Mayor of bankrupt Stockton isolated, under investigation
07/21/2013 12:00 AM
10/10/2013 7:16 AM
STOCKTON – At 11 p.m. on a weeknight, Mayor Anthony Silva paced in the parking lot outside a Methodist church.
His speaking engagement there had ended more than an hour earlier, and the campers he addressed were in their pajamas in the fellowship hall, counting down to lights out.
Silva lingered in the dim, brooding.
"They're after me," he said.
Six months after taking office, it has come to this: The 38-year-old mayor is isolated from other members of the City Council and feuding with the city manager. He is the subject of an investigation – about what prosecutors won't say.
Silva suffered what his own political consultant called a "meltdown" at a public meeting the other week. Due to an abscess, he is missing two teeth.
He fidgeted with his car keys and said he is depressed.
"What should I do?"
Silva, a former school board member and director of the Boys & Girls Club of Stockton, was never expected to become mayor of this city of nearly 300,000 people.
He had to move from a house he still owns outside the city limits to his current residence, a hotel downtown, just to qualify to run, and he finished second in a primary to the incumbent, Ann Johnston, by more than 19 percentage points.
But in the November runoff Silva surged. The general election followed an especially violent summer in Stockton. The Central Valley city posted a record number of homicides last year, and Silva, a Republican, yoked the Democratic incumbent to crime and the city's bankruptcy.
He won election with more than 59 percent of the vote.
"No one that I talked to before the election – the pundits that you talk to – would have predicted it," said Bob Benedetti, a political science professor at University of the Pacific in Stockton.
Silva viewed the outcome as a mandate and began to agitate at City Hall.
He proposed a sales tax increase to fund police and recruited William Bratton, the former New York City police commissioner and Los Angeles police chief, to promote the plan.
The city manager, Bob Deis, objected vigorously. With the council's backing and authority over Stockton's day-to-day operations, Deis held a politically superior position, and on policy matters he typically got his way.
It was apparent by May that Silva was becoming frustrated at work.
That month, in his State of the City address, Silva asked residents to "come to war with me and fight so we can change things here in Stockton, California."
He put on a gladiator helmet while on stage and raised a mace in his left hand. "Who's willing to fight for Stockton?" he asked.
If Silva was beginning to fray, the following month could hardly have been worse.
He announced in June that he would accept his mayoral salary of more than $100,000 a year, including back pay, after promising during the campaign to not take a salary until he balanced the city budget and restored its police presence.
A widely circulated, anonymous email aired a copy of a 2005 police report involving an accusation that Silva, a former water polo coach, secretly taped girls using his restroom and changing clothes at his home.
The city made public a separate, largely redacted report of an accusation of sexual battery, in which an unidentified woman said Silva insisted that she drink alcohol and touched her buttocks inappropriately in 2011.
Both complaints were investigated and no charges were filed.
Yet Deputy San Joaquin County District Attorney Robert Himelblau said Silva remains under investigation in another matter. He declined to elaborate.
Silva said the accusations contained in old police reports were false and politically motivated. He said he does not know what authorities are investigating but that he has done nothing illegal. He blamed his political opponents for fanning controversy.
"They're trying to create an image of somebody that I'm not," he said.
City Council meeting a 'disaster'
Earlier this month, Silva appeared to have an opportunity to reconcile. The City Council, which opposed Silva's effort to raise taxes, was poised to put a different, temporary tax measure on the November ballot. If Silva supported it, he could claim credit for pushing Deis and the council to embrace a tax increase.
Silva did vote for the measure – and took credit – but only after a speech in which he said he was disgusted with a city that "continues to treat people like crap."
Then, in a disagreement with the city manager about the substance of an earlier, private meeting, Silva suggested he had a recording, telling Deis, "I can play it if you want to."
Members of the audience called out, "Play it, play it."
Deis accused Silva of illegally taping their conversation, and the city asked the district attorney to open a criminal investigation. Later, Silva said he didn't tape the conversation – that he was only trying to elicit a reaction from Deis – but the episode was yet another setback.
"That City Council meeting was a real disaster," said Silva's political consultant, N. Allen Sawyer.
Sawyer called Silva's performance a "meltdown" and said he told the mayor he is his "own worst enemy on this small stuff."
Deis, who plans to retire in November, spoke to reporters the next day. He said council meetings under Silva have "devolved into what I think is the equivalent of a medieval town hall meeting. I'm waiting for a beer mug to be thrown at me, or a turkey bone."
In the local newspaper, the Record's longtime columnist, Michael Fitzgerald, called Silva "unfit for office."
Last week Silva tried damage control.
"Stockton's getting pounded, Stockton's getting pounded, Stockton's getting pounded," he said before speaking to a Republican group at a Marie Callender's off Interstate 5. "Now I come in and I'm getting pounded, I'm getting pounded."
Silva slammed his fist into his hand.
Silva was born in Stockton and grew up in a duplex in a poor part of town. His mother died of cancer when he was 18. He recounts this in public appearances to suggest he has "roots" and is ordinary, not among "folks that we'll call the elite."
After high school, Silva became a lifeguard trainer and taught first aid and CPR. He joined the Boys and Girls Club in 2005 and became its president that year.
Never married, he had a son, now 8, with a "person I didn't really know." He now shares custody.
He told the Republicans it's hard explaining to the boy "why you're on the TV all the time, and people are saying goofy things about you."
Silva said, "Basically, you know, a lot of people didn't expect that I was going to win And a lot of people didn't really want me to win."
The audience was largely sympathetic, but not all. Mike Wilson, past president of a Kiwanis Club in Stockton, said Silva spoke to his group several months ago, before controversy engulfed the mayor, and struck him as "articulate, intelligent, engaging, and watching him work the room, this guy has really got it going for him."
Wilson, 72, said he still feels that way but, "I also get the feeling that right now he's very much involved in being the lone wolf."
Leaving Marie Callender's, Wilson said he told his wife the mayor's presentation "sounds like 'poor me' It's all about Anthony, and 'poor me.' "
Residents embrace his populist rhetoric
At its best, Silva's populist rhetoric is appealing to many residents who have felt left out of political decisions made for years by more polished politicians.
At a council meeting Tuesday, former councilman Ralph Lee White, a south Stockton landlord and bail bondsman who also ran last year for mayor, told Silva, "You beat the system, that's why they're so hard on you right now."
A local warehouseman, Tom Lornson, said, "I want to let you know, Mr. Mayor, that you have the support of me and thousands of other Stockton residents."
Slouched on a burgundy and gold couch in his office after the meeting, Silva tucked one leg under the other and said people can identify with a politician who has teeth pulled and whose 10-year-old Honda Accord has surpassed 200,000 miles. He wasn't sure it would pass its smog check.
Silva was about to drive to Manteca to pick up his son. Like other people, he said, "I have baby-mama drama." He called his life "real, in a sense."
Silva may find more room to maneuver when Deis retires and a new city manager is hired. That is "if I can just make it" that long, Silva said.
The Record reported last week that the Boys & Girls Club's charter is under review and could be revoked. Silva plans to resign later this year and focus fully on his job as mayor.
The economy shows signs of recovery, and officials announced recently that violent crime receded in the first half of the year.
Sawyer, Silva's political adviser, said he encouraged Silva recently to be more temperate.
"I think he got the message. I really do," said Sawyer, who was sent to prison – and later exonerated – in a wide-ranging public corruption probe in San Joaquin County seven years ago. "The highs and lows have been way too extreme. There needs to be some moderation for the city's interest, not just his."
Silva acknowledges his image "got all smashed up" in recent weeks, and he would like to improve it.
He kept himself from confronting staff at the council meeting Tuesday, and when time reserved for members' comments came, he said simply, "I have nothing to say this evening."
Silva took pride in his restraint, texting a reporter from the dais: "I am being a good soldier tonight?"
Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.
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