Tony Santos, former San Leandro mayor who sought to break city’s bonds of segregation, dies at 86

Tony Santos is one of San Leandro's longest-serving public officials. He held office for 18 years after two stints as a councilmember and later as mayor in 2006.

Tony Santos, a former San Leandro mayor, stalwart progressive and friend of labor, who lead the once-segregated city toward a more equally diverse future, died Monday afternoon. He was 86.

Santos had been in declining health for months and passed away at his San Leandro home of over 50 years.

Santos goes down in San Leandro history as one of its longest-serving elected officials, serving 18 years as a mayor and councilmember. He served two stints on the San Leandro City Council, representing his West San Leandro district for two terms from 1984-1992.

Santos returned to the City Council in 2000 and served six years before winning election to mayor in 2006. Santos would later lament that his defeat, after one term in the 2010 mayor’s race to Stephen Cassidy, prevented him from overtaking San Leandro’s most historically significant mayor, Jack Maltester, as the longest-serving elected official.

“He lived his progressive values. Tony cared about San Leandro and wanted to make it better for everyone.”-Charles Gilcrest, San Leandro political consultant and long-time friend of Santos.

As a community activist and later councilmember, Santos led the way on a number of local quality of life issues. After moving to the Marina Faire neighborhood of San Leandro, located near the Oakland Airport, Santos noticed flight paths over San Leandro were loud and disruptive. He help create the Airport Noise Forum that was successful in abating the sound of roaring jets at night.

He was also instrumental in various high-profile projects in San Leandro, including the Grover Cleveland Park, the Senior Community Center on East 14th Street and the Kaiser Permanente hospital that was planned during his tenure as mayor.

But it was Santos role in acting as the go-between for San Leandro’s ugly past as a whites-only enclave that the 1970 U.S. Census found to include just a hand full of African-American families living the city to its future. Decades of racism fueled collusion among white homeowners and real estate agents effectively blocking most African-Americans from the ability to buy a home in San Leandro. In a city whose politics was also uniquely driven by local Home-Owners Associations, restrictive covenants, clauses in homeowners agreement that prohibit selling their homes to African-Americans, was a powerful political and social tool.

San Leandro political consultant Charles Gilcrest said Santos’ legacy is about breaking these bonds that held back the city for so long. “When people in San Leandro wanted to keep it the way it was, Tony was active in ending restrictive covenants,” he said.

“For many decades, Tony worked to bring San Leandro into the future, whether to diversify our population or move toward us being a welcoming city,” Gilcrest added. “He lived his progressive values. Tony cared about San Leandro and wanted to make it better for everyone.”

“There was an Old San Leandro that wanted to keep people out. Tony was against that,” said Vice Mayor Corina Lopez, who got her first shot in local government through Santos. “While mayor, he called me into his office and said, “We need to have a Hispanic on the Human Relations Commission.’ He was a person who was committed to evolving San Leandro out of its past and into the future. When he appointed me, he was doing that. He was standing for the little person.”

Santos was also respected within the city’s burgeoning Asian American community that while was continually growing in the numbers, lacked organization on the political front. He was a strong early supporter of Councilmember Benny Lee, who would later become the city’s first-ever Asian-American elected official in 2012.

Santos was born in Hawaii and often recounted his story of witnessing the attack on Pearl Harbor as a young boy in 1941. Santos’ family moved to the Bay Area, settling in Alameda, where he attended Alameda High School, and then San Leandro. He attended San Francisco State University and was the first in his family to graduate from college.

Santos, air force
Tony Santos served as an Air Force medic in the early 1950s.

He also served in the U.S. military  as an Air Force medic during the Korean War, serving in Europe. An unrepentant storyteller, many in the San Leandro and East Bay politics have heard his tale of surviving a harrowing helicopter crash and later meeting Melitta, his wife of 63 years. By day, Santos was an insurance adjuster.

He is survived by his wife Melitta, his children Mike and Karen and three grandchildren, Francesca, Philip and Tyler.

Santos’ progressive values, which he held throughout his long tenure in city goverment, was buoyed by his support of unions. “Tony Santos was a champion for labor and working families in San Leandro,” said Lopez. During his time as an elected official, Santos supported Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) and public employees’ rights.

Santos is also credited with moving to trim San Leandro city government just prior to the Great Recession hitting during his tenure as mayor. The city’s move under Santos to reduce city staff with so-called “Golden Parachutes” and early retirement agreements allowed San Leandro to emerge out of the recession stronger than most East Bay cities.

But Santos’ support for unions and public employees also led, in part, to his biggest political setback. With the recession as the backdrop and a pervasive of dose of anti-union rhetoric stoked by rising public employee pensions, Santos became the first incumbent mayor to be defeated in the city’s history. Cassidy’s upset victory was unsettling to Santos. He later declined to concede the race and, in fact, never did so. During his farewell speech as mayor, Santos told city employees to “hang in there and don’t give up what you have earned and deserve.”

With great humility, Santos would later acknowledged that his support for changing the city’s method of electing public officials from a traditional at-large system to Ranked Choice Voting in early 2010 was a colossal mistake. Despite advice from his political strategists that Ranked Choice Voting would undermine support for incumbents, Santos disagreed, instead favoring the system’s egalitarian solutions for expanding the voting pool.

In fact, the city council initially voted against joining Oakland and Berkeley to institute Ranked Choice Voting. Santos brought the matter back for a second vote and Ranked Choice Voting was approved. In November 2010, Santos narrowly topped the field of mayoral candidates in first-place votes, but lost the election in later rounds through the Ranked Choice Voting tabulations that favor consensus candidates.

Santos, though, was open about his mistake. In the years that past, he often offered his support for blocking the introduction of Ranked Choice Voting to a number of municipalities across the country, including his native Hawaii.

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