In 2014, the Santa Clara Youth Soccer League (SCYSL) became a political force in Santa Clara when it organized to protest what it called a “broken promise” on the part of 49ers owner Jed York to build new soccer fields for the league’s use. These would replace the Youth Soccer Park, adjacent to Levi’s Stadium, on stadium event days.
Two years later the league was now operating what could be described as a political machine, able to marshal public action and fill the Council Chamber to weigh in on questions far outside the concerns of a non-profit children’s athletic league—for example, the City’s attorney hiring decisions.
Then-Council Member Lisa Gillmor—whose husband is a SCYSL coach and until mid-2017, a director—was the movement’s Soccer Mom boss. The politically-charged “grassroots” website (Stand Up for Santa Clara, SUFSC)—founded and operated by four soccer league directors and executives: VP Gabe Foo, President Tino Silva, VP Steve Robertson and Referee and Field Scheduling Coordinator Burt Field—allied itself with perennial City critics and now had a network of social media feeds and bloggers rebroadcasting its messages and adding their own videos and commentaries.
The unanimous appointment of Gillmor as Mayor, after the sudden resignation of Jamie Matthews, was a win for the soccer league. Before—literally, earlier in the day—Gillmor was appointed, SUFSC called Gillmor “the leading candidate” for mayor. The Mercury News was flattering in its editorial, “Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor saying all the right things.”
A Politically Motivated Grand Jury Complaint?
Just as Gillmor was appointed, a complaint about stadium finances was lodged with the County Civil Grand Jury, although it’s unknown by whom. But what is known is that the Grand Jury was chaired by Gil Zamora, a forensic artist subsequently hired by SCYSL then-past and now current president Tino Silva to design campaign literature for Silva’s unsuccessful 2016 City Council campaign.
The Grand Jury investigation was general knowledge—Gillmor talked about it publically at Council meetings during the winter of 2016—although California law forbids the grand juries from discussing deliberations.
In March, Gillmor led the Council in refusing to negotiate a contractually required stadium rent reset with the 49ers, essentially saying that they didn’t trust their own staff’s, nor City auditor KPMG’s, calculations of stadium revenue and debt. These numbers would lower one component of the rent—the component that is based on expenses and outstanding debt—from $24 million to $20 million. That dispute is now in litigation.
When the Grand Jury published its report in June 2016, it made no finding about Measure J compliance, except to observe that there has never been a compliance review and recommend the City conduct one. It also found no evidence that stadium work wasn’t being reported correctly.
The Council hired Harvey M. Rose Associates—San Francisco’s legislative analyst—to conduct the compliance review, against City staff’s recommendation to hire a CPA firm.
The news media continued promoting Gillmor’s narrative. The Mercury News wrote, “Santa Clara mayor: City is spending tax dollars on Levi’s Stadium events,” in May before the Grand Jury report was published. “Santa Clara: Audit of Levi’s Stadium finances finds potential Measure J violations,” published in October, three months before any findings were due.
Gillmor’s “Rot and Stink” 2016 Campaign
The war on the 49ers became a cornerstone of the 2016 campaign, fueled by relentless flow of insinuation via public comment at Council meetings, social media and the mayor’s comments to newspapers and TV news.
In June, Gillmor told the Mercury, “nearly a dozen employees,” including police officers, told her they worked during 49ers games or non-NFL events at the stadium and didn’t report their work as stadium-related hours. Police Chief Mike Sellers told the Weekly that the first he heard of any such allegation was from a Mercury News reporter. Gillmor repeatedly encouraged City employees to “come forward” and share their suspicions.
She posed leading questions to Measure J compliance review consultant Fred Brousseau in front of a TV news camera. “Are we talking tens of thousands of dollars? Are we talking millions?” in unreimbursed hours, after he had reported that he had yet to find anything.
Gillmor repeatedly referred to City Hall “rot” and “stink” during the 2016 campaign in her attacks on Sellers and other political opponents, and endorsements of her slate: Patrick Nikolai for police chief, and Silva, Debi Davis, Teresa O’Neill and Kathleen Watanabe for City Council. All of this was repeated and promoted on SUFSC and through its network.
Gillmor’s supporters contorted themselves to find any 49ers connections to their opponents—going so far as to describes the phone number “4949” as evidence of hidden political ties and payments. The shadowy San Francisco PAC, Blupac, was a convient fall guy because, with the exception of $10,000 from San Francisco Police Union, its funding is hidden by its 501C(4) status.
The campaign featured a deluge of vicious negative campaigning, financed by $90,000 in developer money—from Prometheus, SummerHill, Related Companies, Citation Homes, the California Apartment Association and de Anza Properties—and most of it filtered through the Santa Clara police union PAC.
Gillmor’s role in the campaign was more active than her candidates.’
She wrote the misleading “letter from your Mayor” slate mailers and was the sole speaker at telephone political rallies billed as town hall meetings. Only one of Gillmor’s candidates, O’Neill, sent her own mailers. “I have my vision of Santa Clara,” Gillmor told the audience at one phone-in political rally.
The SCYSL was also connected to the campaign through its VP Gabe Foo, who provided $12,000 worth of political consulting to Davis, Silva and Watanabe, according to year-end 2016 campaign filings. The San José-based Foo Robertson Marketing LLC was incorporated Dec. 19, 2016—about six weeks after the election. The company has no Santa Clara business license and no website as of this writing.
In the weeks leading to the election Gillmor started saying that the 49ers were withholding information from the City Council and threatened to “take over” the stadium—to accolades from her fans, including the soccer league. Those charges precipitated a 49ers lawsuit alleging bad faith and breach of contract on the part of the City, currently in court.
The Mercury reported, “Santa Clara group claims 49ers’ ‘dark money’ is influencing election” and in April, after everyone had forgotten about the election, one columnist interviewed brought the insinuations back to public notice with an interview with Field,
“Stripping the facade from Blupac.”
The Soccer League Attempts to Stifle the Press
The week after the 2016 election, Stand Up For Santa Clara spokesman Burt Field sent a letter to the City Council demanding that the City stop publishing legal notices in the Santa Clara Weekly.
This wasn’t the soccer league’s first attack on the Weekly.
It was preceded by a plethora of lies propagated throughout Gillmor’s fan network that the Weekly was owned by the 49ers and was behind the anti-Gillmor Blupac.
Gillmor and Related consultant Jude Barry met with a terminated Weekly employee-turned-blogger to discuss starting a newspaper in the fall of 2016, Barry told Weekly publisher Miles Barber.
But the new-media propaganda machine got side-tracked by its attacks on the Weekly, and the Mercury editorial board published an editorial sharply critical of Santa Clara’s old-boy City Council. So Gillmor took a trip out of town and in June she had a closed door meeting with the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board.
Emerging from the backroom session for an on-camera chat with the editorial page editor, Gillmor announced that Harvey M. Rose Associates’ eight-months overdue Measure J compliance report “would show violations of the 2010 ballot measure’s prohibition on the tapping of city general funds for the stadium.”
It was the same PR strategy she had used so successfully in the past. But this time it didn’t have the same effect. Instead of the news media flocking to hear her version of the story, they were flocking to leaked copies of the report.
The Chronicle published its story about a week later. The Weekly received a full copy a few days later. And the Mercury posted the report online last month, along with corrections and comments from 49ers and the City’s accountants.
Next week we’ll take a look at who’s won and who’s lost so far in Gillmor’s war on the 49ers.
The “Current Santa Clara Council War on 49ers” series can be viewed under City Politics on our website www.SantaClaraWeekly.com.
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