'Little Saigon' fight hamstrings mayor
HIS HANDLING OF CONTROVERSY RAISES QUESTIONS ABOUT LEADERSHIP
By Joshua Molina
Article Launched: 03/04/2008 01:31:08 AM PST
Struggling to salvage credibility on a bungled decision to designate a Vietnamese retail area, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed finds himself in a political mess that has fueled more questions about his leadership.
While Councilwoman Madison Nguyen has taken the brunt of the criticism - because she is Vietnamese and the project is in her district - the stain has rubbed off onto Reed, the titular political leader of the council, who some believe should have put an end to the community anguish a long time ago.
Reed's vacillations over "Little Saigon" have hardly been his only missteps since becoming mayor. In the last year, he badly miscalculated his political endorsement of a weak candidate in his old district and lost a key vote to labor-backed council members over whether to rebuild a fire station. Reed's perceived stubbornness and independent style of politics have exposed some vulnerabilities - chiefly regarding his political instincts, vision and ability to build a consensus on the council.
Now, with thousands of people continuing to picket City Hall, Reed is faced with this question: Has the name issue become so tangled that there is no longer a win-win solution?
Reed says compromise is still possible. But he acknowledges his political future could well be at stake as the council votes tonight on possible ways out of the quagmire. "It is a political risk and a price I have to pay as a mayor," Reed said. "I am trying to do what I think is right."
While many in the city's sizable Vietnamese-American population have called for the one-mile stretch of shops and restaurants along Story Road to be called "Little Saigon," Reed and Nguyen have resisted, saying the matter should not be decided by those who protest the loudest. He and Nguyen want to have a cooling-off period, come up with a new process for naming business districts, then revisit the issue later this year.
Whether the rest of the council will follow suit is an open question. Councilmen Kansen Chu and Dave Cortese plan to vote for the name "Little Saigon," saying the city can no longer let the issue fester and must respect the passion of the protesters. Other council members declined Monday to tip their hands.
For a mayor who prides himself on consistency, Reed has struggled to chart a clear path on the issue. After initially backing Nguyen's proposal to call the retail area "Saigon Business District" and insisting the idea was not open to discussion, Reed last month proposed putting the issue on a citywide ballot. Some longtime political observers questioned the call.
"Elections are contests that determine a winner and loser. It is a zero-sum game," said San Jose political consultant Jude Barry. "If you are looking for a win-win solution, you don't hold an election. It is going to have to be process and compromise."
Reed says he believed at the time that, with protesters accusing the council of flouting democracy and ignoring the popular will, there was no better form of democracy than to let voters decide the project's fate. But he abruptly dropped the proposal, he said, because it became too complicated and too expensive - and he worried it would only serve to pit Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese residents against each other.
Even before the ballot idea came up, Reed appeared to be letting Nguyen set the agenda on the "Little Saigon" issue, regarding it mostly as a matter within her district instead of realizing how passionately Vietnamese around the city felt.
"I talked to her many times along the way," Reed said. "I don't think she ever misled me. She may have misgauged the public sentiment, but so did I."
Reed acknowledged that the biggest mistake he made was his response to a survey by the city's redevelopment agency. In August, the agency sent out 1,136 surveys asking people near the district what it should be called. Only 117 people responded, and of those, 44 wanted "Little Saigon." Reed said that was too few to base the name on.
"We should have stopped there and done more outreach," he said.
Reed's judgment may have been clouded by his efforts to build a consensus on the council. Nguyen is backed by labor unions, which Reed has typically opposed. With grueling budget decisions ahead, luring Nguyen to his side might have been one way to build council support for his cost-cutting vision.
"I am trying to build a relationship with all the council members," Reed countered. "This is an instance where I have worked with Madison, and I am hoping that it builds the relationship with trust, consistency and honesty."
Even his close circle of advisers acknowledge that Reed stumbled over the name issue early on - but defend him by noting that leadership is an evolution.
"It is not so much how the game starts as it is how it finishes," said former Mayor Tom McEnery, a Reed friend and political ally who has nevertheless criticized the council's missteps over the "Little Saigon" name on his blog.
"Every step along the way here has been something difficult to predict," McEnery said. "I have never seen anything like this before."
Contact Joshua Molina at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 275-2002