The Gloves Are Off in San Leandro Elections 

Municipal finances dominate the city's mayor and council races.

The former mayor of San Leandro summed up Mayor Tony Santos' chances for re-election with her typical straightforward style. "Tony hasn't killed his wife and he hasn't stolen any money," said Shelia Young. "There isn't a good reason for him not to win." But four candidates, with varying backgrounds and degrees of experience, see it a different way.

In fact, since San Leandro began directly electing its mayor in 1962, an incumbent has never lost. But in an election laced with high voter angst derived from a poor economy, hard-knuckled political pugilism, and the unfamiliarity of ranked-choice voting, San Leandro is in the middle of one of its most intense mayoral races in years.

Like most municipalities, San Leandro is struggling to maintain basic services while showing few signs of significant recovery. The general fund has been trimmed here and there, including continued cuts to its city staff and police. Its reserve fund, once overflowing five years ago at more than $20 million, has been whittled down to just $1 million. This forced the city's former finance director to sound the alarm this summer, saying that San Leandro could have trouble meeting day-to-day expenses in the next year. Still, despite the grave economic outlook, the city is more fiscally sound than many nearby cities

Nevertheless, Santos' main challengers have made the city's economic future the hallmark of their campaigns. Both Councilwoman Joyce Starosciak and former San Leandro School Trustee Stephen Cassidy have hammered Santos' handling of the budget. "We need the right kind of mayor," Starosciak recently said. "We need new leadership." But after serving on the school board, Starosciak was elected to the city council in 2004 and over the years has typically voted with Santos on most matters. "I absolutely agree with her," counters Cassidy. "She's part of the old leadership and she's actually making the case for someone outside of the council to be mayor."

The often visceral tone between Santos, Starosciak, and Cassidy in the past month flies in the face of conventional wisdom suggesting that ranked-choice voting, the new election system debuting in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Leandro, inherently promotes friendly discourse among candidates. Why partake in political mudslinging when second-place votes from your opponent's supporters could ultimately decide the race? Such utopian dreams, though, seem to have skipped over San Leandro. In many instances the rancor has been stoked by Santos, whose garrulous and sometimes condescending tone does not sit well with some residents.

Santos has a long history in San Leandro politics. Before becoming mayor in 2006, the 77-year-old mayor served on the city council from 1984 to 1992, followed by a second stint starting in 2000. His patriarchal attitude toward city government and the good old days has led him to criticize Starosciak for stifling the collegial atmosphere of the council by waging a campaign against a sitting mayor and repeatedly calling Cassidy a "tea partier" for his consistent calls for pension reform. The bad blood among the three has reached such a fevered pitch that it is commonplace for the trio to ignore each other at public meetings and social gatherings.

The political backbiting may have hit its apex last month when Starosciak accused Santos of violating the Brown Act at a committee meeting overseeing the San Leandro Marina Shoreline. The e-mail to her supporters angrily alleged that Santos attempted to appoint a replacement for one of the committee's 32 seats without full council consent. But one week later Starosciak reversed herself, denying that Santos flouted the law. Santos called the accusation "vile" and later questioned whether she was a "good Catholic," while attacking her upbringing. "I've known Joyce since she was little girl," he said, "and I'm disappointed in the woman she has become."

While Santos has lived up to his reputation as a rough-and-tumble political veteran, Cassidy has attempted to make the race about the issues and has been amazingly consistent in conveying his stance regarding the city's finances and pushing for city employees to pay more toward the cost of their pensions. "We don't have a mayor who takes responsibility for what is going on in the city," said Cassidy, who also believes the city is on the path to bankruptcy. But the issue of pension reform has put Cassidy in a lonely spot. He is the only candidate for any city office advocating such a plan, and is the sole opponent of Measure Z, which would raise the city's sales tax to 10 percent and go a long way toward maintaining city services and at least five sworn police officers. "If city employees paid more toward their pensions, the city would save nearly $3 million," said Cassidy. "That's the same amount the city had in deficits in the last fiscal year." Cassidy's rhetoric, though, has created a divide among employee labor unions and led Sgt. Mike Sobek, the president of the San Leandro Police Officers Association, to unequivocally say, "We support anybody but Stephen Cassidy. He is not a friend of the POA."

Starosciak, herself, has also gotten into hot water with the police union. After she won their backing in September, the union went to the extraordinary measure of splitting its endorsement with Santos after numerous public statements made by Starosciak angered union brass. Privately, members say they've become fed up with comments contradicting a pledge during the interview process to protect police pensions.

Some have taken notice of Cassidy's interesting gambit catering to the anger-driven segment of the electorate typically associated with the right this election season. Such a maneuver is risky in Democratic-dominated San Leandro, but Cassidy denies such a strategy is being deployed. "I'm courting everyone," he said. "I'm not focusing on any group."

Rapper-turned-community activist Sara Mestas joined the race in May without any political experience aside from her tireless work to help reinstate school crossing guards to the city budget over the past two years. But her campaign has languished without hardly any funding, although she has lately become quite an ally to Santos in procuring first- and second-place votes. John Palau, on the other hand, is the sideshow. During a National Night-Out block party a week before the filing period ended, neighbors encouraged him to run. That is just about all the city has seen of Palau other than quipping during a forum last month that he would favor clearing the entire city and bringing back native cherry trees. We think he was joking.

In the two contested city council races, school trustee Pauline Cutter is facing San Leandro businesswoman Corina Lopez in District 5, which represents the north side surrounding city hall. This race to replace termed-out Councilman Bill Stephens is likely San Leandro's most contested battle. By most observations the laconic Cutter has served competently over the past eight years, if not with great visibility. Despite serving on the school board, her support of the deposed and controversial former superintendent has sullied support from the teachers' union leading them to endorse her opponent. Lopez has impressed many during two strong performances at well-attended candidate forums. In a highly diverse city where Latinos make up nearly a quarter of the population, this growing demographic nonetheless lacks a foothold on the city council or school board. Both candidates say reinvigorating the city's depressed downtown with restaurants and retail spots is a priority. "We need to make our downtown a destination," Cutter said last month.

San Leandro's patron saint of good health and urban walkability is undoubtedly Councilman Michael Gregory, who faces former Oakland School Trustee David Anderson. The District 1 representative clearly abides by his support of San Leandro's noted Transit-Oriented Development strategy. It is not uncommon to see Gregory, clad in business suit and helmet, riding his bicycle on city streets. Gregory has not shied away from running on the current administration's record, including the rebuilding of its downtown and the new Kaiser Permanente slated to open in 2013. Anderson has become increasingly critical of two of Gregory's pet projects in District 1: saving San Leandro Hospital from closing, and searching for dollars to run the recently constructed, but unused, Senior Community Center. The facility for seniors has become a white elephant of sorts and source of local consternation. "It is appalling to build a $15 million senior center without a budget to run it," Anderson said last month.

Despite the contentious nature of this fall's election, little stands to change. Without a return of steady streams of revenue and economic growth, San Leandro, like many cities, is bracing for tough times ahead no matter who wins this November.

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