The Land That Politics Forgot 

Welcome to Yowza Dave Smith's Newark, where no one votes, no one runs for office, and no one dissents. Has democracy failed? Or has it been perfected?

Mr. Newark stepped up to the mic, licked his lips, and launched into a Latin trombone solo. Backing him up was a ten-member band of cops, firefighters, and other city officials. The city attorney played rhythm guitar and the city manager beat the conga drums. But at this moment in the eighty-minute set, all eyes were focused on Mayor Dave Smith. The bandleader, a police captain, asked the audience: "What other city has a mayor taking trombone solos?"

The answer, of course, is none that we know of. But then again, many things are unusual in Newark, a quirky, often-overlooked town tucked between Interstate 880 and the San Francisco Bay. In addition to its trombone-playing mayor and the band named Yowza in honor of his favorite expression, the most remarkable thing about Newark is what it lacks -- divisiveness.

This quiet southern Alameda County city of 45,000 people is perhaps the Bay Area's most congenial place. There are no epic battles between Republicans and Democrats. Disagreements of any kind are extremely rare. In fact, it's front-page news when the five-member city council doesn't act in total unanimity.

Smith, the city's unquestioned leader, calls it "the Newark Way." His best friend is Vice Mayor Al Nagy, who has been on the council for a quarter-century. Nagy, a Democrat, said the last time he disagreed with the Republican Smith on a city issue was in the 1980s. Smith, meanwhile, has been elected mayor thirteen times in this mostly Democratic enclave and has served for 27 years -- the second-longest run of any mayor currently in California, and among the ten longest terms in the country. Smith said mayors from other cities say he "must be living in Oz."

All this bipartisanship and uninterrupted leadership result in an extremely efficient community. Newark is unabashedly pro-business, and it operates as if it were a well-oiled, profit-oriented enterprise. At a time when other cities are facing eye-popping budget deficits and cutting essential services, the fiscally conservative Newark sits comfortably atop a $35 million surplus. The city has little crime, well-groomed parks, pothole-free streets, and sports a huge new indoor activity and aquatic center. Newark, in short, could be the Stepford of the Bay Area.

Conventional wisdom holds that voters disconnect from the political process because of partisan politics. So as Newark readies itself for its fiftieth Fourth of July celebration this weekend and its fiftieth anniversary later this year, you would think its residents would be enthusiastically engaged in the city's harmonious political life.

Yet in faction-free Newark, residents are even more disconnected. Voter turnout in municipal elections is strikingly low, almost no one ever runs for office, and city council meetings are about backslapping -- not about debating the issues. The city and its affable mayor, are a prime example of what can happen to a community's political life when everyone gets along. Has democracy failed in Newark, or has it been perfected?


Thirty years ago, David William Smith had no idea he would come to personify a small city along the southeastern edge of the San Francisco Bay. Born in Detroit, he grew up in a little town along Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and was raised by his wheelchair-bound mother after his father died when Smith was six. After college, a job brought him to Fremont, where he got his initiation in community service with the Jaycees, a fraternal business group. He soon became the chapter president.

Following a job transfer that took him briefly to Louisiana, Smith returned to the East Bay in 1974 and settled in Newark -- not because he particularly liked it, but because it had plenty of housing. Newark was strictly a bedroom community at the time. "You couldn't even buy pants in town," he recalled.

A businessman at heart, Smith didn't like the direction his new city was taking, so after only eighteen months in town, he launched a run for city council. Nagy egged him on. The two had met a few years earlier when Smith led the Fremont Jaycees and Nagy presided over the Newark chapter. With Nagy running his campaigns, Smith won a seat on the council in 1976, and two years later swept into the mayor's office, where he has remained since March 1, 1978. Nagy joined him on the council two years later.

After nearly three decades in the job, Smith revels in all that it means to be mayor. He's a trustee in the US Conference of Mayors, and is omnipresent around Newark, showing up for ribbon-cuttings while dispensing nuggets of wisdom about the importance of teamwork. "He has a garage full of shovels he picked up from all those groundbreaking ceremonies he's presided over the years," chuckled his good friend Gus Morrison, the former longtime mayor of Fremont.

Formal but folksy in a Midwestern sort of way, Smith seems most comfortable in front of a microphone and a large audience. Always well coiffed, the 59-year-old usually dresses crisply in a suit and tie, delivering speeches with ease and enunciating each syllable like Alex Trebek. He is beloved to an almost cultlike degree. "Sometimes I marvel, and think, 'If I could just be like Dave Smith ...'" Nagy said wistfully.

Smith loves corny homespun sayings, poems, and song lyrics. In April, after giving his annual state of the city address to the Newark Chamber of Commerce, Smith recited an original poem and then led the Newark Memorial High School Cougar Chords and the Yowza band in a song commemorating the city's golden anniversary:

Tags: ,

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.

Readers also liked…

Latest in Feature

Author Archives

  • Goodbye, Express Readers

    This is my final column for the paper. It's been a great ride.
    • Mar 23, 2016
  • Oakland Can't Afford to Wait

    The city council and city administration need to immediately implement Mayor Libby Schaaf's housing plan. Plus, there's plenty more to do to deal with the city's affordability crisis.
    • Mar 16, 2016
  • More»

Most Popular Stories

Special Reports

Holiday Guide 2016

A guide to this holiday season's gifts, outings, eats, and more.

Taste, Fall 2016

Everything you need to know about dining in and out in the East Bay.

© 2017 East Bay Express    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation