The first woman to serve as mayor of Santa Clara, Judy Nadler, has a favorite story she likes to share. It happened not long after she was elected in 1994 for the first of two, four-year terms. Nadler was visiting an elementary school classroom.
“Can boys be mayors, too?” a 3rd grade boy asked her.
Can girls be mayors, too?
Santa Clara, which became a state-chartered city in 1862, has had 57 different mayors since it incorporated as a town in 1852. Only three women have served as mayor during this 164-year history: Judy Nadler, followed by Patricia M. Mahan (2002 – 2010) and Lisa Gillmor, appointed February 17, 2016, to complete the term of Jamie Matthews following his resignation.
At the invitation of the Santa Clara Weekly the three madame mayors met in Mayor Gillmor’s City Hall office last May to share their insights and encourage other women to set their own political sights high. Nadler and Mahan, who also responded by email, shared the wisdom of hindsight.
“I was the first woman elected mayor, and while it can be challenging, there is no reason I can think of to deter or dissuade other women for running for this office,” said Nadler, who doesn’t think she was treated differently because she was a woman–except, perhaps, more politely at times. On a few occasions, it was assumed that her husband was the mayor.
Mahan agrees that her gender was not an issue.
“It’s so much more common and taken for granted now that women are equal, can do anything, belong anywhere,” said Mahan.
“I would definitely recommend local politics to other women as a way to make a difference in your community. It’s a great way to be involved, to get ‘a place at the table’ when community issues are being discussed and decided,” said Mahan.
Before becoming mayor, all three women had been active in the community and served on the City Council. They encouraged young women–as well as 3rd grade boys–to lay the groundwork for political service well before opportunity knocks, as it did unexpectedly for Gillmor.
“Get involved in your own community. Join service clubs, charitable organizations, boards and commissions. These are the best way to know the people and the issues of your community. Volunteer. Don’t be afraid to take on new responsibility,” said Mahan. “I believe one only learns to be a leader by serving others.”
“Don’t be afraid,” advised Nadler. ” Don’t believe in people who tell you to wait until you are ‘ready.’ Surround yourself with ethical people who are truly looking out for the best needs of our city. Be brave, even when you may be a minority voice. Never forget that you are not just an elected official, you are first and foremost a public servant.”
“You must be mentally tough, a good listener, quick learner, diplomatic, and be ready to put in long hours. That is true for men and women,” said Nadler.
Asked about her legacy as mayor, Mahan said, “I am sure others will say my legacy is [Levi’s] Stadium, for better or worse.”
“For me, though, I feel the best things I did were the neighborhood improvements–like the streets, sidewalks and sewers in the south of Forest neighborhood….I also feel that what I have done in the area of historic preservation of our city’s precious resources has been significant and worthwhile,” continued Mahan.
“The planning and approval of our world-class Central Park Library is one of my proudest accomplishments,” said Nadler. “And I am very pleased that I recommended and had full council support to apply for the highly competitive and prestigious All-America City Award, which we won in 2001. [Also,] the development and adoption of our award-winning Ethics and Values program…has been an important milestone.”
“Santa Clara is a tale of two cities – modern and innovative yet with the values, ethics and tradition of a city that goes back [to 1852],” said Gillmor, whose legacy, of course, is yet to be determined. “We’re not afraid to put ourselves out there.”
“I really understand what quality of life means to the community. I understand the need to balance needs of citizens and the business community. And the need to keep educated on the issues,” continued Gillmor, noting the challenge of finding enough “time for the reams and reams of information we’re supposed to read and understand about the City.”
Was it worth it?
“Serving Santa Clara as Mayor was one of the best things I have done in my life. I hope that I had an overall positive influence on my city, because I love Santa Clara. It’s the best city in the world,” said Mahan.
“But you can’t swear in public or wear your slippers out of the house,” she added.
Nadler ended the three Madame Mayors’ conversation with another story. A young girl and her mother ended up in the same checkout line as Nadler at a grocery store. The girl excitedly pointed out the mayor to her mother.
“We have a picture of you with our daughter,” the mother said to Nadler. “Most people never get to meet the mayor.”