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California and the West

Latino Savors Historic Win in San Jose

Politics: Ron Gonzales is the first Mexican American elected mayor of a major California city. Crossover appeal is cited.


Just two days after winning election as mayor of California's third largest city, Ron Gonzales got to work--not for his new employer, the people of San Jose, but for his old one, Hewlett-Packard.

The cleanup had barely been completed at Gonzales' campaign headquarters last week when the mayor-elect boarded a plane for Boston, where he represented the Silicon Valley company in meetings with local educators.

"I've got to pay the mortgage," said Gonzales, who held his full-time job throughout the 11-month campaign. "I've got obligations to fill at Hewlett-Packard. They've been a wonderful company. I'm loyal to them." He will, however, leave that job soon for the full-time mayor's position.

That Gonzales would keep his corporate commitments even as new responsibilities await him at City Hall says a lot about the choices that have defined his career in politics. Those choices have helped make him the first Latino elected to govern a major California city.

A self-described "high-tech Mex," Gonzales brings to his new job an impressive array of credentials in the private and public sectors. He is a former Santa Clara County supervisor, a former city councilman in neighboring Sunnyvale, and for a decade a successful manager at Hewlett-Packard.

Unlike many Latino politicians in California, his training ground has not been in the turbulent sphere of barrio activism. Instead, he's embraced the sort of "crossover" appeal that has defined a new generation of Latino leaders, most notably Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles).

"I'm proud of my background, but I've also learned that our issues are those of other communities," Gonzales said. "Whether you're serving a Latino neighborhood or a non-Latino neighborhood, people are concerned about issues like safety and education."

Outgoing Mayor Susan Hammer, who endorsed Gonzales in his race against City Councilwoman Pat Dando, said Gonzales, 47, has spent years building links with the kaleidoscope of voters and interest groups that make up San Jose and other Silicon Valley cities.

In San Jose, where Latinos constitute just 14% of the registered voters, Gonzales built a broad base of support that reached far beyond the city's predominantly Latino Eastside district. In June's mayoral primary, he beat Dando in all but one of San Jose's 10 City Council districts.

Hammer said she was impressed by the wide array of people who filled Gonzales' election-night victory party.

"There were movers and shakers, union people and neighborhood leaders," Hammer said. "It was really a diverse group, both ethnically and socially."

Throughout the campaign, as he has throughout his career, Gonzales avoid drawing attention to his ethnic background. Still, it is clear that San Jose's mayor-elect owes much to his late father, a 30-year Teamsters member who moved his Mexican American family from San Francisco to Sunnyvale in the 1950s.

Gonzales' father, Robert, was born in Arizona, the son of immigrants from Sonora, Mexico. The elder Gonzales took an interest in local politics and often volunteered to support Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. He regularly attended school board meetings, his son tagging along.

"He was a part of the generation that went out on street corners and I remember that," Gonzales said. "I'm part of the generation that was able to get government experience."

Like most Mexican Americans of his generation, Gonzales was raised hearing a mixed message about his cultural identity: take pride in your roots, but also assimilate into the mainstream. He was not encouraged to speak Spanish.

He caught the politics bug early, winning a seat on the De Anza College student council at the age of 18. In 1977 he ran for a seat on the Sunnyvale City Council and lost, the only defeat of his career. He ran again and won.

He became the first Latino member of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in 1989 and soon alienated two of the board's most powerful members, Rod Diridon and Zoe Lofgren. He became known for his aloofness and a stubborn streak.

"He was criticized early in his career for not being real open and accessible," Hammer recalled. "I think he's realized that that's not the type of government people have gotten used to in San Jose."

As his career progressed, Gonzales proved to be a quick study in the subtleties of politics. By the time he ran for mayor, his former nemeses on the board, Diridon and Lofgren, had agreed to endorse him.

On election night, he became San Jose's first Latino mayor since the Mexican alcaldes ruled the town in the 1840s. Gonzales likes to point out that he is also San Jose's "first mayor from high-tech industry."

"It was a night of great excitement and great pride," Gonzales said in a telephone interview from Massachusetts. "It was a night of a lot of firsts for the city of San Jose."

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