A Battle in the Background

Some say Mayor Al Pinheiro is trying to oust councilman Craig
Gartman, who didn’t get the Chamber’s endorsement
Gilroy – He voted for economic incentives to attract new businesses to Gilroy. He voted to free developers from construction fees to clear the way for downtown renewal. If re-elected, he says he would vote against any new taxes. City council incumbent Craig Gartman’s record demonstrates he’s pro-business. So why didn’t the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce endorse him?

Many political observers say that Mayor Al Pinheiro, who publicly has made a point of not endorsing any of the five candidates in the Nov. 8 election, has helped sow opposition to the councilman for fear of losing control of the city’s seven-member governing body. Those who speak of the mayor’s alleged behind-the-scenes effort to thwart Gartman and the candidate’s political allies – council incumbent Bob Dillon and planning commissioner Dion Bracco – refuse to talk on the record.

One source, after 10 minutes of deliberation, responded with the following comment: “I do believe a whisper campaign has taken place.”

Pinheiro would not discuss any conversations he has had outside of council chambers about candidates.

“When I’m speaking to someone individually, that’s between the person and myself,” he said.

At the same time, the mayor pointed out that he publicly raised “concern that we might end up with a block of four” controlling city council – a reference to the possibility that Bracco will join Gartman, Dillon, and Councilman Russ Valiquette on the dais. During an Oct. 14 council retreat, the mayor chastised the three sitting councilmen for meeting outside of council chambers to discuss city policy. While acknowledging that the informal gatherings do not violate any laws, Pinheiro insisted they run counter to the spirit of open debate.

The mayor has locked horns with the three councilmen over a number of issues in recent months, including a vote to approve a controversial housing project for Miller Avenue, one of the city’s showcase streets. In the weeks before and after the final vote, Dillon and Gartman, both on the campaign trail, blasted the decision of the mayor and three other councilmen to allow the project. Bracco joined the choir of criticism after voting against the project as a planning commissioner.

But the prospects of a “block of four” may have dimmed with Gartman’s failure to win the endorsement of the chamber, a group that wields considerable political influence through its 700-plus members.

“The chamber of commerce has a certain level of respect in the community and of course I seek their endorsement, because some people do look at the chamber for advice on how to vote,” Gartman said. “I think this could have caused some people to question whether I’m the right person to have on council. I would have liked to have their endorsement or at least have an explanation as to why I didn’t get endorsed.”

The chamber’s board of directors have refused to disclose any aspect of their Oct. 18 deliberations, which yielded endorsements for Bracco and Dillon.

“We were actually told that if we get any calls like this to refer them to [chamber director] Susan [Valenta],” board member Sue Thurman said in response to a request for comment.

Vilma Pinheiro, the mayor’s wife and a board member, also referred questions to Valenta and board president Tim Day.

Both chamber representatives refused to specify why Gartman was passed over, explaining only that a candidate must get support from eight of 12 board members to secure an endorsement. Day confirmed that neither Jeff Orth, a board member who is Gartman’s business partner, or Vilma Pinheiro recused themselves from the vote. Neither Orth nor Pinheiro would disclose how they voted.

The chamber’s endorsement practices have come under repeated attack in the last 18 months, starting with the board’s choice to reject a subcommittee recommendation to endorse Democratic State Assemblyman Simón Salinas (D-Salinas). Since then, a growing number of residents have criticized the chamber as having an insulated endorsement process controlled by a handful of people.

Mayor Pinheiro said he and his wife do not discuss chamber business and dismissed the notion that he could influence the group’s endorsement process through back-room conversations.

“My influence has been when I speak about the block of four publicly,” he said, referring to his comments at the retreat. “Other than that, I don’t have any influence on the chamber.”

If nothing else, the mayor’s public criticism sparked controversy in the chamber at a crucial point in the campaign.

“I am very concerned and not at all happy to read the article in this mornings Dispatch concerning off-site meetings,” board member Greg Edgar wrote in an Oct. 18 e-mail to Dillon, Gartman and Valiquette. “As a supporter of each of you during your last campaigns, I expect and quite honestly demand that you conduct ALL meetings that have anything to do with city matters, within council chambers or retreats.”

The story appeared four days after Pinheiro publicly criticized the councilmen for discussing policy outside council chambers. It noted that during a candidate’s forum the night before the retreat, Gartman plainly expressed his hope for Bracco’s election: “I need to get a fourth person on my team.”

A few hours after sending the e-mail, Edgar voted on the chamber’s endorsement. He did not return a call for comment and Valenta declined to specify how any board members voted.

“I’m sure there are some people who would rather not see me stay on council,” Gartman said, declining to give any names.

Pinheiro brushed aside suggestions that he has engaged in a “whisper campaign” against Gartman or any other candidate. He called such rumors the “nature of the beast” during a campaign season.

“On November 8, once we know who’s elected,” he said, “the mayor’s hand goes out to all those individuals to work with them as we have before. Not as a team of four. Not as a team of three. As a team of seven.”

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