Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Santa Clara Politics Deja Vu

I was amused to hear the Santa Clara Gardens [BAREC] project described as "the Summerhill Gillmor development project" by an opponent at Tuesday night's City Council meeting.

That's what a large footprint Gary Gillmor, mayor in the 1960s, has in Santa Clara. People blame him for everything, things that happened a decade before he was mayor and things that happened long after he left office.

When I interviewed Gillmor in 2005, when I asked about the downtown redevelopment debacle, he told me," I get blamed for the urban renewal – or the wrecking of the downtown. I hate to tell them that was in 1958, I wasn’t even in office then. But people still think that I did it. [they say] 'Look what he did to the downtown.' "

Sort of a local pro-development boogeyman: You better behave or Gary Gillmor will develop the backyard.

It's a reflection of his importance to the City's history.

It's not an exaggeration to say that the City very likely wouldn't be the place it is today without Gillmor, who was Santa Clara's first elected mayor. Certainly, Santa Clara's municipal power company owes a significant part of its enormous success to his personal charisma and outsize confidence in his own vision.

"We were in a constant struggle with PG&E," he told me in our 2005 interview. "I was elected chairman of the Northern California Power Agency, which was the benefit of having a mayor with continuity because.. our power agency was a new agency at the time. We were in a constant struggle with PG&E who wanted us not to be successful. I would go all the time, representing 15 cities. I was their chairperson for five, six, seven years. And Donald Von Raesfield was key to our successes. We were a team.

"In government you have to have knowledge. Knowledge is power. We went into geothermal power, hydro plants. It wasn’t a new utility, but we expanded it.

At one point Gillmor had the audacity to advise the San Francisco Board of Supervisors that they should create a municipal power company. No doubt today they regret not listening to the brash young mayor from the cow town to the south.

"Another thing was the planning. We had a lot of pressure on us for north of the Bayshore at that time to allow housing. All the housing developers were after us, but we said ‘no’ and we kept that area for our industrial base. Why even during one of my years in office we lowered taxes, which was unheard of."

He's an interesting guy to talk to, with a kind of free-wheeling style that you don't see in politicians any more – for good or bad.

In 2004 there was a lot of talk about contributions from Gillmor and his family to candidates in local races. The Mercury News weighed in with a highly critical editorial. I asked him if he thought his political contributions have influenced races in Santa Clara.

"Well, sure. Your paper influences it. The unions influence it, environmental groups influence it. All these things influence. Does money talk in politics? Sure."

When was the last time you heard a politician speak that directly? Compared to today's focus-group-tested, homogenized politicians, talking to Gillmor is refreshing.

"I know what the Mercury calls me – old guard, kingmaker, whatever they want to call me. I can’t remember the last time I asked anything from the city council. I probably haven’t talked to them in a decade but I’m blamed."

No doubt Gillmor did things in his time that might not pass muster these days. But I don't know that today's politicians could do what he did. His bold opposition to the trends of his time — refusing to sell utility assets to PG&E and develop housing on the north side — took a larger-than-life personality.

"This is great city. You can’t find a better run city. I think Santa Clara is one of the finest cities around. Every city has its own personality. The personality of Santa Clara is a true middle class community. [We created] the transportation, Central Expressway. Lawrence expressway. We created jobs. We created a tax base."

It’s something to think about it the next time you turn the lights on.

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