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Newark's new mayor is familiar face at city hall

Dave Smith closes in on 30 years at the helm

By Todd R. Brown, Staff writer.

Monday, November 12, 2007—Reprinted from Inside Bay Area.

NEWARK—When Dave Smith first became mayor of Newark in 1978, the Bee Gees ruled the music charts, the Jonestown killings shook the Bay Area, and Giants pitcher Barry Zito was born.

Now the Bee Gees are a pop culture trivia topic, Jonestown merited at least three TV and film documentaries in the last couple years and Zito is the best-paid thrower ever.

And Smith is still mayor.

"That's a long ways to go," the 61-year-old said. "I just do this two years at a time."

Multiply that by 14 times, add one year for a term extension way back when and Smith's political career totals 29 years as leader of the city, plus two years on the City Council before that.

He easily added another mayoral term Tuesday, when he squared off with challenger Vibert Greene for the hearts and minds of Newark voters. He trounced his opponent with 81 percent of the vote.

All in a day's work for Smith, a perennial politician who began working for Ohlone College last year, becoming executive director of the Ohlone College Foundation in May.

"We think we can carve out our own destiny," he said, recalling former Mayor Clark Redeker's slogan, "We've got a better way of doing things."

Of that spirit, Smith said: "These things are very much a part of our fabric. I wound up absorbing that."

From Youper to Newarkian

Smith grew up in the icy weather of the City of Laurium in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, whose denizens are nicknamed "Youpers."

He didn't have much opportunity for outdoors fun in a forested realm that he said in summer is like God's country.

His father's death when Smith was just 6, possibly from progressive spinal paralysis, left the lad without much leisure time, although he said he did a little fishing and hunting with his uncle.

"When I was old enough to stack logs, I was out there in the woods helping my Uncle Fred," Smith said.

His mother became confined to a wheelchair because of neuritis, another nerve disease, although he said his sister, now a nurse, wasn't entirely convinced of the diagnosis.

"They didn't really have much in the way of good medical care (in that time and place)," Smith said.

He graduated with a business administration degree from Michigan Technological University and was hired by a chemical manufacturing firm that sent him to work in Indiana for a year to oversee plastics production.

Then he got to choose where he wanted to go, so he headed west.

"I could have wound up in Manchester, Iowa, or Carbondale, Pennsylvania," he said of a couple itty-bitty towns on the list. "Lucky me, I ended up in Fremont."

He stayed there from 1968 to 1972, working in a building on Blacow Road at Central Avenue, then went to the corporation's headquarters in Louisiana before returning to the Tri-City area in 1974 and buying a home in Newark.

Public service

Smith quickly got involved in politics, joining the City Council in 1976 and becoming mayor two years later. He then faced the challenge of Proposition 13, which put a lid on property taxes but a strain on paying for services. The problem mirrors today's revenue slide in Newark and resulting budget cuts.

"Back then, Newark had the highest property tax rate in the county," Smith said. "Our budget was $4 million back then, 10 percent of what it is today. The council had to chop $700,000 out of a $4 million budget, which is a huge chunk."

The remedy he found was commercial development—from adding hotels and auto dealers to erecting the city's flagship mall.

"We had no hotels at that point—zero. Nowhere to rent a room," Smith said.

A Hilton was brought in, and the opening of NewPark Mall in 1980 was a coup. A couple years later, Fremont Ford was the first auto dealer to locate in the city. Others followed in the same area, south of the mall.

"NewPark was really the signature project to getting us on the road to fiscal wellness," Smith said, crediting his immediate predecessor, Jim Balentine, with planting the seeds of the project.

Still, observers give credit to Smith for shaping the city of today, for better or worse.

"He's the last 30 years of Newark," said Bruce MacGregor, 62, author of the recent "Newark: A City at Fifty" and "The Centennial History of Newark."

MacGregor said one of the most contentious issues in the city has been how to treat its marshy open space to the west, which environmentalists wanted in the nearby national wildlife refuge and developers wanted under glass, brick and concrete.

Green versus gray

"That went back and forth more than 10 years," MacGregor said. "It was big risk-taking. The guiding spirit from Dave's perspective was that Silicon Valley had a place in Newark, and this was the flagship landing area."

Ultimately, a compromise put part of the former Cargill Salt company land in the Don Edwards refuge as wetlands, and allowed the building in 1997 of a Sun Microsystems campus and a W Hotel neighboring the now-evacuated office park in the "Gateway" area near Highway 84.

"We worked with the Army Corps to get the wetland delineation," said Margaret Lewis, 63, a longtime Newark resident and member of Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge. "The city was very anxious for Sun to begin construction.

"In the '80s, when Silicon Valley was really blooming, the mayor considered (the project) a jewel in the city's star. They never did build out all the building pads that were available (and Sun) never moved their headquarters there."

While some wetlands mitigation was done to make up for the development, Lewis said the battle to preserve open space is far from over.

Today, a golf course and housing development by Sobrato Development Cos. could wind up on the Area 4 land, which Lewis said is better fit for the refuge.

"There's so many reasons why that area should not be developed," she said. "It could be easily open to tidal action. It could be a marvelous addition to Newark … maybe be an opportunity for future students at Ohlone to study wetlands, to use it as a lab."

That points to a contradiction in the mayor's priorities.

He championed the Ohlone College Newark Center for Health Sciences and Technology to locate in Newark. The campus will be a model of "green" building. Yet Smith also has voiced support for the housing nearby that would be more "gray" than green.

'Consensus rather than conflict'

Whatever that outcome, MacGregor said Smith's legacy will be his style of government, which tries to avoid controversies such as the environmental debate.

"It's about consensus rather than conflict or rather than adversarial relationships," MacGregor said. "For ages, I mean you could go to meeting after meeting and not hear a negative vote. It was unanimous votes on just about everything. The criticism arose that it is not democratic."

He said former Newark councilman turned state Assemblyman Alberto Torrico came in trying to rock the boat, but Smith returned things to a more even keel. MacGregor likened the scenario to the work of The Borg on Star Trek, where all opposition is assimilated or destroyed.

In the '60s, he said, most of the City Council resigned over a conflict of interest crisis related to development and the entity had to recover from its black eye, while Smith has engineered "30 unbroken years of high credibility."

Today, the mayor lives in The Lake area with his wife, Marsha, 64. They have two children and two stepchildren, all grown. He plays trombone in the city staff-filled Yowza band. And he couldn't seem happier with how it all worked out for him.

"Everyone in Newark can share great pride in what we've accomplished 'the Newark way,' which respects differences while building community," he said.

Asked what his biggest contribution has been, he said it isn't building the mall or helping create the Silliman activity center, or any of the other physical changes to the city.

"Not to downplay those, but those are bricks and mortar," he said. "The finest thing was how we really do work together and pull together. There is this spirit of teamwork."

Staff writer Todd R. Brown covers Newark, Ohlone College and ethnic communities. Reach him at 510-353-7004 or

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