viewed by political handicappers as an up-and-coming contender and her regional bent is giving her a higher profile.
But there are challenges here. Crime, long a problem, isn’t getting any better. Violent crime has gone up 8 percent, domestic violence has risen a dramatic 45 percent and car thefts – the Central Valley seems to be the car theft capital of the world – have gone up a whopping 40 percent over the year before.
Swearengin sees economic improvement as a fundamental issue. Nine years ago, she began pushing a regional jobs initiative that included participation by government and private entities. She later handled a program called the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, a public-private alliance pushed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
She also has a working knowledge of the professional media: her husband Paul manages and works as an announcer at a Fresno radio station.
ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA, Los Angeles
By default, the mayor of Los Angeles has to be on any list of 10 California mayors.
Villaraigosa is a major California political player – he was a power in the Legislature as speaker and he’s run Los Angeles for six years. He’s also currently president of the United States Conference of Mayors, a less-than-exciting job but one that keeps his national contacts alive.
Villaraigosa is forced out of office next year by term limits, so there is obvious speculation about what he’ll do next. He isn’t saying, but he tossed a few bones to reporters this week at the Press Club, when he took some shots at Jerry Brown, suggesting that the incumbent governor is too timid to take on Proposition 13. Villaraigosa, 58, who rose through the ranks as a labor organizer before he reached public office, made a sizeable splash, and he appeared to be laying a little political groundwork.
His accomplishments as mayor – this is an area of hot controversy – are overshadowed by assorted ethics issues that, remarkably, haven’t seemed to stop Villaraigosa.
In 2007, he was accused of 31 violations of campaign finance laws stemming from his race for the City Council four years earlier. They were ultimately resolved, but the after taste of those violations lingered. Last year, he got into trouble for not reporting his acceptance of dozens of prized tickets to sporting events, concerts and the like. According to news reports, the tickets included 13 passes to Lakers’ games valued at $3,100 each, and tickets to the Governor’s Ball and the Academy Awards.
He filed for divorce from his wife in 2007 after it was widely reported that he had an alleged affair with a local television reporter. Rumors also had whirled around the Capitol about Villaraigosa during his years in Sacramento.
But despite the baggage, Villaraigosa clearly remains a serious political contender for state or federal office.