When the final returns came in at about 11 p.m. on election night, Herb Perez was sipping a coconut mojito at a small gathering with supporters at Kobe’s, a trendy Edgewater Boulevard sushi bar, celebrating his narrow victory in Foster City’s City Council race.
At just about the same time, when it became clear incumbent Vice Mayor Art Kiesel had won reelection in the same six-person race, he and his supporters snacked on ham and cream cheese finger foods under harsh fluorescent lights in a reserved room at the Foster City Recreation Center, where hours earlier in a studio down the hall, seniors in spandex struggled to keep up with the beat in a jazzercise class.
The gatherings reflect a contrast in styles of two of the most forceful personalities on an oddly configured council that will be seated at tonight’s 6:30 p.m. council meeting at City Hall.
With no major stated ideological differences, it is the contrasting styles of Perez, and the rest of the council, that could prove to be a potentially combustible mix.
Perez, a 52-year-old former Olympic gold medalist with a law degree and a thriving martial arts business, is as complicated as he is controversial. He brings the type of personal biography that gets candidates elected to the U.S. Senate to go along with a volcanic temper that gets parents escorted from the bleachers of Little League games.
Concerns about whether Perez could play nice with the rest of the council were played-up to the hilt by his opponents during the campaign.
Kiesel, who is among Perez’s most outspoken foes, described Perez as an “anti-social” bully who “tries to intimidate people.”
“Obviously,” Perez said, “I’ve heard those concerns.”
A Reality Show in the Making?
Later today, the business of running Foster City falls into the laps of this dysfunctional bunch that would seem to have a hard enough time ordering a pizza, let alone keep the wheels of government rolling smoothly.
But if they drop the ball on their constituents, as some fear they will, it should at least be fun to watch.
“By June, we could have our own reality series,” Councilmember Pam Frisella quipped.
“I don’t it want it to be the Kardashians, but who knows, it could be a money-maker for Foster City.”
Foster City could use the money.
Like just about every municipality in budget-strapped state, this sleepy, upscale suburb faces a $2.8 million budget shortfall that could potentially imperil public services.
The city has already expanded job-sharing with the San Mateo Fire Department, part of a plan that city officials say will eradicate the deficit within two years. The state budget crisis, however, is among the wildcards they acknowledge could turn those plans upside down.
Perez’s improbable journey started when he was raised amid impoverished circumstances in New York City’s lower Manhattan. He became the first person in his family to graduate from high school and went on to receive a law degree from Rutgers and a Master’s Degree in sports organization management from the International Olympic Committee’s program at the University of Lyon, France.
He won an Olympic gold medal in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in tae kwon doe when it was a demonstration sport.
Since moving to Foster City about 10 years ago, Perez started up a small chain of martial arts studios on the Peninsula, anchored by Gold Medal in the Edgewater Shopping Center.
He has had to fight for just about everything, and his street-fighter mentality has often clashed with what’s understood as conventional norms by local residents in Foster City, an affluent suburb with a virtually non-existent crime rate and social problems that more closely resemble Mayberry than big city life that Perez is a product of.
The street fighter is about to crash the bridge party.
For now at least, Perez sounds as if he’s ready to leave his brass knuckles at the door.
“I absolutely believe there is a difference in approach that will take some understanding by everyone, myself included, to find a manner and a means towards affecting solutions,” Perez said.
“I look forward to building consensus.”
Just don’t expect Herb Light.
“I think people are sometimes put off by my directness, but I think people deserve their leaders to be direct,” Perez said.
Dogged by Critics
Kiesel doesn’t seem to be buying a word of it.
The vice mayor, who’s heavily favored to be the city’s next mayor, describes Perez as one of the most divisive figures in Foster City political history who has little interest in building consensus.
“He has no concept of what it is to compromise,” Kiesel said.
Kiesel isn’t alone in his concerns.
Perez’s critics point to a history that they say includes moments in which he’s shouted-down those with whom he’s disagreed – including in open council meetings.
The history includes conflicts with a homeowners group that dragged on for years in a dispute over noise emanating from his martial arts studio.
During a separate dispute with another martial arts studio instructor that blew up, Perez said a chair was thrown at him in a 2009 incident at a Mexican restaurant, according to published reports. Prosecutors declined to press charges in the case.
Outgoing Mayor Linda Koelling said Perez was “verbally abusive” toward those who disagreed with him in public meetings involving the noise dispute.
“It did not make me feel comfortable to have (Perez) in a leadership position representing my city,” she said.
His supporters tell a different story.
Jose J. San Gabriel, a co-merchant at Edgewater Shopping Center who owns a UPS store, described Perez as a generous and community-minded business leader who consistently goes above and beyond what’s expected of him to help neighboring businesses. When merchants couldn’t afford to repair shopping center parking lot lights, Perez footed the bill himself, Gabriel said.
Perez has been involved in fundraising and donated thousands of dollars to keep sports programs at local elementary and middle schools going amid budget cuts.
“Maybe some people misunderstand him because he’s in the martial arts background and in martial arts you can’t be soft, you have to be tough,” Gabriel said. “Maybe that’s why some people maybe misunderstand his demeanor, but people who know him voted for him, that’s why he won.”
Perez’s election followed a campaign in which he was criticized at every turn.
His critics say he spent too much money, was too loose with the truth, and pushed the envelope on everything from mailers that were too glossy to signage that barely skirted election laws for being too close to polling stations on Election Day.
Even Frisella, who didn’t back Perez, acknowledged that much of the criticism about how he ran his campaign was “nitpicky.”
Perez spent more than $36,000 on his campaign - more than the rest of the field in a six-person race combined – to shock a heavily favored Jennifer Minkey-Selvitella, who lost narrowly despite having the backing of the entire sitting council and the powerful firefighters union.
Throughout the campaign, there were whispers that Perez had ulterior motives for seeking a position that pays less than $500 a month so zealously.
“I would think anybody would question the motives as to why you’d spend that kind of money for a campaign,” Koelling said.
Even Frisella, who developed some rapport with Perez as a liaison to the Parks and Recreation Committee that Perez chaired and is the closest thing to a friend he has on this council, acknowledged that however unjustified some of the criticisms against him are, he’s earned it.
“He totally deserves the bad rap,” Frisella said.
But none of his critics would speculate on what ulterior motives Perez may have had for running a campaign Foster City observers said was unprecedented.
Perez said the resistance he’s experienced in two campaigns (he lost his first bid for the council in 2009) points to the pervasive influence of nepotism in city government.
He said the absence of evidence of any “hidden agenda” was his ultimate vindication.
“Trust me, if there was anything they could say they would,” Perez said.
But to the extent that style counts, Perez’s campaign rubbed his opponents the wrong way.
They accused him of running a misleading campaign.
Koelling pointed out a mailer in which Perez touts his support for public safety featuring a photo of a firefighter that she said implied that he had the firefighters' backing (he didn’t). She noted another Perez mailer calling for the establishment of a rainy day fund, implying that Foster City doesn’t have one (Foster City actually has one of the state’s most robust reserve funds).
Perez offers no apologies.
“Much ado was made about the fact that I raised a lot of money and I spent a lot of money on the campaign and I found that interesting; usually when a candidate is able to raise money that’s a good thing, it means the guy is well-liked, that he has friends and people who believe in him,” Perez said.
“Why don’t we just let every city council choose its successor? There’s a whole reason why you don’t do that and quite frankly there’s a reason you shouldn’t do it, because it becomes a nepotistic process where people are no longer chosen (by voters), they’re tapped on the shoulder and they get into place, and that’s what’s been happening a lot here.”
Rules of the Sandbox
Even his critics acknowledge that Perez might bring a unique perspective to the city council.
“He’s a smart fellow,” Koelling said. “He runs a successful business, so he would have some things to offer the council and community, but it remains to be seen.”
Kiesel acknowledged that although he doesn’t like Perez, he doesn’t consider him a monster.
“I think his heart is somewhat in the right place, although sometimes he hides it very well,” Kiesel said.
Frisella described Perez as a complicated character.
“I think as a person he’s a good person, but I think he needs to learn how to play in a sandbox without kicking sand in people’s faces,” Frisella said.
How well Perez and his fellow council members are able to put their differences in personality and style aside to attend to the business of running Foster City business remains to be seen.
Perhaps the only sure thing is that the dynamics of the new council will be entirely different than what locals have become accustomed to.
“What I like about change is change comes whether you like it or not,” Perez said.
And for his part, Perez believes that he and his colleagues can make this awkward arrangement work.
“I think we all have a responsibility to get along,” Perez said.
“I honestly don’t dislike Art (Kiesel) and I don’t dislike (newly elected council member) Steve (Okamoto), and if they dislike me that’s OK. Nobody has to love my leadership style. We all have to get along for the betterment of our city. That’s why our citizens voted for us and that’s what I’m here to do.
“I think people will be pleasantly surprised at my ability to interact within the group towards mutually beneficial solutions, Ask anyone and they’ll tell you that’s what their experience was on the Park and Recreation committee."