San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed's phone has been ringing a lot lately: the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Time, Fox, Vanity Fair and mayors from Los Angeles to Louisville.
Reed ran for mayor in 2006 with an unremarkable budget-balancing agenda for a city perhaps best known in song as a place you might not know the way to, even if it is the nation's 10th largest.
Now his sweeping pension reform measure has put San Jose on the national map with its overwhelming voter approval this month, drawing interest from city officials across the country who see Reed as a leader in grappling with a national epidemic of employee retirement bills that outpace revenues.
"It's being watched closely," said Greg Fischer, mayor of Louisville, Ky. He leads a U.S. Conference of Mayors committee looking at pension problems, and called going to voters for pension cuts that unions refused a bold but "realistic" move. "You've got to change something here or you're going to go out of business," he said.
National publications touted Reed's measure, a similar one in San Diego and the failed recall of Wisconsin's governor as signs of voter backlash against unions resisting cuts to generous government perks. A Vanity Fair piece featured Reed with former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the fire chief in bankrupted Vallejo as leaders struggling with governments that promised more than they can now afford.
Reed, 63, with two and a half years left in office,
Reed opposed the new building over its high cost.
But when asked why he's taking point on efforts to pare back public employee pensions, Reed hearkens back to his Vietnam War-era military career in the U.S. Air Force, something that has shaped his persona.
"Duty, honor, country," Reed said in is top-floor office, where the Air Force theme resonates.
"I didn't pick this as a reason to get involved in government," Reed continued. "But it landed on my desk, and I have to deal with it. I want to hand off a City Hall that's fiscally sound and solid to the next mayor."
Reed's critics include the city's unionized workers, retirees and fellow Democrats who have long linked arms with organized labor and see Reed as a Republican in donkey drag. To current and retired city workers, he's like the government leaders who broke treaties with tribal chiefs.
"It takes a certain mayor and City Council to say we're just going to renege on what we promised people," said Jim Unland, president of the San Jose Police Officers' Association. "They don't have a whole lot of honor."
But Lexington, Ky., Mayor Jim Gray, who had read about Reed in Vanity Fair and called him for advice after the Measure B vote, sees Reed as an inspiration.
"He's had the courage and determination to hang in there for years and wrestle a bear of a problem to the ground," Gray said.
Other cities have taken on pension reform, but Reed's Measure B went further and still was approved by nearly 70 percent of voters June 5.
San Francisco passed a measure last year that enjoyed labor and business backing. Unland said San Francisco's cooperative problem-solving is in stark contrast to Reed's "my way or the highway" approach.
"Arrogant is the word that comes to mind," Unland said. "We wanted to tackle these issues, as long as it was collaborative. But that word isn't in the mayor's vocabulary."
But critics dismiss San Francisco's pension measure as token reform.
Reed's measure challenges assumptions rooted in California court decisions that government employee pensions are untouchable for the remainder of their careers. Unions sued the morning after it passed, and Reed concedes its ultimate success is up to the courts. A lawyer himself, he's convinced the city's case is sound.
Reed's willingness to risk a legal fight others have avoided reflects a righteousness evident since childhood. Born in 1948, Charles Rufus Reed is the son of a heavy-equipment operator from Mississippi with an eighth-grade education who settled in Kansas after World War II. The family struggled financially and lived in public housing, with young Reed working jobs digging ditches, shoveling gravel, and driving bulldozers and big rigs. Christianity became a lifelong foundation.
Reed drew inspiration from the civil rights movement and never shied away from taking a stand. He's told of fighting a kid in second grade for "calling my friend the N-word." The civil-rights struggles, he has said, made him skeptical of those who like the segregationists were "absolutely convinced they were right."
In high school, Reed was an "A" student, class president and played on a championship basketball team. He chose the Air Force Academy because it was the toughest challenge he could find.
He met his wife, Paula, a nursing student, on a blind date in 1968, and has called her work with cancer patients tougher than his. Reed earned graduate degrees at Princeton and Stanford universities, and settled in San Jose, where he practiced environmental and land-use law.
Reed won a City Council seat in 2000 representing San Jose's northern district and became the council's fiscal and ethical scold, clashing with then-Mayor Ron Gonzales over spending and lobbyist influence.
As a mayoral candidate, Reed promised honesty, fiscal responsibility and open government, campaigning as the anti-Gonzales whose administration was caught up in a trash-contracting scandal. Reed was elected overwhelmingly over the vice mayor, Cindy Chavez, who was endorsed by nearly all of Reed's council colleagues and is now a labor leader.
Four years later, despite championing tax hikes, cutting services and clashing with unions over concessions to close budget deficits, Reed cruised to re-election over token opponents.
His overwhelming success in repeated citywide elections -- from tax measures to an arbitration-rights battle with police and firefighters -- is notable for a man seen as lacking a politician's easy charm. He's said to have told staffers after a dashing San Francisco mayor was caught up in a sex scandal that his lack of charisma has its upsides. Other observers say it's part of his appeal.
"Whatever you want to say about Chuck Reed, he's a no-nonsense guy," said San Jose State political-science professor Larry Gerston. "There's an unusual candor that comes out of Reed. Sometimes you don't like what he says or the way he says it because it's not polished and blunt. But you don't feel like he's holding back much. Reed's meat-and-potatoes approach to solving the spending problem is one that people heard."
Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346.
San Jose's retirement bill has more than tripled from $73 million to $245 million in a decade and could top $300 million in coming years.
To combat that, San Jose's Measure B limits retirement benefits for new city hires and requires current employees to either sign on to a cheaper, more modest pension for their remaining years or pay up to 16 percent more to continue with their existing plan. It also would allow the city to temporarily suspend cost-of-living pension increases for retirees in a fiscal emergency.