Cassidy’s Politics of Personality (Or Lack Thereof)


Stephen Cassidy announcing his run for mayor last year.

By Steven Tavares

Stephen Cassidy readily admits it’s not his personality you should vote for, but his ideas. He is the self-proclaimed “black sheep” of his family; not because of a proclivity to trouble. Instead, he comes from a family of jocular salesman armed with a witty lines or two. Cassidy doesn’t have that. It’s sometimes difficult to watch him form a smile. It sometimes appears like he believes the potential voters he’s chatting with is judging him and, of course, they are.

In a time when perfectly quaffed, well-tailored, handsome men seemed to be on the cusp of victory on November 2, Cassidy is making a threat to upset the political apple cart in San Leandro the old-fashioned way–with ideas–some very unpopular, some practical. So, the question is: can substance solely trump style or do you need a little of both?

“I’m not a political animal,” says Cassidy, yet he has correctly read the political tea leaves of the last year when more Americans are losing jobs and struggling to pay everyday bills. The rise of the Tea Party has tapped into this growing disenchantment, albeit, in very general terms. The result has been a zigging and zagging of multiple and divergent issues, which sometimes careen against each other at the same time. Some question whether this group is burgeoning political party, but many see it as a hodge-podge of unfocused anger. Cassidy’s campaign, in deeply blue Alameda County, has become a life line to these voters who tend to sit on the right of the political spectrum. One Cassidy supporter living on eastern side of San Leandro, all at once, complained about President Obama, health care, San Leandro schools, the decline of his neighborhood and immigrants. He also fit the profile of Tea Partier: older, white male and very unhappy.

It’s become common knowledge among volunteers walking precincts in San Leandro to find a stark correlation between Republican voters and the Cassidy for Mayor lawn signs displayed in their front yards. Cassidy says there has been no concerted effort on his part to court the right, “I’m courting everyone,” he says, but whether by design or not, Cassidy’s 18-month campaign for the mayor’s office has revealed little in terms of hopeful rhetoric for a brighter future in the city. His standard stump speech always contains the line “we are on the path to bankruptcy” along with fueling perceptions of an increase in crime and a conga line of businesses leaving the city. “Most people know that we’re not achieving full potential,” said Cassidy. “We’re not where we should be.” To be fair, one of the more depressing developments during this election season is the dearth of sunny projections for San Leandro. Fellow mayoral candidate Councilwoman Joyce Starosciak has called the city in “decay” and even Mayor Tony Santos has unconvincingly said, “San Leandro is doing okay” during a recent candidates forum.

While Cassidy may be riding the bogey man factor to its full extent, it may also be more than a campaign tactic, but also a hallmark of his personality. There may be no piece of prevailing wisdom in the city more agreed upon than the notion Cassidy does not play well with others. His four years on the San Leandro Board of Trustees featured constant bickering and condescension from him to colleagues and opponents. Cassidy readily admits this. “There were times of confrontation, but this is certainly good for democracy,” he says. A battle of personalities between a group of trustees and the teachers’ union against former school superintendent Christine Lim illustrated the combative nature of Cassidy many now say would conflict with the business of the city should he become mayor. “I came to the opinion that the superintendent was the wrong leader for the district,” Cassidy said. He cited her poor record of employee relations and her lack of team-building skills for his belief. “She was a lightning-rod for controversy,” he said and a “poor spokesperson for the district.”

Cassidy left the board in 2008, two years before the eventually firing of Lim this January. He did not run for re-election at the urging of his wife and believes he accomplished the goals he set during his single term. Unfortunately, the ill-will conceived during his stay on the board regarding Lim still stokes rancor among some teachers and a small, but angry minority group, who believe she was fired because of her independence and notably, her race. Not only does this group have it in for Cassidy, but several others have joined them in the past year over blunt strikes to the interests.

Labor unions loathe Cassidy’s softly-tinged anti-union rhetoric. The president of the San Leandro Police Officers Association is clear when he let loose an “anybody but Cassidy” meme in the press this month. Cassidy called the rhetoric from unions a “lot of hot air.” “I think during elections you get a lot of hyperbole,” said Cassidy. “I believe once the election is over, everyone will sit down and get to work.” The one group hit hardest by Cassidy’s campaign platform is the very employees he may lead once elected. “City employees need to pay more towards the cost of their pension,” he has said since the beginning of his campaign last year. Santos and Starosciak have criticized the plan as blaming city employees for the economic downturn. “I see too many politicians attacking public employees and their pension,” Councilman Jim Prola and strong union supporter said this week. “All you read about is the ones at the top of the pension scale.” The average employee pension, he said, only yields $25,000, far less than the exorbitant figures mentioned by proponents of pension reform.

Much of the anger from city employee over Cassidy’s intention to close the city’s projected deficit by having them pay up to $3 million of their own salary towards pensions is the argument they have already made significant compromises to help the budget situation. They note city employees have forgone pay increases the past two years, agreed to raise the retirement age to 55-years-old while paying more towards their health insurance premiums. In addition, the city’s current financial burden regarding pensions, city employees say conversely, is a result of concessions made by the unions a decade ago to help the city save money. With the economy still flush with money stemming from the Dot-com boom, city employee unions agreed to the current pension program instead of pay increases, thereby saving the city millions in the near term. “The city would actually be in big trouble now without the employees help,” said a city employee who declined to be named.

Cassidy’s gambit alienating city employees could make City Hall as fractious as the atmosphere at the school board two years ago. In addition to the likely battles with employees and unions, it is difficult to craft a scenario within the future city council where Cassidy could form a coalition to move his ideas forward. Prola and Councilman Michael Gregory (should he win re-election) maintain Santos’ old group, Starosciak along with Councilwoman Diana Souza often vote together and Vice Mayor Ursula Reed is routinely the wildcard. Councilman Bill Stephen would have been a candidate to caucus with Cassidy if not for his retirement. The District 5 candidate Corina Lopez would likely gravitate towards Prola leaving the uncertainty of whether Cassidy’s former colleague from the school board Pauline Cutter would put slight differences aside.

Whether Cassidy is only one man on the island of the mayor’s office is an issue voters will need to keep in mind next month. The highest ranking city official who shares Cassidy’s signature desire to reform employee pension is City Manager Stephen Hollister. But, Cassidy, last week said this about city management: “They want to blame the economy for the mistakes they have committed. We don’t have a mayor or a city manager that takes responsibility for this.”

When it comes to Stephen Cassidy, even his allies are not safe.