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?

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"They approached the process tentatively, but now I'm extremely impressed by the council and the mayor," Clifford said.

That kind of sentiment is strong in Newark, especially between City Hall and the business community. "I think they're doing such an awesome job," said Nancy Allen of Mission Real Estate and Mortgage in Newark before a Chamber of Commerce luncheon two weeks ago in honor of Smith and the council. "It's one of the best relationships I've seen."

But three years ago, that relationship was shaken by scandal. After the chamber nearly went bankrupt, Newark police discovered that its executive director, John Copley, had embezzled at least $26,000. It turned out that Copley was a con man who had insinuated himself into Newark's business elite. "Every once in a while, trust can really bite you," Smith said. "John Copley violated our trust."

The Newark Way was for the city to bail out the chamber, appoint a new governing board, and put a police officer in charge. The city now provides the chamber with free rent, plus about $30,000 annually, and Huezo installed police Captain Mark Yokohama -- the cop who led the investigation into Copley -- as the chamber board president. Yokohama was later replaced by police Lieutenant Tom Milner, who remains in the post.

Newark has since returned to its normal, uneventful self. Interest in city politics reached such a low point in the fall of 2003 that Smith and the council canceled the municipal elections because no one filed papers to run against them. It would have been a waste of $30,000 to $40,000 of taxpayer dollars to hold an uncontested election, he reasoned. It was at least the seventh time the mayor has faced no opposition, which Smith said has happened so often that he has lost count.

City elections in Newark are ho-hum affairs. According to the Alameda County Registrar of Voters, the average voter turnout in the four elections prior to 2003 was 23 percent. But that number was inflated by the 1999 election involving Measure C, which drew a 34 percent turnout. Without that election, the average turnout in Newark was 19 percent. By contrast, the average voter turnout in neighboring Fremont in the last four city elections was 64 percent.

Low voter turnout is common in demographically homogeneous suburban cities, said San Jose State University political science Professor Terry Christensen, a close observer of Bay Area local politics. But aside from the architecture, Newark is hardly homogeneous. According to the 2000 Census, the city is 40 percent white, 29 percent Hispanic, and 21 percent Asian. Still, the elected leadership has been dominated by whites over the years. Paul Tong is the only Asian on the council, and he was appointed, not elected.

Perhaps equally surprising is that Smith is a Republican mayor in a city where fewer than 18 percent of the registered voters identify themselves as Republican. Councilmember Johnson also is a registered Republican, and she has been on the council for two decades. About 55 percent of Newark residents are Democrats. Nearly 22 percent are registered as Declined to State.

Yet all those Democrats and nonwhite voters appear to be content with the status quo. Smith and Nagy believe it's a testament to how Smith, the council, and top city staff run things. "I just think people are satisfied with what's going on," Nagy said. Smith also argued that because partisan politics play no role in Newark city government, residents trust city leaders to do what's best. "I don't consider myself a politician, and I try not to make it a political thing," he said. "That might sound strange -- here's a mayor who's telling you that he doesn't believe he's a politician, but that's the Lord's truth."

Smith and Nagy, however, also concede there's probably some degree of voter apathy in Newark. On the surface, that appears to fly in the face of conventional wisdom. In poll after poll, voters say they don't vote or don't get politically involved because of partisan backbiting, negative campaigns, and political gridlock. And yet in Newark, where none of those things exist, people still don't vote or run for office. And they almost never show up to a council meeting to voice their opinion. Newark is so congenial and run so efficiently that people take elections for granted and politics are essentially dead. Why?

Christensen believes it's because the conventional wisdom is wrong. Despite what people tell pollsters, they usually join the political fray only when they're angry about something. "It's easy to say you're turned off by negative politics," Christensen explained. "But politics is just not a top priority for a lot of people, so if everything is going well, why would you spend your time going to meetings, or writing letters, or speaking up?"

Another explanation is that Newark residents may be slightly intimidated by such an entrenched mayor and council. For example, when a dispute over a proposed Home Depot brought dozens of residents to a council meeting late last month, many were reluctant to speak up. And when they did, they were tentative and extremely polite. Later, they said they simply didn't expect their city leaders would heed their complaints about the likely noise and traffic the big-box store would wreak on their quiet neighborhood. "It really didn't matter what our opinions were," said fifteen-year resident Gary Copsey. "It was a done deal." Thirty-five-year resident Mark Castle summarized the meeting and the council's unanimous vote in favor of the Home Depot: "People knew they weren't going to be heard -- and that's hard. Why put in that much effort when you know you can't change the system?"

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