Santa Clara University

Wielding the Gavel

Ana Ventura Phares ’83 hasn’t forgotten the Watsonville High School counselor who dismissed her college dreams. A daughter of migrant Mexican farmworkers shouldn’t be thinking about college, Phares was told. Stunned, Phares turned to her father, an immigrant who would surpass his fourth-grade education to become a regional Dole company vice president. Find another counselor, Leon Ventura firmly told his daughter. She did. She graduated from Santa Clara University and then law school. It’s tantalizing to imagine Phares some day bumping into her old high school counselor. If she does, he can call her Madam Mayor, thank you very much.

Ana Phares
Mayor Ana Ventura Phares '83 speaks to one of her constituents in downtown Watsonville.

Her personal story differs from that of most Santa Clara alumni, but as mayor of Watsonville, Phares finds herself in an SCU tradition that spans decades. In council chambers of municipalities large and small, in California and elsewhere, the mayor’s gavel often has been wielded by Santa Clara alumni.

These mayors range from the nation’s most high-profile politicians—think current San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ’89 and his gay marriage crusade—to the civic-minded leaders who tackle parks and potholes in places such as Saratoga, Folsom, and Fairfield, Calif. They came to City Hall from varied arenas—business, advocacy or bureaucracy—spurred by the same revelation that hit Phares when she was a lawyer advocating for poor farm workers before the City Council: “I realized, ‘Wait a minute. These people up here make laws that could benefit the whole community.’ That’s where the spark came out saying that’s what I’d like to do,” she says.

Municipal history holds the legacies of Santa Clarans from the late Al Ruffo ’31, J.D. ’36, the post-war powerbroker who spurred San Jose’s transformation from an agricultural town to a sprawling urban powerhouse; to Anthony Williams ’73 who is shaping the financial recovery of troubled Washington, D.C.

Al Ruffo
Former San Jose Mayor Al Ruffo ’31, J.D. ’36

Former Vallejo Mayor Terry Curtola ’61 lured Six Flags Marine World to bolster the fortunes of his city. Gary Podesto ’63 pushed Stockton’s revitalization with a movie multiplex, a ballpark, and a sports arena. And the peripatetic Jerry Brown ’59, erstwhile California governor and three-time presidential candidate, has stamped a positive sheen on his adopted city, Oakland, since voters sent him to the mayor’s office in 1998. He cites a drop in violent crime and “a whole influx of new investment, new people, new shops. It’s the restoration of vitality at the core of the city,” he says. “To see that in a seven-year period is very exciting.”

In interviews with Santa Clara Magazine, several past and present mayors described mayoral work in terms of eye-blurring, late-night meetings with harangues from any and all denizens, but also hefty legacies—the San Jose McEnery Convention Center leaps to mind—and the gratification of addressing the simplest constituent need or the largest quality-of-life issues besetting every community.

“What I like most about it is that you can make a real impact,” says Williams, who arrived in crisis-ridden Washington as chief financial officer and was pressed by appreciative residents to run for mayor. “At the same time you can lay out a vision for your city and you can actually inch your city along toward that vision. My first reaction was: these people are crazy.” Williams says his Jesuit education told him differently: “There’s no challenge that can’t be overcome with some prayer and thoughtful insight and analysis.”

Santa Clara Mayor Patricia Mahan
Santa Clara Mayor Patricia Mahan

Other mayors also link SCU to their political forays. “They just imbue you with such a sense of compassion for the community ... the higher values and the better values of why you’re doing what you’re being trained to do. It’s not to make a million dollars a year. It’s to be of service,” says Santa Clara Mayor Patricia Mahan, J.D. ’80.

Wielding the Gavel pullquote

College life didn’t foreshadow all mayoral careers, however, notwithstanding Ruffo’s mark as student body president and football standout under Coach Buck Shaw. Asked whether visions of City Hall marked their student years, most had the same answer: “Never.”

Curtola, a self-described “goof-off” who flunked Fr. Theodore Mackin’s marriage class, managed the family restaurant business before taking the mayoral reigns in Vallejo. Mike King’s banking career took him to Hong Kong—where he hired several Santa Clara grads “because we liked the ethical way they approached business”—before he ran for city council in San Carlos. Peter Breen ’58 was a farmer and a city welfare director before taking the helm of San Anselmo, and Wilmot “Bill” Nicholson ’36 used his engineering talents on Santa Clara’s Planning Commission before moving to the council and mayor’s chair. By the time Richard Riordan ’52 became Los Angeles mayor in 1993, he already had amassed a real estate and venture capital fortune.

“I realized, ‘Wait a minute. These people up here make laws that could benefit the whole community.’ That’s where the spark came out saying that’s what I’d like to do.”
—Ana Ventura Phares ’83

Gary Gillmor ’58, a civics teacher in the 1960s, went before the Santa Clara City Council to successfully fight a development project: “And I looked at the people who were running it and I said, I can do a better job than that,” says Gillmor, who then went on to nurture Santa Clara’s pre-Silicon Valley development policies in the 1970s.

Most alumni mayors say that a knack for multitasking also comes in handy. “The biggest challenge is you’re totally responsible for everything,” says Tom McEnery ’67, M.A.’70, San Jose’s 1980s mayor and indefatigable downtown cheerleader. “If a city truck goes out of control and hurts someone, that’s your responsibility. If a police officer shoots somebody, that is your responsibility. It’s 24 hours a day.”

“It becomes something that grabs you,” says Podesto, who overcame panic attacks to succeed in business and politics. “When I first ran for mayor, I won, and I said, ‘Now what I do?’ There’s a little bit of a learning curve—but not that much. The main thing is you’re trying to deal with people and you’re trying to do the right thing.”

More information
Read about other SCU alumni who have served as mayors.

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