Interview by Sharon McElhone
Rose Herrera loves the City of San Jose not only because she was born and raised in East San Jose and went to Santa Clara University for her undergraduate and graduate degrees, but because she says she has a vision for it.
She also says she will always stand up for what’s right for the City, regardless of the political consequences. First elected as a councilmember for District 8 in 2008, she is currently serving a second term, which she won overwhelmingly. Because of her service to the country in the United States Air Force, she was also named “Veteran of the Year” in 2011. The Business Journal named her one of the 100 “Women of Influence for 2012.” She is a long-term advocate for women’s rights and is a founding member of the Bay Area Military Women’s Collaborative and Founding President of the League of California Cities Women’s Caucus. In addition, as Founder and CEO of Cinnamon Software, where Councilwoman Herrera oversaw more than ten million in annual sales and 150 employees, Herrera believes she is the one best fitted of the candidates running for Mayor to create the better-paying jobs that are necessary in San Jose.
Do you have a vision of how to bring more multiculturalism to San Jose?
“Absolutely. I think it helps that I’ve been immersed in different cultures from the time I grew up because I grew up in East San Jose, which is only a couple of miles away but a million miles away in terms of economic. My son is half Mexican. One of my sisters is married to a man from Algeria, so I have nephews that are Algerian and Muslim. My son has the Latin culture and is fluent in Spanish, and I’m Jewish, so I’ve lived a cross-cultural life myself. It would be hard for me not to be sensitive and understanding of different cultures when it’s so much a part of my life. When I was in the military, I was asked to be a race relations instructor because of my background and understanding. One of the strongest things I bring actually is the ability to be sensitive, to understand, to respect and to really believe in the idea of different cultures existing as separate cultures but learning about each other and being stronger… I, in fact, started a festival called EPIC (Earth, People, and International Culture) back in 2007, to celebrate cultures so people could learn about each other… When I grew up, San Jose had—in terms of demographics—a lot of Hispanics and some African Americans, and a small Asian population. We’ve had a lot more cultures come to San Jose since then: a big Vietnamese population, a lot more Filipinos, a lot of Indo-Americans have come and Chinese Americans. So we have a bigger diversity actually. It’s in celebrating that and learning about each other that makes it more interesting and makes our community safer. If we don’t know about each other…there can be misunderstandings, there can be ignorance and there can be things that create distance instead of understanding. We need to learn about each other. As Mayor of San Jose, I’m going to promote that. That’s going to be a big part of what I will do.”
What inspirations have you garnered from the successes of Mayor Susan Hammer or Janet Gray Hayes?
“Janet Gray Hayes was very inspiring to me because she was the first woman mayor. It’s been many years ago when she was elected, but I remember I was very young and it made me believe that a woman could be a mayor and that women can do big things and that they could be leaders. When Mayor Hammer was mayor there was a majority of the council that were women. It was known then as “The Year of the Woman”. San Jose was regarded as the “Feminist Capital” of the world at that time. There were a lot of great things done by Susan Hammer including the “Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force,” which is still going on today. I chair the engagement committee on that task force now.”
Do you have plans to improve the downtown area? What plans do you have?
“Downtown has undergone a lot of great things. I credit the downtown association for working with the city and taxing themselves so we can have revenue to improve the convention center and do some of the improvements that you see downtown: the flowers, the landscaping and how clean it’s kept. There is a streets team that cleans it, and that is because we’ve worked together to keep downtown businesses. But what is lacking in downtown? Enough businesses. Downtown, unfortunately, is the emptiest big city in the country. I guess people leave and go to work somewhere else. We need to have businesses downtown that employ a lot of people so people will be working downtown, and then they will go to restaurants there during the daytime. Unless we have an increase in the daytime population, it makes it very hard for retail businesses to survive and thrive. My goal as mayor will be to recruit at least one headquarter company within the first twelve months of me taking office to be in downtown.”
How would you address homelessness in San Jose?
“It’s a huge problem. It’s not just in San Jose, but also throughout the Bay Area. I’ve supported a bunch of different small pieces of the solution to help. For example, I’ve supported working with motels that have empty rooms and are willing to dedicate a percentage of their rooms for homeless individuals. We are working with a non-profit who is managing that, providing services, and this will be geared toward people who have a job. They have a voucher but can’t find a place to stay because it’s too expense and the voucher will not cover it. These are folks you can help that are slipping into homelessness, and we can prevent them from further sliding into it and get them back on track. We know 25% of them are veterans, so I support statewide legislation that will allow more money that is earmarked to be used to provide shelter for veterans. There are lots of folks that are homeless for lots of different reasons. We’ve got folks that have drug issues, we have some families out there, we have some people with jobs, and we have people that are chronically homeless… It’s not a simple one-size fits all answer. I also think it’s bigger than San Jose. I would form the homeless prevention task force to get stakeholders involved in it to work at different solutions and judge those solutions by how well they work… I also would support enforcement. You have the issue of people living in creeks, living in places that are not healthy for them and not healthy for the environment. So we need to be compassionate and find shelter for them. And we also need to, at some point, give people options to move out to other places; and if they don’t choose one of those options, we need to make sure to move them out of the creek because it’s not healthy for them to be there.”
If you become Mayor of San Jose, what do you think your biggest concerns will be?
“The economy, schools, safety… One of the reasons I’m running is because San Jose is at a crossroads. San Jose did the pension reform and fiscal reform that have helped. It stabilized the budget, which is good, which is one thing we needed to focus on. Financially we were in a place where we weren’t providing services, and that is very serious. We were in danger of slipping toward bankruptcy. Cities are in crisis throughout California over money that is being paid to pensions and having an unsustainable debt, which is what we had. So we made a lot of progress towards fixing that, but now I think we are at a crossroads and have to have a mayor—and I believe I should be that person—with a vision. What we need to do now is grow the pie. We need to create more opportunities here in San Jose. That means more middle class jobs. It means making it easier for businesses to start, to grow, and to stay in San Jose. We have competition. Not just from the city north of here, San Francisco, but we’ve got the governor of Texas coming here and poaching companies from California. Part of the reason he is able to do that is because it’s very difficult to do business here. I want San Jose to be the best place to start and grow a business. I have concrete plans including making it easier for businesses to get a building permit. I have an idea, I didn’t invent this, I looked at what other cities are doing around the country since the great recession to increase jobs in their cities, and I looked at Phoenix and they have 24 hour permitting. A business can get a permit in 24 hours. I think that is a goal worthy of Silicon Valley. By the way, it’s going to be led on whether I win for mayor or not because you put policy above politics. You do the right thing whether you are running or not… I’m trying to get things done. It’s what I’ve always done. I’ve always put what’s best for the city above what is best for me personally as an elected official. I think that is the kind of leadership that we need.”
What is your position on the high rents we’ve seen in the last six months and do you foresee a time when the middle class can’t afford to live in San Jose?
“What worries me is that we are losing middle class jobs… we need to get more jobs for our residents. Middle class means you have to make more than minimum wage, quite a bit more. So we’ve seen an increase in those service jobs that are not middle class paying jobs, and you can’t live on those wages. So we need to create more jobs so people can pay rent, and we also need to make it easier for people who are going to build the kind of housing that is affordable to get through our planning and building department to get permits and build them. It isn’t just for companies that have higher paying jobs, but for companies that build higher density housing, which is going to be the future of housing along rail lines and bus lines. We need to get more of that housing done. We need a process where people can get up and running very quickly so we can provide the housing and that will minimize the cost. When we add delays to businesses, we increase the cost.”
Do you see how we can avoid high-density housing?
“No. I don’t because we’ve already said in our plans going forward that we are not going to build on hillsides, that we are going to stay in the urban footprint, and we have very few options but up. We are definitely not going to go out. It’s very costly and it’s bad for our environment to go out. If you just think about it, we then have to have water going into those areas, we have to have sewer lines going farther out, our police department has to go farther out. The reality is San Jose is getting built out. So we need to do infill housing where there are spots to do that, and we are going to be building up and we are going to create higher density housing because it’s going to be less expensive, and that will make it more affordable for people looking for their first time house. That is the future and a lot of young folks actually want that opportunity. They want the opportunity to be able to own one car or no car and go to and from work.”
Do you see any problems with our water supply if our population keeps growing with the current pace of high density housing being built?
“I think we need to look at conservation of water first and foremost. That means not just San Jose, but where we get our water from. If we look at our situation with the drought, it’s a very serious one. Some of these issues have to be decided statewide… We need to be a lot more conscious on how we use water. The amount of gallons we use per person in areas like San Jose are pretty generous compared to other areas that are looking at water conservation… We need to find ways to store more water. Again, this is a state decision. There is probably going to be a water bond that is going to come out because this is an issue that affects all of California. It affects Northern California, it affects environmental concerns about fish, it affects the farmers in the Central Valley, and it affects the L.A. basin that continues to grow and the demand for water keeps increasing. We have to come up with a lot of new strategies. Desalinization. For areas like L.A., absolute conservation. I don’t know what the percentage is that we can save, but it is certainly significant. When we look at a country like Israel, for instance, which is in the desert, they don’t have a water problem and we don’t understand how they don’t. One of the things they do is drip irrigation for agriculture—much more conservative methods for agriculture so you use a lot less water.”
What do you think needs to be done in order to restore San Jose’s title as one of the safest cities in America?
“Monikers like safest city are nice to have, but what I’m more concerned about is making sure that people in their neighborhoods feel safe and that we’re doing everything that we can to make sure that we have the police on the street, that we have effective neighborhood watch programs, that we have a crime prevention program that works, that we are using the most effective technology—state of the art technology—that we help support the police to do their jobs. Those are the kind of things that we need to do. Using our police resources in the most effective manner, which is listening to our city auditor who said we could civilianize over 90 positions of our police department and why that’s important is that we want to make sure that our scarce resource, which is uniformed police officers, are being used in the best way possible. That isn’t doing background checks, that isn’t washing cars, that isn’t whatever else we have police do that isn’t being out in the neighborhood protecting us. Retired officers, civilians, reservists can do those jobs so we can deploy our force in the way that will maximize the effectiveness of them for the community. We need to use hot spot policing methods we know are being used across the country so we can do more with fewer police officers. We know that crime doesn’t occur randomly. We need to use video cameras. That’s technology. We already are, but we need to increase them along with protecting people’s privacy, of course. But allowing people to make a voluntary choice as to whether or not they will allow that camera to be used by the police department in an investigation of crime. These are techniques that are working in cities around us. One thing I suggested in terms of the Measure B reforms is, you know, we lost some police officers and I have been made aware that some of them want to come back. They would come back if they can come back to the same status as when they left, which means come back as tier one with the same retirement benefits as if they never left. I am supportive of making a tweak in Measure B to do that. Because that will not change any of the savings we are getting. We didn’t plan on those officers leaving. Our plan wasn’t to drive all the officers out and then we’ll have everyone in tier two. Some of them left and they want to come back. You know, the grass wasn’t greener. Let’s make that easy for them do to that. Let’s offer an olive branch to those officers and say come back as if you never left. That is my proposal. It’s called “Right of Return.” That is a political risk to do that for someone who supported Measure B, but I trust the voters to understand the difference between saying we gut Measure B and saying we make a little change for a period of time to allow officers to come back. We don’t have enough officers on the street right now and I think we need to get them out there as soon as we can. It’s going to take us years to rebuild just by going through the academy so we need to look at multiple strategies, which means bringing back officer who want to come back.”