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Palo Alto Online
Publication Date: Wednesday, October 22, 2003|
The dark horses
The dark horses
(October 22, 2003) 'Outsider' council candidates say time is ripe for change
by Bill D'Agostino
When 135 Californians looked in the mirror and saw the state's next governor, the world laughed.
But Palo Alto nodded, and recognized its own tradition of outsider politics. As is the case every election, there are a few dark horse candidates -- with little to no political backing -- who hope to win a seat on the Palo |Alto City Council Nov. 4.
Ronny Bar-Gadda, an inventor who sees himself as a political outsider, is running for the first time. But the other three underdogs have run before. Edmund Powers has mounted a campaign for City Council in every local election since 1987.
"I won't get elected ... but at least I'm making a protest," Power said.
Edmund Power doesn't believe you will read the real account of why he is running for City Council.
"You couldn't publish it because the Weekly is part of the establishment," he told a reporter.
For the last 15 years, Power has been a protest candidate -- endlessly decrying the city's decision to close the Palo Alto harbor and return it to its natural state. Power's 21-foot sailboat, "Tiger," was tied up there and was apparently the last boat to leave.
In 1980, voters rejected a plan to keep the harbor open.
"I've been asking the government-then and subsequent governments if they could provide justification for the actions of the city," Power said.
A frequent face in council meeting for the last two decades, the 85-year-old retired toolmaker recently spoke to the elected body -- after a brief vacation -- wearing red pants and a multi-colored plastic jacket. His gray hair, as usual, was standing up straight.
"I'm back," he told the council in his brusque voice, before launching into his usual diatribe.
In 1996, Power shocked the audience and received snickers -- but also applause -- when he sang a surprisingly good rendition of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" during his comments at a council meeting. Over the years, he's also belted "I Wander Today to the Hill, Maggie," "Believe Me of All Those Endearing Young Charms," and "Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes" at public meetings.
Power said he's running because the council "could do with a few honest people" but later admits he doesn't really want to sit up on the dais making decisions. Or at least, "I wouldn't toe the line to get there."
"It seems like I'm the only one who wants honesty in democracy enough to stick his neck out," he said.
Ronny Bar-Gadda, an engineer, proudly boasts that he has no experience in the political arena.
"I consider that an asset," he said, later adding: "I think you're going to see some major surprises or upsets in the City Council election."
Bar-Gadda has started two companies to help sell his various inventions. The latest, he noted, is a cheap process that produces hydrogen from water. "The potential application, obviously, is our entire fuel economy."
During the campaign, Bar-Gadda has criticized the role he believes special interests play in the city by pouring money into elections. That has led to a city government that lacks vision and is out of touch with its citizens, he argued.
"There seems to be a friction between what the city government wants and what the people want," he said.
For instance, Bar-Gadda is really bothered by the traffic barriers -- which he calls "blockers" -- that are now part of a trial calming program in a neighborhood near downtown.
"Simply re-orienting traffic onto other streets is not the solution," he said.
If he was elected, Bar-Gadda would begin public forums where a common vision of the city could be created. Theoretically that was done in 1998, when the city wrote its "Comprehensive Plan." But Bar-Gadda -- who wasn't aware of the plan until he was asked about it by a reporter -- said it must be flawed since things have gotten worse since then.
"It's either out of date or disconnected from reality," he said.
For a decade, John Fredrich has taught social studies to scores of Palo Alto youth at Gunn High School. He has also been a quiet political radical.
"I'm more of a socialist than anything," he said.
Before his days as a teacher, Fredrich wasn't so quiet. He ran three times, unsuccessfully, for Palo Alto City Council. Fredrich is back because he considers the political climate -- especially residents' frustration with the current council -- ripe for him to get elected.
"There's going to be a low turn-out with a lot of people with an ax to grind," he said.
In the race, Fredrich -- who got his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Stanford University -- is not seeking financial contributions, or endorsements.
"It's the pandering and the influence pedaling part of it that I don't like," he said. "That's the mother's milk of politics these days -- not necessarily the money, but the way in which you give the assurances that get your ducks in a row. At that point, you stop being able to weigh the stake-holders evenly and become somebody who's bought, basically."
In recent years, Fredrich has worked on the board of residents that helped push for, and get approval of, the new Opportunity Center, a building that will provide housing and services for the homeless.
Like other candidates, Fredrich argues the current council is out of touch.
"The biggest problem in the community is the government isn't representative of the broad interest of the city," he said. "Its cliquish and insider and so forth."
Fredrich is also opposed to fluoride in the water, and supports Nov. 4's Measure B, which -- if passed -- would remove the cavity-fighting substance from the city's water supply.
"I haven't drunk tap water in 10 years," he said. "I think there are too many darn chemicals in it."
While most candidates campaign for City Council by walking the streets of Palo Alto, Victor Frost's home is the streets. He campaigns by sitting at his usual spot across the street from Whole Foods supermarket, accepting loose change and chatting up the customers.
By his account, Frost was raised in foster homes in Palo Alto since he was 9 years old, when his parents died in an automobile accident. He attended local schools, including Ravenswood High School, and then UC San Diego and Humboldt State University before landing a job as an engineer for a local division of the Sony Corp.
A few years ago, Frost was fired from his job. At that point, he said, his life hit bottom.
"I was getting ready to get married. I had a real nice place to live -- wall-to-wall two-bedroom apartment, four wheel drive, a stereo you wouldn't believe. You could hear it two blocks away if I turned it up. A big ass TV, and a lifestyle that was quote-unquote secure and very comfortable," he said.
After finding himself on the streets, Frost sought help but was not satisfied by a local nonprofit's methods, saying its style amounted to, "Here's your coffee, here's where you get something to eat. Here's your bus ticket. Next."
Sitting on the railroad tracks later, Frost vowed "to make things right in Palo Alto for anybody who loses their job, who doesn't have a place to go, to get real help in the way of fresh nutritious food and day labor and child care if need be."
During his years on the street, Frost has experienced numerous run-ins with the law. A few years ago, a Stanford student filed a restraining order against him. He claims to have been in love with her and wanted to stop "professionals" from abusing her.
"I stepped in, and in doing so, the professionals took me to court over that," he said.
In recent years, Frost also began rekindling his school-age love of politics, speaking in front of the City Council. But he found he wasn't being taken seriously.
"All of a sudden I go, 'Wait a minute. If I run for City Council, and I get on the City Council, then they'll have to listen to me about homeless issues -- period -- and we'll do something about it,'" he said. "Now is that correct? That's correct."
In the last election, Frost received more than 500 votes, beating Power by a small handful.
On May 1, Frost and a few other homeless people filed a claim against the city, saying cops ticketed and towed their car because they knew the 1978 Toyota belonged to the homeless. "This is Homeless bashing, and will not continue in my hometown," Frost wrote in a rambling, but mostly coherent, 11-page letter to the city. The city rejected the claim and Frost said a lawsuit is "sitting on my lawyer's desk right now."
While he campaigns, Frost is also writing a book with his laptop, entitled "Love on the Tracks."
"It's going to very deep -- about homeless issues, about suicide, about starving, about barfing your guts out after eating a bad meal at the local kitchen, about not having a girlfriend and constant harassment from cops, not having any money for clothes or taking a shower, having to use a garden hose for a shower, (and) the chances that once you go down, it's twice as hard to go up."
E-mail Bill D'Agostino at firstname.lastname@example.org