.Ex-mayor Ron Gonzales Claims He Was “Vindicated” in New Book

Details his unfair treatment by colleagues, the press and the justice system

In terms of accomplishments, Ron Gonzales’ millennium-straddling mayoralty should be one for the books. His administration built a slew of schools and fire stations and libraries around San Jose. The city added 10,000 units of affordable housing, and another 20,000 at market rate. He fired the Redevelopment Agency director responsible for “Tan Jose” neoclassicism and pivoted to an era of architectural modernism. The new city hall was completed under his watch. The civic center dome that he bullied architect Richard Meier into incorporating proved functional and iconic. Moreover, he broke through decades of paralysis to fund and put BART on track. 

Two-and-a-half-years after leaving office, he signed on as CEO of the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley, where he has been ensconced ever since. He’s been a decent ex-mayor, avoiding the profiteering and lobbying in which ex-officeholders sometimes engage. Instead, he hands out scholarships and does leadership development in the Latino community, trying to build the next generation of non-profit directors. HFSV’s revenues have climbed from the low hundreds of thousands to the millions during his decade-and-a-half of stewardship.

In 2020, 19 civic leaders proposed naming the Berryessa BART station after Gonzales. That’s a pretty good turnaround from the final days of his political career, when his popularity and power devolved after an affair with a much younger member of his staff ended his marriage, and he was arrested for cutting a secret deal with a union representing trash sorters.

Once a fast-track candidate to become the state’s first modern-era Latino governor, his political career ended on Santa Clara Street. No theater, convention center or airport was rebranded to honor him, as has been tradition with other former mayors. Instead his colleagues censured him, stripped him of perks and voted to demand his resignation.

Rather than celebrate his reinvention 18 years later, Gonzales is now keen to relitigate, in the court of public opinion, the scandals that caused an otherwise accomplished mayorship to unravel.

Instead of easing up and letting time heal wounds, the tightly wound Gonzales has carried around a chip and remains bitter about the pummeling he underwent, in his mind unfairly, as well as towards the members of the press, the prosecutor and the political colleagues who delivered the blows.

Last month, Gonzales and ex-wife Guisselle Nuñez dropped a 102-page Independently published paperback, “Life in the FishBowl: Lessons to Help you Survive and Thrive in Elected Office.” They will celebrate its release on Thursday, February 29 at Books Inc. in Campbell.

With an introduction by former San Jose State University political science department chair Terry Christensen and a book jacket quote from former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown Jr,. the paperback purports to be a survival primer for future political candidates.

It contains some common sense advice, such as seeking the support of one’s spouse and family before running for public office and conducting opposition research on oneself to anticipate negative campaign messages likely to surface in the heat of a campaign.

As a candidate’s manual, “Fishbowl” breaks little ground, but its pace quickens when the authors cast themselves as victims of “vitriol” and “gossip” getting “pounded” by the “ugly” and “snarky” media.

The authors take aim at “the media’s intense spotlight and relentless narrative machine that relishes in creating caricatures of villains and heroes, irrespective of truth.”

“It took many years for us to work through the pain of this experience that affected our whole family. Ron’s mother and Guisselle’s parents never forgave the loudest naysayers and never voted for any of them again,” the authors write.

The unrepentant ex-pol was asked in a 2019 video interview by political scientist and introduction writer  Christensen, “Do you think you were just wrongfully accused or in retrospect do you think you erred in some way?” 

Without missing a beat, Gonzales replied, “I do think I was wrongfully accused” and then went on to blame “an overzealous deputy district attorney” who came up with a “bogus bribery charge.” Contacted this week, Gonzales confirmed that he was referring to Julius Finkelstein, a veteran prosecutor who once ran for district attorney.

After being indicted on felony charges, Gonzales writes in his book that he was then subjected to a “political hanging by [my] colleagues on the city council,” who in Gonzales’ eyes were career climbers who could care less about friendship, loyalty or the public interest in their quest for higher office.

One of the big takeaways the authors seek to offer up is the difference between political allies and friends. The former will of course peel off when the going gets tough. Gonzales won’t identify the backstabbers, though Cindy Chavez and Nora Campos are two colleagues who turned on him. “Not going to go into that…That’s Metro trying to get their usual angle,” the ex-mayor said this week when asked to confirm names. “It’s not about telling secrets. It’s about educating the reader.”

Gonzales remains peeved about Metro’s role as the publication that broke the story about his relationship with Nuñez. As the editor on that story, I can say with certainty that there was no eagerness to report on his personal life. In fact the story was held back from publication twice, not wanting to be salacious or invade privacy unless it was without question a matter that affected the public interest.

Rumors had swirled that Gonzales was dating his chief of staff, Rebecca Dishotsky, which turned out not to be true. Writer Will Harper submitted the story a week later after a source spotted Gonzalez and Nuñez together in Mendocino.

Gonzalez staffer Joe Guerra provided an alibi, saying he’d seen the mayor at church on Sunday. So we held the story again, both out of desire for accuracy and for fairness to the parties involved. The paper was sent to press without the story.

An hour or so later, at a political party in Willow Glen, there was quite a buzz going on about the mayor’s affair. The sheriff asked about it. Then county Supervisor Jim Beall mentioned that the Mercury News was calling around asking about it.

It was clear that the cover-up of a personal matter was impacting the functioning of the mayor’s office and his relationships with county officials. We reversed course, stopped the presses after half the copies had been printed and ran the story in Metro’s unbylined political column, Public Eye.

Sources close to the action say the mayor made plans to spend Labor Day weekend snuggling with an aide almost half his age in an Anchor Bay (Mendocino) cabin. Reached at her home, his ostensible love interest, Guisselle Nuñez, confirmed she did indeed book a cabin there, and bring two “friends” along. …The 25-year-old Santa Clara University grad worked for Gonzales throughout his 1998 campaign and is now his community outreach specialist. When Eye inquired, Nuñez at first denied ever having any romantic involvement with the mayor. She later modified her response to “just leave it at ‘no comment.’” Asked if Hizronner joined her in Mendo, she again offered a “no comment.” 

At an emotional press conference the next day, Gonzales confessed to the relationship, announced that it had “ceased” and apologized to the public. That was just another deception, as Gonzales continued to date Nuñez for the next four years, then married her for 16. Nuñez filed for divorce in 2020, but they remain friends, according to the co-authored book, and are appearing at signings together. 

The notion that Gonzales was compelled by the media to exist in a fishbowl is disingenuous as well. When the former Sunnyvale mayor ran for mayor of San Jose, he surrounded himself with expert handlers like the late public relations wizard Peter Carter and media-friendly tax assessor Larry Stone. Gonzales took editors and reporters to breakfast frequently to cultivate relationships, stories and endorsements. And San Jose hired his close associate, highly regarded former Sunnyvale public information officer Dave Vossbrink, as the city’s PIO. 

If anyone’s fishbowl was well curated and guarded, it was the mayor’s. Gonzales sought the limelight because of the benefits it brought him and had a public relations team worthy of the House of Windsor, but he disparaged the press when it strayed from a controlled narrative.

Vindication?

Throughout the short book, edited by Vossbrink and published with the support of ghostwriter Shareen Rivera, the common thread is that others were to blame for Gonzales’ misfortunes: false friends, a rogue prosecutor, ugly media. 

Though he apologized at the time, when his career was on the line, Gonzales is now unapologetic. He missed the opportunity to take personal responsibility in response to Professor Christenson’s softball on-camera questioning and in the book that purports to advise future public servants. Why not coach tomorrow’s office holders to tell the truth and be transparent? To lead their lives and conduct the public’s business in a way that if it’s written about, it won’t cause shame, or damage to the public interest?

One of the most progressive outcomes of the personal and political scandals of the early aughts was the enactment in 2008 of a series of “Sunshine Reforms” that require greater transparency in public business. The procedures enacted give San Joseans more notice of upcoming agenda items, easier access to public records and an appeal process for denials. 

In 2006, Gonzales called the sunshine movement, “a bunch of nonsense.”

The elephant, however, was Gonzales’ secret garbage deal, of which Nuñez contends in one passage that Gonzales was “vindicated” when the felony charges were dropped against the ex-mayor. A newly elected district attorney declined to re-file the charges. The deceptive deal cost San Jose homeowners an additional $11.25 million in fees without an explanation, until the deception unraveled, as to why the rates had gone up.

The Mercury News wrote in an editorial, “the ruling was no vindication, as Judge John Herlihy made clear: ‘There is no question that Norcal, Defendant Guerra and Defendant Gonzales were delinquent in their responsibility to be open and to fully disclose their knowledge, actions and policies.’ ”

The American standards of “innocent until proven guilty” and “beyond a reasonable doubt” apply when taking someone’s rights away and putting them in a jail cell. They are not the yardsticks by which we judge leadership performance in our society. 

In a democracy, we hold our leaders accountable. A Grand Jury found that Gonzales engaged in “deceptive conduct” when he cut a secret deal and concealed it from his colleagues and the public. Here’s the report.

He was charged with felonies and hired a really good lawyer who convinced the judge the charges didn’t meet the test of a bribe, since there was not a tangible quid pro quo. The new DA’s decision not to refile charges may well have may well have been a political one. Dolores Carr was later accused of improper conduct in another prosecution and voted out of office after a single term.

Gonzales, in his sanitized retelling of events, no longer takes responsibility for the behavior for which he apologized nearly two decades ago.

This article began by noting Gonzales’ impressive accomplishments while in office. Then there are the lies and scandals. A narrative that acknowledges one without the other is just propaganda, a one-sided account of history. 

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