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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
SCHOOLING THE BOARD: Eddie Garcia built a reputation as a well-prepared team player in his first appointed term on the board of the East Side School District. And so, after losing an election for a seat on the board, he was appointed again.

The Appointed One

He has run and never won, yet Eddie Garcia is an office-holder once again

By Erin Sherbert

EDDIE GARCIA is well-known player in local politics. He's run for public office several times—once for a seat on the San Jose City Council, and more recently for the board of the East Side School District. Garcia has never actually won an election. But he has nevertheless managed to maintain a career as an elected official.

In 2006, Garcia was appointed to the East Side School Board when trustee Craig Mann was elected to the Santa Clara County Board of Education. In 2008, as his appointed term ran out, Garcia ran for a four-year term on the board and lost. But that didn't stop him from winning a seat anyway. Last Thursday, Garcia was reappointed to the board. This time it was to fill the seat of George Shirakawa Jr., who gave up his seat when he was elected in November to the County Board of Supervisors.

Before he left, Shirakawa seemingly tried to make it a little easier to get Garcia, his longtime buddy, appointed to his seat. This made some trustees feel a little uncomfortable. Garcia isn't just Shirakawa's close friend; last week, the new supervisor hired Garcia as his chief of staff.

"He's your boss," trustee Patricia Martinez-Roach told Garcia during the public interview process Thursday. "I'm really concerned about how that will influence your ability to be unbiased."

Despite those reservations, the board voted 3-1 to appoint Garcia to fill the remaining two years of Shirakawa's seat. Trustee Frank Biehl was the lone dissenter. Before Thursday's meeting, where the trustees interviewed Garcia and two other candidates, Biehl noted that voters rejected Garcia on Nov. 4 when they elected incumbent Lan Nguyen and newcomer Patricia Martinez-Roach.

"It's unusual to appoint a candidate, have the candidate lose the election and then reappoint them," Biehl said before the Thursday meeting.

Biehl voted for Barbara Boone, a well-respected retired educator, who had been up against Garcia in the 2006 school board appointment process. At that time, the board ignored Boone's strong education credentials and picked Garcia, who was then vice president of Comcast.

It's no secret that Garcia has a long history with the Shirakawas. They coached high school sports together, and later Garcia landed a job in former Supervisor Blanca Alvarado's office, thanks to former San Jose Councilman George Shirakawa Sr., who helped get him the gig.

Now, he'll make about $140,000 annually, more than what the average chief of staff is getting paid. (Shirakawa says that's because he isn't getting benefits).

Regardless of their close ties, Shirakawa insists he had nothing to do with getting Garcia appointed to the East Side School Board.

"Eddie is his own man," Shirakawa said, shaking his head.

At the Nov. 20 school board meeting, Shirakawa took the mic and made a sweeping request that the board bypass the district's policy to appoint someone to his seat. According to policy, the board is supposed to allow any district resident to apply for a vacant seat. A citizens panel then interviews all candidates who qualify and narrows the field down to a handful. The board then publicly interviews those candidates and selects one.

Shirakawa decided the district was in too much financial trouble to waste time and money on a lengthy appointment process. So he made the motion to suspend the current policy and limit the candidate pool to Garcia and Tim Tom, the two candidates who had run and lost in the November election.

Knowing that Biehl, whom Shirakawa calls his "nemesis" on the board, is a stickler for following the rules, Shirakawa sweetened his motion by adding Biehl's favored candidate to the pool, Barbara Boone. Biehl was unimpressed.

"Basically, George has a relationship with Eddie and thinks highly of him and wanted to circumvent the process to streamline the ability of Eddie to be reappointed," Biehl says.

Shirakawa doesn't deny that he is fond of Garcia, both personally and professionally. In fact, right before making the motion, Shirakawa took a moment to praise Garcia as a trustee deserving of the job.

"My preference would be to appoint Mr. Garcia," Shirakawa told the board.

That's when Biehl cut in. He pointed out that streamlining the appointment process in Garcia's favor could create some negative perceptions of special privileges after Garcia already lost the election.

"I think it is important that he or anyone that is selected to be appointed has the credibility behind them that doesn't start out with any type of a back-room deal, any type of a shadowy way of doing things," Biehl said.

Shirakawa's motion failed 2-2 (Garcia had left the room during the vote). The board opened up the interview process to the whole community, where they received 16 applicants. A citizens panel narrowed those to three: Garcia, Boone and William Grasty.

Business as Usual

During the Jan. 8 interviews, Garcia sat at the mic confidently as trustees peppered him with questions and concerns.

"This district has land-use issues to consider," said trustee Manuel Herrera, "and I want to feel confident your judgment is based on district priorities and not getting diverted to some other perspective." Garcia fired back: "I'm my own man."

Shirakawa sat outside the boardroom during the three-hour meeting. Afterward, he said he was irked and insulted that board members would question his and his chief of staff's integrity. In fact, he said, there are numerous examples of elected officials working for politicians, including Armando Gomez, who is a Milpitas councilman and San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed's budget director.

"As far as me directing Eddie to vote—it's utterly ridiculous," Shirakawa said. "I was surprised. I don't know why my name keeps coming up."

The trustees ultimately didn't buy the idea of Garcia as Shirakawa's shill. Trustee Herrera made it clear that he believed even nonpolitical people strongly support Garcia, who is known as a team player.

"You can say politics is politics," Herrera said before casting his vote for Garcia. "But there is an Eddie who is political and an Eddie who is grassroots."

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