Newbie tops the field

Peter Leroe-Muñoz checks results with his campaign manager, Eric

In the aftermath of a local City Council election that’s hard to
decipher, perhaps the lesson is: Money isn’t everything, but it
In the aftermath of a local City Council election that’s hard to decipher, perhaps the lesson is: Money isn’t everything, but it helps.

Gilroy voters chose the two biggest campaign spenders – one who has lived in the city only three years – and, on the other end of the spectrum, an incumbent who spent nothing more than Gilroy’s mandatory $950 candidate filing fee.

Political newcomer Peter Leroe-Muñoz, the leading vote-getter in the race for three City Council seats in Tuesday’s election, spent $11,300 for campaign paraphernalia and consultant’s advice. Incumbent Dion Bracco, the runner-up, spent more than $14,000, and third-place finisher and incumbent Peter Arellano shelled out only $950.

All 26 precincts were counted Wednesday. The results: Leroe-Muñoz, 3,064; Bracco 2,921; Arellano 2,865. On Thursday, City Clerk Shawna Freels said there were 3,200 outstanding mail-in ballots to be counted in the Gilroy area. That leaves 318 votes separating Arellano from challenger and former Councilman Paul Kloecker, who has 2,547 votes. The final tally for mail-in ballots is expected to be completed by Monday.

“I didn’t expect Peter (Arellano) to (to take a lead). He did almost no campaigning. But it kind of shows people are happy with what we’re doing,” said Bracco in an election night celebration at his home on El Dorado Drive.

Arellano, who has served on City Council from 1999 to 2003 and from 2005 to present, spent almost $46,000 in his campaign for Santa Clara County supervisor this summer and had little left to spend on this campaign, he said.

“I expected to be second or third because I wasn’t campaigning as hard,” he said.

“I knew I was at a disadvantage because of the money part. I had a lot of door knocking, a lot of volunteers campaigning and I have won other races where I have spent half of what other people have spent.”

Councilmembers Cat Tucker, Bob Dillon and Mayor Al Pinheiro said the two incumbents taking a lead in the race can only mean one thing: Voters agree with the council’s policies.

As to the victory for 30-year-old Leroe-Muñoz, a San Benito County deputy district attorney: It’s the result, he says, of good, old-fashioned hard work. Leroe-Muñoz, who arrived in Gilroy three years ago, has knocked countless doors of possible constituents to make himself known.

“I’m grateful. I am truly humbled. If this evening works out, I will serve Gilroy with the same humility,” said Leroe-Muñoz after viewing early returns Tuesday at Lizarran Tapas Restaurant in downtown Gilroy – results that vaulted him into the lead.

“I’m more passionate about the city after the process of running for office than I’ve ever been,” he said.

At the gathering for the vote leader, supporters gushed over the prospect of having Leroe-Muñoz on the dais at City Hall.

“He’s absolutely wonderful, well-informed and intelligent,” said Elvira Robinson. “He can work with anybody. He’s going to make a change in Gilroy for the better.”

Ted Barrera said, “He’s young, just look at him – he’s so smart and he’s got what it takes. He’s exactly what Gilroy needs.”

At incumbent Bracco’s home, a gathering of about 20 people, including Pinheiro and Dillon, were pleased with early results, too.

Bracco, who donned his signature Hawaiian shirt, said he was confident but nervous.

Arellano, still performing physician duties at the Kaiser Clinic just after 8 p.m., heard the good news that he held the third spot from a reporter.

“I’m happy for the news,” he said. “I’m ready to serve another four years and I think they will be the best.”

He was awaiting the end of his shift at the clinic to have dinner with his family and, like Leroe-Muñoz, looked forward to some sleep.

Name recognition

“I was surprised,” said developer James Suner, former president of the Gilroy Downtown Association, contemplating the results.

“Given that he (Peter Arellano) didn’t obviously campaign, the result could have been due to name recognition and the fact that he’s done a good job of representing the Hispanic community and nonprofits,” he said.

Tucker, said she was not surprised by Arellano’s lead and said his efforts to win a county supervisor seat may have inadvertently helped keep him on the dais.

“Peter is well known in the community,” she said. “He’s a doctor and he has a lot of friends – and don’t forget his name was already out there for the supervisor race. I’m not surprised at all. He spent thousands and thousands of dollars.”

Pinheiro said he was glad to see the two incumbents stay and is looking forward to working with Leroe-Muñoz.

“Two out of three that are in the lead are incumbents – I certainly know what I’m getting,” he said.

Dillon said he was rooting for Russ Valiquette, park operations manager at Gilroy Gardens, but said he was happy with the results.

He said he didn’t prefer incumbents or political veterans such as Valiquette over newcomers: There is a lot to gain from having newcomers on the council, he said.

“(The newcomers) have come up with ideas no one else has had,” he said, and mentioned candidate Pasquale Greco’s proposal that the city have it’s own electrical utility and drop PG&E as its energy provider.

Tucker said Leroe-Muñoz must be able to learn quickly to keep up with more experienced council members.

“I was on the Planning Commission for 10 years (before coming to the City Council), and even then it took me a year to get my groove on,” she said jokingly.

“It’s a different setting, and what we say and do affects a lot of people and that’s going to have to hit the inexperienced. They have to understand that what we do and say, and it will take him some time to understand it fully.”

Arellano said he hopes Leroe-Muñoz is a fast learner.

“He hasn’t been involved in much of anything in terms of community and volunteering,” he said. “You can have ideas but when you’ve been in the community for a long time you can know how things should be done.”

Forecasting the Council

Experience may have been key for voters when choosing a candidate in this race, which is why the two incumbents managed to stay on board, speculated Suner. A newcomer may not know how to keep Gilroy afloat through the economic turmoil.

“It might be that people realized that most of the problems Gilroy is dealing with are out of our control, and when you’re in a situation like this, experience counts,” he said. “If you get a lot of new people in, the learning curve is too steep.”

As of Wednesday, voter turnout this year – 5,385 people – was 100 fewer than the previous Nov. 2007 council race, and 1,460 people fewer than in the 2008 Presidential Election.

There are still 135,000 ballots mailed in from voters throughout Santa Clara County still to be counted, as well as 18,000 provisional ballots. Most of the mail-in ballots will be counted by 5 p.m. today, and the rest of the results will appear by the same time Monday, said the county’s Registrar of Voters spokeswoman Elma Rosas. No timetable was given for the provisional ballots.

Tucker said a new member on the dais will have an effect on the direction the council takes after Leroe-Muñoz’s seating in December, but thinks it will be for the better.

“His goals are the same as my goals,” she said. “I’m pretty sure we’ll work fine together. He’s a very likable guy. Voters could see his earnestness and his sincerity.”

Downtown vibrancy and development are among Leroe-Muñoz’s top priorities. He’s strongly in favor of the California high-speed rail project and not only wants the train to run through Gilroy, but he wants it smack in the middle of downtown.

Expected to begin full operation in 2020, the $45-billion, 800-mile bullet train is slated to have routes from Sacramento to San Diego with connections to the Bay Area and a major stop in Gilroy.

Bracco said he would continue to work on having a new youth center and a stronger gang task force, which would target the top 10 at-risk youth and those who are already in a gang. Police, school principals and parents would work together to reel them back in or chase them out of town, he said.

Arellano proposed building downtown parking lots behind blocks to deal with parking problem, and believes in infusing money into the projects of the Department of Parks and Recreation to keep youth busy and out of trouble.

The Council seating will take place Dec. 6, and the Council will hold a goal-setting retreat in January, in which they will pinpoint priorities for Gilroy.

But Tucker said she expects business as usual – and by that she means, among other things, the frequent disagreements and less-than-cordial exchanges. Maybe it is the diversity in opinion what prompted voters to keep the same men on the dais.

“As a council we are continually criticized for being too diverse. In my personal feeling we were vindicated even though there was so much terrible press,” she said referring to the city staff cuts two years ago, for which the council was widely criticized. “I don’t like that fighting that goes on between the personalities, but when it came to the crunch we made it through,” she said.

Suner expects a positive change in the dynamic – and maybe some more lively City Council meetings.

“If you get the same six people at dinner every night it gets a little boring but if you invite some new guests it turns it into a party.”

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