SAN JOSE -- Donald Rocha hasn't hidden his frustration as a swing vote on a divided City Council. He's walked out on council members he disagrees with and openly questioned whether he'd seek a second term.
But in his bid for re-election, Rocha says he's served his Cambrian area District 9 in southwest San Jose well, and hopes that having only one, untested challenger means voters agree.
"I think that given the difficult three and a half years and the fiscal challenges that came up, to see just one individual running against me may be a sign that people think I've done a good job," said Rocha, elected the first time with the support of outgoing Councilwoman Judy Chirco, who also supports his re-election.
Rocha threw his hat in the ring back in 2010 because he didn't see anyone running that he was "wholeheartedly excited about." But that sentiment is echoed this time around by family therapist Lois Wilco-Owens, who calls the incumbent aloof and "bizarre."
"I talk to so many people who just say he doesn't show up, who don't know he's our council member," Wilco-Owens said. "There are holes in our streets and our lights are out and what does he do besides not get along with others? That bothers me."
In a year when rising crime and lagging firefighter response times are leading voter concerns, both candidates put public safety atop their to-do list. Rocha also acknowledges residents are weary of pothole-ridden roads.
The choice before district voters is whether Rocha's seasoned hand or Wilco-Owens' fresh face is more capable of delivering results.
In his first term, Rocha has been an enigma, both critical of the city leadership's efforts to rein in employee pay and perks, and frustrating to the unions that have long held sway over City Hall. He's defied unions by voting for pay cuts to close deficits and putting Mayor Chuck Reed's pension reforms before voters, who approved them by nearly 70 percent. But he's also joined the council's union critics in lashing out at the city leadership's approach, and now calls for peeling back much of Reed's pension reform measure.
His critics on the council see Rocha as petulant, even childish. He's left the council chamber during reports from council members he disagrees with and walked out during their closed-session performance review of former City Manager Debra Figone.
Rocha acknowledged he doesn't always get along with all his council colleagues.
"I think in any job you have people you work better with than you don't," he said. "And there are a couple of people who I don't know why they're in public service. We have different philosophical approaches."
But Rocha said he's pleased with the role he played in various council accomplishments, such as getting the budget largely into the black after a decade of deficits, adopting a general plan, boosting the city economy and approving "quality land development projects for both employment and housing."
On pension reform, Rocha said he stands by his work to help implement it even though portions have proved problematic.
"At the end of the day it's not perfect, but some of the issues we are struggling with now are the ones I had asked to change," he said, noting for example a provision that would allow the council to cut employee pay to help pay for rising pension costs. The city has put that provision on hold for at least a year and has approved raises to keep police officers and other workers from leaving. "I asked for that to be eliminated."
If Rocha has some mixed feelings about pension reform, so too does his opponent. Wilco-Owens said pension reform is necessary, given the high and growing cost of retirement plans that let career employees retire in their 50s with up to three-fourths of their pay -- nine-tenths for cops and firefighters -- with 3 percent annual increases. Under the pension reforms, new hires must work longer and receive smaller pensions, but changes for current employees are on hold pending litigation.
"They have a pretty sweet deal, yeah, and we can't allow them to bankrupt us," Wilco-Owens said.
But she often deals with officers and firefighters in her career and says that as a professional counselor she has the skills to reach an accord.
"I'm not certain they're responsible for all the problems," she said. "There is such a culture of cynicism toward the police, and that has driven them away."
One clear difference between the two contenders is whether to seek more taxes. Rocha wants to explore the idea.
"I think there may be an appetite for that," he said. "If residents are in support, there could be a sales tax for fiscal reform or a bond measure for street improvements."
Wilco-Owens objected to that notion.
"I don't think that's right," she said. "We're all paying as much tax as we ever have, and we're getting less."
Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.
Occupation: San Jose District 9 City Council member
Education: Bachelor of arts degree in political science with minor in philosophy, San Diego State
Hobbies: Coaching youth sports, playing adult basketball and soccer
Occupation: Family therapist
Education: Bachelor of arts degree in psychology/sociology; master of science in marriage and family therapy, San Jose State.
Hobbies: Fitness, tennis, golden retrievers