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Newark mayor, California's most veteran, seeks 16th term
By Chip Johnson.
Friday, October 12, 2007—Reprinted from San Francisco Chronicle.
Newark Mayor Dave Smith is seeking his 16th consecutive term as leader of the East Bay suburb in next month's election, and he actually has an opponent this time. But unless the ballots are counted in Florida, I wouldn't bet against him.
After serving half his life as mayor (serving two-year terms), the 61-year-old Smith says his 30-year record speaks for itself.
"My platform is 'If you give me one more chance, I'll get it right,' " he joked. "At this point in my career, you stand on your record and look forward to the challenges ahead of us."
Smith is the longest-standing mayor in California. And if asked, he will proudly tell you that among U.S. cities with more than 30,000 residents, he is one of the longest-serving mayors in the nation - and he may be moving up.
Currently, Smith is ranked No. 4 in the nation. But Fred Turnage, 71, the mayor of Rocky Mount, N.C., for the past 34 years, is not seeking re-election and his term ends this year.
Turnage, who made his living as an attorney, said he would have stepped down eight years ago had it not been for Hurricane Floyd, which struck the inland city of 60,000 people with a vengeance.
"To be honest, it almost wiped us out," he said. "That's why I stayed."
No. 1 on the list of long-standing mayors is Nicolas Blase of Niles, Ill., 79, who's served for 45 years, but his uninterrupted reign is in serious jeopardy.
Last year, months after he won another four-year term, Blase was indicted on federal charges alleging that he steered businesses for years to an insurance agency in town in exchange for kickbacks. Federal authorities in Chicago said his case is pending.
Smith, meanwhile, has a squeaky-clean record and shows no signs of slowing. Still, he's got issues to deal with in his city of 40,000 residents.
Newark, facing a loss in taxes, cut $1 million in program funds and had to draw $3.3 million in reserve funds to balance its two-year budget.
"We're a bit revenue-challenged, and throughout the dot-com woes we've stayed within ourselves and maintained city services," Smith said. "This year we did some trimming into program areas, which is always a bit painful, and the crystal ball doesn't get better over the next year or two."
But there are bright spots. Ohlone College will open a health and technology center in Newark, which will accommodate 3,500 students and offer classes in energy conservation and environmental studies.
City officials are also hoping to approve a championship-level, 18-hole golf course surrounded by 1,000 units of luxury housing.
Smith's Energizer Bunny-like tenure is like the city itself, which has grown steadily over the years compared with the booming growth in the neighboring cities of Fremont and Union City.
During a recent visit to the new Ohlone College campus, Randy Kelly, the former mayor of St. Paul, Minn., referred to Newark as Lake Woebegone West - and Smith appreciated it.
Dennis Jones, Newark's assistant city manager, said city employees and residents are comfortable with the council and the mayor, which helps create the kind of small-town atmosphere that many metropolitan Bay Area residents covet.
But for all the warm and cozy feelings inspired by political tradition and continuity in Newark, there are those, like Vibert Greene, who think politics in the city has too long been dominated by a close-knit clique that rarely gives newcomers a chance to get in the game.
"I think I have a chance," said Greene, 59, an analyst for the state Public Utilities Commission who is running against Smith in the Nov. 6 election.
"There are lots of people who are tired of the mayor locking up the office for so many years," said Greene. "He has enjoyed his time in the spotlight being a small town mayor, but enough is enough. I think I can contribute a lot to the rebuilding of Newark."
If elected, Greene said he would shift the city government's focus from courting high-tech companies to attracting retail development.
"High-tech requires a large workforce and infrastructure we don't have," Greene said. "We have a very limited amount of land and very few areas left undeveloped. I would beef up retail and go as far as rolling back taxes for some of our businesses to help them."
This is Greene's third attempt at public office in Newark. He has failed at two previous council runs and a bid for the Alameda County Board of Education. He also got his name on the ballot for the 2006 governor's race - a move he acknowledged was a bit far-fetched, but he was just making a point.
Smith, meanwhile, is looking forward to future challenges. At the top of the list is how the proposed Fremont home of the Oakland A's, which includes plans for a ballpark village with housing and retail similar to the neighborhood near AT&T Park, would affect his city.
"I wouldn't want to lose an election at this point in my career," Smith, who works as a fundraiser for Ohlone College, said this week. "That wouldn't feel good.
"I don't have to be mayor. There's a lot of stuff I've got going. But it's been fun to do, and I'm hoping that at least for one more term, the voters will have me."
Chip Johnson's column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. E-mail him at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page B - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle.