The Land That Politics Forgot

Welcome to Yowza Dave Smith's Newark, where no one votes, no one runs for office, and no one dissents. Has democracy failed? Or has it been perfected?

Mr. Newark stepped up to the mic, licked his lips, and launched into a Latin trombone solo. Backing him up was a ten-member band of cops, firefighters, and other city officials. The city attorney played rhythm guitar and the city manager beat the conga drums. But at this moment in the eighty-minute set, all eyes were focused on Mayor Dave Smith. The bandleader, a police captain, asked the audience: “What other city has a mayor taking trombone solos?”

The answer, of course, is none that we know of. But then again, many things are unusual in Newark, a quirky, often-overlooked town tucked between Interstate 880 and the San Francisco Bay. In addition to its trombone-playing mayor and the band named Yowza in honor of his favorite expression, the most remarkable thing about Newark is what it lacks — divisiveness.

This quiet southern Alameda County city of 45,000 people is perhaps the Bay Area’s most congenial place. There are no epic battles between Republicans and Democrats. Disagreements of any kind are extremely rare. In fact, it’s front-page news when the five-member city council doesn’t act in total unanimity.

Smith, the city’s unquestioned leader, calls it “the Newark Way.” His best friend is Vice Mayor Al Nagy, who has been on the council for a quarter-century. Nagy, a Democrat, said the last time he disagreed with the Republican Smith on a city issue was in the 1980s. Smith, meanwhile, has been elected mayor thirteen times in this mostly Democratic enclave and has served for 27 years — the second-longest run of any mayor currently in California, and among the ten longest terms in the country. Smith said mayors from other cities say he “must be living in Oz.”

All this bipartisanship and uninterrupted leadership result in an extremely efficient community. Newark is unabashedly pro-business, and it operates as if it were a well-oiled, profit-oriented enterprise. At a time when other cities are facing eye-popping budget deficits and cutting essential services, the fiscally conservative Newark sits comfortably atop a $35 million surplus. The city has little crime, well-groomed parks, pothole-free streets, and sports a huge new indoor activity and aquatic center. Newark, in short, could be the Stepford of the Bay Area.

Conventional wisdom holds that voters disconnect from the political process because of partisan politics. So as Newark readies itself for its fiftieth Fourth of July celebration this weekend and its fiftieth anniversary later this year, you would think its residents would be enthusiastically engaged in the city’s harmonious political life.

Yet in faction-free Newark, residents are even more disconnected. Voter turnout in municipal elections is strikingly low, almost no one ever runs for office, and city council meetings are about backslapping — not about debating the issues. The city and its affable mayor, are a prime example of what can happen to a community’s political life when everyone gets along. Has democracy failed in Newark, or has it been perfected?

Thirty years ago, David William Smith had no idea he would come to personify a small city along the southeastern edge of the San Francisco Bay. Born in Detroit, he grew up in a little town along Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and was raised by his wheelchair-bound mother after his father died when Smith was six. After college, a job brought him to Fremont, where he got his initiation in community service with the Jaycees, a fraternal business group. He soon became the chapter president.

Following a job transfer that took him briefly to Louisiana, Smith returned to the East Bay in 1974 and settled in Newark — not because he particularly liked it, but because it had plenty of housing. Newark was strictly a bedroom community at the time. “You couldn’t even buy pants in town,” he recalled.

A businessman at heart, Smith didn’t like the direction his new city was taking, so after only eighteen months in town, he launched a run for city council. Nagy egged him on. The two had met a few years earlier when Smith led the Fremont Jaycees and Nagy presided over the Newark chapter. With Nagy running his campaigns, Smith won a seat on the council in 1976, and two years later swept into the mayor’s office, where he has remained since March 1, 1978. Nagy joined him on the council two years later.

After nearly three decades in the job, Smith revels in all that it means to be mayor. He’s a trustee in the US Conference of Mayors, and is omnipresent around Newark, showing up for ribbon-cuttings while dispensing nuggets of wisdom about the importance of teamwork. “He has a garage full of shovels he picked up from all those groundbreaking ceremonies he’s presided over the years,” chuckled his good friend Gus Morrison, the former longtime mayor of Fremont.

Formal but folksy in a Midwestern sort of way, Smith seems most comfortable in front of a microphone and a large audience. Always well coiffed, the 59-year-old usually dresses crisply in a suit and tie, delivering speeches with ease and enunciating each syllable like Alex Trebek. He is beloved to an almost cultlike degree. “Sometimes I marvel, and think, ‘If I could just be like Dave Smith …'” Nagy said wistfully.

Smith loves corny homespun sayings, poems, and song lyrics. In April, after giving his annual state of the city address to the Newark Chamber of Commerce, Smith recited an original poem and then led the Newark Memorial High School Cougar Chords and the Yowza band in a song commemorating the city’s golden anniversary:

Fifty years in Newark,
and we’re going strong.
Planning so things do work,
a place we all belong.
Fifty years in Newark,
giving it a whirl.
Fremont is the oyster;
Newark is the pearl.

Fifty years in Newark,
think I’m gonna stay.
Where else can we find one town
to work, shop, and play?
A longest-running mayor,
his legacy grows stronger,
his head is growing grayer…. (ha!)

Fifty years in Newark,
the chamber’s in the black.
Business booms and ideas zoom
Newark has the knack.
Fifty years in Newark,
our schools pursue the dream
that all our future leaders
are a product of our team.

Fifty years in Newark!

Members of the chamber ate it up.

The Yowza band, Smith explained, is all about having fun while developing and maintaining unity among city leaders. Smith makes sure of it. The terms of employment for both City Manager Al Huezo and City Attorney Gary Galliano require that they play in the band. Not that either one minds. Nor is Huezo bothered by the requirement that he dance with Smith’s wife at city-sponsored social events. Huezo shrugged and matter-of-factly explained why: “The mayor has two left feet.”

He may not like to dance, but the mayor loves practical jokes. Nagy, who is often on the receiving end of Smith’s pranks, has told the story several times of when cell phones were still a relatively new phenomenon and Smith brought one to a city council meeting. When the sound of a phone rang out, Smith immediately handed the cell phone to Nagy, saying the call was for him. The surprised Nagy soon realized the joke when the fake phone squirted him in the face with water.

Nagy, a rather round and jocular man, also recalled the time he and Smith spent a week together touring France after they visited their town’s English namesake, Newark-on-Trent. Nagy and Smith were sharing a room, and when Nagy got ready for bed the first night, he slipped on his T-shirt — only to find that Smith had attached a tennis ball to the back of it. “He did it so I wouldn’t roll over and snore,” Nagy explained, laughing.

Yet it wasn’t just a practical joke, but another example of Smith taking pains to ensure their week went amicably. Nagy came to that realization after he noticed that Smith had a cup with a straw in it next to his bed at night. When Nagy asked him about it, Smith explained that because he didn’t want Nagy to be bothered by his own snoring, he had been taping his mouth shut at night and needed the straw to be able to drink water. Laughing as he recounted the story, Nagy added: “He sure has strange habits, I tell you.”

One of Smith’s most noticeable habits is his affinity for saying “Yowza!” When a new business opens in Newark or when it’s time to honor a faithful city employee, Smith can be counted on to exclaim: “Yowza!” He uses it so often, he sometimes is called Yowza Dave Smith. “It means good; it’s always a positive,” he explained. “And the way I use it, it’s Y … O … W … Z … A in all caps with an exclamation point at the end.”

It’s hard to believe, but being mayor is only a part-time job for Smith. He spends much of his time traveling the country as a salesman and vice president for Oatey, an Ohio-based plumbing supplies company. Smith has been with Oatey for 26 years. It has a warehouse in Newark, coincidentally on Smith Avenue.

In many cities, council meetings can be raucous, messy, and uncomfortable affairs. That’s local politics at work — residents getting angry about a proposed giant housing development, or demanding that their city take the lead on regulating medical marijuana. In Oakland and Berkeley, for instance, council meetings often drag on for hours, as issue after issue is debated well past midnight.

But that’s not the Newark Way. One recent council meeting lasted only 28 minutes — and much of that was taken up by Smith honoring a longtime public-works employee. Smith congratulated Rick Olesky for his eight and a half years of service, but then quickly noted that in Newark, eight and a half years was a “short period of time.” A side trip into the hallway to look at the plaques on the wall shows why. Fifty-five people have worked for the city for more than 25 years, including 23 whose tenure topped 35 years.

Smith singled out Olesky not for his relative lack of longevity, but for his expertise in what the mayor called “pavement-maintenance science.” Newark, Smith explained to the cable-access TV audience, takes great pride in keeping its streets perfectly smooth. “All you have to do is cross our border, and it’s a whole different ballgame,” he said, as council members giggled in the background, knowing that he was alluding to the pothole-plagued streets of Fremont. Smith said the key to Olesky’s success was that he fully understood that in Newark, “it’s not just customer service, it’s about delight.

“We want to delight our customers,” Smith explained, adding a “Yowza!” and a “by golly.”

After he was done, the council jumped into what would be the meat of a council meeting in any other city: the agenda. If you blinked, you would have missed it. Not a single person from the community came to speak in open forum. Nor did anyone discuss any issue on the agenda. Smith and the four other council members didn’t, either. About the only thing they did was fumble over each other to make motions so they could pass the agenda items unanimously.

That unity is representative of how Newark has operated ever since Smith moved into the mayor’s office. There was even a stretch from the late 1990s into the early part of this decade without a single dissenting council vote, according to news accounts at the time.

Journalists and others have long suspected that Smith and his colleagues must be violating the state open meetings law, which prohibits closed-door sessions that would enable a council to work out its differences in secret. “I thought the fix was in,” said Alberto Torrico, who joined the council in 2001 after running as an outsider who promised to shake things up. Torrico’s win surprised Smith and the other council members. And he did shake things up a bit, dissenting a few times from Smith and the council majority. According to the Fremont Argus, Smith said at the time he was “shocked and appalled” when Torrico voted no, while Torrico retorted that Smith’s title “isn’t king of Newark, it’s mayor.”

“I figured the mayor met with other council members and staff beforehand and they made their decision and then rolled it out in public to quote, ‘vote’ on it,” Torrico said in a recent interview. “But to my surprise, that never happened.”

Over time, the Democrat recalled, he came to appreciate the Republican mayor and his Newark Way, adding that he probably dissented fewer than ten times in his three years on the council. Torrico now considers Smith a friend, and last year Smith endorsed his successful campaign for state Assembly.

So how do Smith and the council reach such unanimity without breaking the law? Smith, Nagy, and longtime City Manager Huezo said it has to do with “trust.” Huezo, who has worked for the city for 31 years, including the last nine as city manager, said that because he knows the council members so well, he can anticipate their questions and concerns. That way, he is able to eliminate controversy ahead of time. “We work it out in advance, so when we get something to the council, it’s about celebrating it,” said Huezo, who unlike most city managers works without a contract, meaning Smith and the council could fire him at any time and he would receive no golden parachute.

Smith added that he has worked so long with Huezo and other top city staffers, that he trusts them to decide what’s right for Newark. The same is true with his political appointees. He said he has never attended or even watched a planning commission meeting, and knows the staff won’t foist a last-minute surprise on him. “I have one rule,” he said. “Don’t make the mayor look stupid — I’m capable of doing that myself.”

When hiring and promoting employees, Huezo said, the city values loyalty and teamwork above all else. If employees become overly ambitious or seek out controversy, they won’t be working for Newark very long, he said. Smith, meanwhile, makes sure that when a new member joins the council, he sits them down and explains the Newark Way. “No one comes to a city council meeting to polish their own star,” the mayor said. “People really have to check their egos at the door.”

But Smith doesn’t hold such chats very often. Along with Nagy’s 25-year stint on the council, Sue Johnson has been on the panel for twenty years and Luis Freitas, ten years. The fifth member is former City Manager Paul Tong. Smith and the council appointed Tong to temporarily replace Torrico when he went to the Assembly last year. Tong had worked for the city for 37 years.

As you drive on Interstate 880, all that unity and longevity is easy to miss. On pulling off the freeway at the Thornton Avenue exit, the homogeneity is remarkable. It seems as if each Newark neighborhood is essentially a group of suburban tract homes fronted by a strip mall. The city has one exclusive neighborhood known as the Lake area, a group of larger 1970s-era homes surrounding a small artificial lake. Smith’s house is on an island in the middle of that lake.

In the late 1970s, Newark forged its economic destiny, and Smith and the city have capitalized on it ever since. Until Proposition 13, Newark subsisted almost entirely on property taxes; Smith said it had the highest rates in the county. But when Prop. 13 rolled back property tax revenues for cities and counties, Newark and other cities were forced to scramble to attract the new tax-revenue generators — white-collar businesses and retailers. Newark pulled off two major coups, both at the expense of neighboring Fremont.

First was Newark’s regional shopping center along I-880. The NewPark Mall, anchored by major department stores, essentially extinguished Fremont’s hopes for its own retail hub. “That was a tremendous blow,” Smith said proudly. “And it was a real, real jump up the ladder for us.” Newark continued its climb by luring several Fremont car dealers — among the largest sales tax producers for cities — to a new auto row next to the mall. The biggest fish was Fremont Ford, one of the largest Ford dealers in Northern California.

Newark’s little-city-versus-big-city rivalry with Fremont, population 210,000, dates back to the mid-1950s. So does its business-first ethos. According to Newark lore, Fremont’s founders at the time attempted to convince Newark to join Fremont’s five major neighborhoods into forming one large city. But when Newark Chamber of Commerce leaders learned that Fremont actually wanted Newark to be Fremont’s industrial zone, they decided to incorporate as their own city first, beating Fremont by a few months. Today, Fremont completely encircles Newark, a geographic oddity that sometimes gives Newark residents an us-versus-them complex.

The Newark chamber president at the time was George Silliman. He became the first mayor, and 45 years later, Newark bestowed his name upon its sprawling new $30 million activity and aquatic center, which features a regulation-size basketball court and three indoor swimming pools, including two with water slides.

It’s the pride of the city, but not quite perfect, at least by Newark standards. That obsession with excellence led the city into a protracted legal battle with the company that built the center. At the heart of the dispute, which is still in litigation, is Newark’s claim that a section of the paint job and the exterior stucco were defective. As a result, the city refused to pay the last $800,000 installment. “You have to hold the contractor’s feet to the fire,” Smith explained. “They didn’t perform, so we’re doing what’s right by our taxpayers.”

While lawsuits involving Newark are about as rare as “no” votes on the council, that never stopped Smith and the city from occasionally butting heads with Fremont. The worst fight between the two cities in recent years — and one that made Smith seethe — involved Fremont’s plan to build a garbage transfer station not far from the Newark border. From Fremont’s perspective, Newark was guilty of the worst kind of NIMBYism. After all, both Newark and Union City were going to share in using the new facility. But when trash-hauling contractor BLT Enterprises revealed its plans for the transfer station at a joint meeting, Morrison said Smith took out his legal pad and “wrote NO in big letters and held the sign up during the entire presentation.”

Known for his joviality, Smith sometimes exhibits a sharp temper. He and the rest of the Newark council believed the transfer station, although indoor, would be too smelly for a nearby neighborhood and would generate too much truck traffic. From Smith’s point of view, Newark had no choice but to sue. “They jammed that down our throats,” he said. “We told them we were going to take them to the mat, and we did.”

Fremont officials were convinced that Smith had gone over the edge. The city’s attorneys even remarked in their court pleadings that Smith had been quoted in the Tri-City Voice as saying “We will fight Fremont every step of the way; they’re only going to do it over our dead bodies.”

Former Fremont Mayor Morrison believed that once Smith threw down that gauntlet, he had to see the legal fight to the end. So even though an Alameda County judge ruled against Newark last fall, Smith and the city continued to press by appealing the case. They only finally agreed to drop their two-year legal fight last month when Fremont’s demand that Newark pay its attorneys’ fees scared them into settling.

But other than skirmishes with Fremont, true political fights almost never happen in Newark. The only one in recent memory was a 1999 battle following the seemingly endless stream of business parks that Smith and the council approved during the dot-com building boom. The nondescript buildings cropped up along the city’s western boundary, adjacent to some bay wetlands. Among them was the most significant business Newark snared in the past two decades: Sun Microsystems, which moved part of its operations into a large campus at the foot of the Dumbarton Bridge.

A small number of Newark environmentalists and open-space advocates had finally had enough. So they banded together to put a petition, Measure C, on the ballot, which would have required voter approval to develop one of the last large parcels of land — 560 acres of marshland. Smith and the council fought it vigorously. Not only was the measure not in keeping with the collegial Newark Way, it would have placed a roadblock squarely in front of Smith and the council’s dream of an eighteen-hole golf course and luxury homes. The petition ultimately went down to defeat.

To this day, however, the golf course and housing have never been built, leading some of the Measure C backers to believe Smith and the council were mostly concerned about handing over their decision-making role to the voters. “It was about power,” longtime Newark resident Margaret Lewis said. “It was about the city council saying it wanted to decide what goes there.”

But fights like Measure C are the exceptions that prove the norm — as are community crises such as the 2002 killing of transgender teen Gwen Araujo. Following her death, Smith and other council members immediately came under fire for not publicly condemning the hate crime and murder. “At the outset, I don’t think city officials knew what to do,” said Paul Clifford, a Newark resident and member of the local chapter of Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. “When she was killed, all the city officials suddenly had to use words — like homosexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender — that they had never used before, or only heard in some of kind of joke. They were terrified.”

Clifford said Smith and the other council members eventually responded to the public outcry. The city instituted new antidiscrimination rules and hate-crime training for police officers, and even created a “Newark Community C.R.E.E.D.” that residents are asked to sign:

Caring communities are built on
Respect for all
Empathy for others
Equity for everyone and appreciation of Diversity

“They approached the process tentatively, but now I’m extremely impressed by the council and the mayor,” Clifford said.

That kind of sentiment is strong in Newark, especially between City Hall and the business community. “I think they’re doing such an awesome job,” said Nancy Allen of Mission Real Estate and Mortgage in Newark before a Chamber of Commerce luncheon two weeks ago in honor of Smith and the council. “It’s one of the best relationships I’ve seen.”

But three years ago, that relationship was shaken by scandal. After the chamber nearly went bankrupt, Newark police discovered that its executive director, John Copley, had embezzled at least $26,000. It turned out that Copley was a con man who had insinuated himself into Newark’s business elite. “Every once in a while, trust can really bite you,” Smith said. “John Copley violated our trust.”

The Newark Way was for the city to bail out the chamber, appoint a new governing board, and put a police officer in charge. The city now provides the chamber with free rent, plus about $30,000 annually, and Huezo installed police Captain Mark Yokohama — the cop who led the investigation into Copley — as the chamber board president. Yokohama was later replaced by police Lieutenant Tom Milner, who remains in the post.

Newark has since returned to its normal, uneventful self. Interest in city politics reached such a low point in the fall of 2003 that Smith and the council canceled the municipal elections because no one filed papers to run against them. It would have been a waste of $30,000 to $40,000 of taxpayer dollars to hold an uncontested election, he reasoned. It was at least the seventh time the mayor has faced no opposition, which Smith said has happened so often that he has lost count.

City elections in Newark are ho-hum affairs. According to the Alameda County Registrar of Voters, the average voter turnout in the four elections prior to 2003 was 23 percent. But that number was inflated by the 1999 election involving Measure C, which drew a 34 percent turnout. Without that election, the average turnout in Newark was 19 percent. By contrast, the average voter turnout in neighboring Fremont in the last four city elections was 64 percent.

Low voter turnout is common in demographically homogeneous suburban cities, said San Jose State University political science Professor Terry Christensen, a close observer of Bay Area local politics. But aside from the architecture, Newark is hardly homogeneous. According to the 2000 Census, the city is 40 percent white, 29 percent Hispanic, and 21 percent Asian. Still, the elected leadership has been dominated by whites over the years. Paul Tong is the only Asian on the council, and he was appointed, not elected.

Perhaps equally surprising is that Smith is a Republican mayor in a city where fewer than 18 percent of the registered voters identify themselves as Republican. Councilmember Johnson also is a registered Republican, and she has been on the council for two decades. About 55 percent of Newark residents are Democrats. Nearly 22 percent are registered as Declined to State.

Yet all those Democrats and nonwhite voters appear to be content with the status quo. Smith and Nagy believe it’s a testament to how Smith, the council, and top city staff run things. “I just think people are satisfied with what’s going on,” Nagy said. Smith also argued that because partisan politics play no role in Newark city government, residents trust city leaders to do what’s best. “I don’t consider myself a politician, and I try not to make it a political thing,” he said. “That might sound strange — here’s a mayor who’s telling you that he doesn’t believe he’s a politician, but that’s the Lord’s truth.”

Smith and Nagy, however, also concede there’s probably some degree of voter apathy in Newark. On the surface, that appears to fly in the face of conventional wisdom. In poll after poll, voters say they don’t vote or don’t get politically involved because of partisan backbiting, negative campaigns, and political gridlock. And yet in Newark, where none of those things exist, people still don’t vote or run for office. And they almost never show up to a council meeting to voice their opinion. Newark is so congenial and run so efficiently that people take elections for granted and politics are essentially dead. Why?

Christensen believes it’s because the conventional wisdom is wrong. Despite what people tell pollsters, they usually join the political fray only when they’re angry about something. “It’s easy to say you’re turned off by negative politics,” Christensen explained. “But politics is just not a top priority for a lot of people, so if everything is going well, why would you spend your time going to meetings, or writing letters, or speaking up?”

Another explanation is that Newark residents may be slightly intimidated by such an entrenched mayor and council. For example, when a dispute over a proposed Home Depot brought dozens of residents to a council meeting late last month, many were reluctant to speak up. And when they did, they were tentative and extremely polite. Later, they said they simply didn’t expect their city leaders would heed their complaints about the likely noise and traffic the big-box store would wreak on their quiet neighborhood. “It really didn’t matter what our opinions were,” said fifteen-year resident Gary Copsey. “It was a done deal.” Thirty-five-year resident Mark Castle summarized the meeting and the council’s unanimous vote in favor of the Home Depot: “People knew they weren’t going to be heard — and that’s hard. Why put in that much effort when you know you can’t change the system?”

In fact, changing the system in Newark is tougher than ever because of a decision Smith and the council made about the city’s electoral process. More than a decade ago, they shifted municipal elections from even- to odd-numbered years so they wouldn’t overlap with presidential or congressional elections. “Our desire is to have people voting and focusing on local issues and not the president,” Smith explained. But the result is fewer people voting in local elections. Indeed, one of the reasons Fremont’s turnout is so much higher than Newark is that its elections are in even-numbered years.

This November promises to be different. The city’s municipal election will coincide with Governor Schwarzenegger’s controversial special election, virtually ensuring a larger turnout. Torrico’s open seat also may generate some interest. Nagy plans to run for reelection, and Smith said he probably will, too.

Every other July, before he announces his candidacy, Smith journeys back to the Upper Michigan peninsula for what he says are soul-searching walks along “the shores of Gitche Gumee” (Longfellow’s name for Lake Superior in his famous poem “Hiawatha”). Although Smith said he won’t make up his mind until he is there in person, at least one of his friends thinks he will be mayor for life. “I think Dave is going to be carried out in a box,” said Huezo, who plans to finally retire later this year. “I think Dave will continue to establish records for longevity. Dave Smith is Mr. Newark.”

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