In McEnery We Trust

Herhold: S.J. council: In McEnery we trust

By Scott Herhold

Mercury News

Posted: 12/09/2008

In the end, after all the words, it was personal, not business. The debate at the San Jose City Council Tuesday afternoon turned the old maxim on its head. It couldn’t be any other way with ex-Mayor Tom McEnery.

Sure, there was a business case for the urban market his family was proposing on its San Pedro Square property, a case backed up with a cost-benefit analysis, elaborate drawings and even a precise estimate of the number of jobs it would create — 105.

And sure, there was a historical reason for why the council decided to put $6 million of public money into the project, including a $2.5 million grant. The urban market would focus on two shrines to San Jose’s past, the Fallon House and the Peralta Adobe.

Before it was done, however, the council members had to talk about Tom McEnery himself, who wears hats enough — as Sharks investor, landlord, blogger, mayoral adviser — to open a political haberdashery. This time, he got a ringing approval.

Tuesday’s vote exposed what has become a central fault line of San Jose politics: The real question isn’t whether you’re conservative or liberal, environmental or pro-development, pro-sports or pro-libraries. It just might be whether you trust Tom McEnery and share his vision.

Certainly, you had to raise that question about his opponents. On Monday, they delivered a voluminous and anonymous complaint compiled by the McManis law firm that accused McEnery and his nephew John of various violations of San Jose’s lobbying ordinance. Councilwoman Nora Campos issued two memos questioning the finances of the project.

Selective opposition

You had to wonder about the selectivity of the opponents: The council has approved $147 million worth of improvements to historical buildings downtown. Virtually none were subjected to cost-benefit analyses.

On Tuesday alone, the council swiftly approved a $4 million plan to subsidize equipment purchases for Brocade Communications. Brocade, however, does not have the baggage of the San Pedro Square project. It does not have Tom McEnery.

Part of this is the McEnery personality: The ex-mayor, who started downtown’s revival a generation ago, does not suffers fools gladly. Part of it is his long shadow: McEnery has denounced lobbyists in no uncertain terms. And so it must have been especially sweet to his opponents in the labor movement to try to hoist the ex-mayor by his own petard.

In seeking money from the city, McEnery left himself vulnerable to attack. And he acknowledged that much Tuesday, though he scoffed at the anonymous complainant who said he feared retribution. “I understand,” he said sarcastically. “I could cut off someone’s french fries at Peggy Sue’s” (a San Pedro Square restaurant).

What he got from his council allies was vindication. Yes, they talked about pedestrian traffic the project would create, jobs it would bring, historical buildings it would revive. The memo they approved blathered on about leverage and synergies. But the most effective arguments came back to McEnery himself.

Outgoing Councilman Dave Cortese was the most eloquent in summoning the past: He explained that his grandfather had bought equipment from the McEnery family’s Farmer’s Union. And sometimes, when cash was short, they’d let him have it on trust.

“Does this mean they’re entitled to a loan or a facade grant?” Cortese asked. “No. But they are entitled to our trust. They trusted the people who came in and out of their business.”


Any retail project in downtown is full of pitfalls and risk. And the McEnery family’s San Pedro Square is no different: Though the McEnerys are putting millions of their own money into the project, their plan to attract the kind of high-end shops now housed in San Francisco’s Ferry Building might have to aim lower.

Without spending a huge amount of money, the council decided that McEnery was someone it could trust to make an honest effort. It was business, yes. But ultimately, this one was personal..

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