Who does no. 2 work for? As Chuck Reed’s chief of staff, Pete Furman is San Jose’s most powerful political upstart.
By Vrinda Normand
FORGET the red sports car and hair plugs. When 46-year-old Pete Furman hit his midlife crisis, he chose politics.
Despite having no roots in San Jose or political experience anywhere, Furman found an unusual shortcut into his new post as chief of staff for incoming mayor Chuck Reed: he earned his trust.
Furman’s sincerity and humility—rare in an arena filled with inflated egos—certainly helped. He shares with Reed a straightforward, analytical yet unassuming air, although his warm brown eyes betray a softness that’s not as apparent in the new mayor’s brisk manner.
The upstart also showed up in the right place at the right time. With San Jose’s leadership emerging from a cloudy period that saw the district attorney indict four members of the Gonzales administration, including his budget director Joe Guerra, new faces are more than welcome.
“Pete doesn’t owe anybody anything,” says James Reber, Reed’s former fundraising manager who worked with Furman when he first joined the campaign. “The old guard at City Hall thinks [his job] should have gone to an insider, but Ron Gonzales hired an insider and it was disastrous.”
Furman is one of several newcomers who represent a new generation of power players at City Hall. Councilmembers Sam Liccardo and Pete Constant also start this year with little political experience, and both have embraced Reed’s reform agenda.
“They have no connection whatsoever to the troubles of past here in the city,” Reed says about the new kids on the block. “They come with a fresh view and willingness to do things differently.”
Not everybody sees it as a revolution. Forrest Williams, currently in middle of his second term representing District 2, says that a lot of council business will be the same, such as keeping communities safe, overseeing code enforcement, running community centers, changing zoning and approving big developments.
“There’s no room for us to say it’s going to be a whole different thing,” Williams says, “If things were really so bad, we would never have been able to get anything done.”
“You’re talking about one person,” he adds, referring to Gonzales. “The council was still able to be logical and think ahead.”
As an outsider looking in, however, Furman saw things from a different perspective. He moved to San Jose in 2004 and started watching City Council meetings on television. His first impression: “Some good help was needed.”
“There are a lot of folks who get involved in politics who don’t speak the same language as Silicon Valley entrepreneurs,” he explains. “It’s weird that San Jose is the ‘Capital of Silicon Valley,’ but it appears that some of our technology and the way we interact with our citizens doesn’t reflect [that title].”
Over 20 years of experience in the aerospace industry, much of it spent in management interpreting tech-speak, gave Furman the confidence to step forward.
Starting Over At the Top
By the time Furman had graduated from high school at 18, he was married and had his first child. He went through college, graduated with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, and worked designing engines for small airplanes all while raising a family.
Being tied down at such a young age, however, had its benefits. Going into his 40s, Furman’s two daughters were already grown. He and his second wife, Lisa, had built a comfortable nest egg, enough to leave Minnesota and settle in the South Bay.
So Furman snagged the opportunity to do something completely different when he moved to downtown San Jose: he began to dabble in local politics. His inspiration, he says, was a calling to public service and the yearning to adopt a hometown by getting involved with the community.
He joined his neighborhood group, the St. James Historic District, and assisted the Coalition for a Downtown Hospital. Roz Dean, one of the Coalition’s founders, says Furman impressed her as being an “intelligent doer” and “somebody who was interested in participating, not just talking.”
This earnest attitude also got Furman in the door when he approached Reed in the fall of 2005 when the candidate was revving up his mayoral campaign.
“I had a lot of respect for Chuck,” Furman says, “I thought, ‘That guy’s got his head on straight.’ I agreed with his priorities. The way about him resonated with who I am.”
He introduced himself after a study session at City Hall one afternoon. “I walked right up to him,” Furman remembers. “I said, “You don’t know me; I don’t live in your district, but I’m interested in public service. Can I talk with you sometime about how to do that?”
Reed was cautious because he says a lot of people offer him their help who aren’t actually interested in working. “It’s usually a waste of time,” he says, “People you never met before want to give you high-level advice.”
“But you just never know.”
So he took a chance on Furman.
They met on the 18th floor at City Hall the following week. Reed was impressed with Furman’s background and assured when he offered his unconditional support.
“Just tell me what you want,” Furman told the councilmember, “and I will do it.”
When Furman joined Reed’s campaign, he started with the grunt work. But he would quickly prove his worth and become a key player.
“It got to the point where I was spending more awake time with [Reed] than anybody,” Furman says. “At the end of that process, I have more respect for him than I did walking into it. I wish everyone in the city got to see the Chuck Reed I got to see.”
Furman’s first assignment at Reed’s campaign headquarters was to help Reber with the fundraising grind. He started calling potential donors and giving them the mayoral candidate’s “Honesty, Fiscal Responsibility, and Open Government” rap.
The competition was heavy with a crowded field of political candidates in the primary and general election races. Furman stayed cool and took charge of running the donor database.
“He made my life much easier,” Reber says about his understudy. “He’s an Excel whiz, he’s always on time and he’s positive.”
The fundraising manager eventually told Reed that Furman no longer needed to be supervised.
Reed, it turned out, needed a personal assistant and driver to help him get through his whirlwind days with maximum efficiency. He promoted Furman to the position, which was a significant sign of trust because the politician had never before ceded control of his car or schedule.
“Unfortunately, I’m really good at keeping track of myself,” Reed says. “I was reluctant to give that up. But it was something that I had to do.”
Furman says he was honored to take the job. He started the days with Reed at 8am and finished well into the evenings when the candidate went home.
In beginning, Furman remembers with a grin, Reed still controlled the exact route they took in the car. “He was watching every move, every turn that I was making,” he says.
Eventually Reed relaxed a bit—although not completely—just as he began to loosen-up in his public image.
By the end of the primary, Furman had grown so close to the candidate that he was helping him prepare for public appearances. “OK, Chuck,” he would say, “You had a hard day. But you’re gonna have to smile and be a little more open and friendly.”
There were also times when Furman saw Reed walk into a debate despite being exhausted. “I watched him put it aside, get his game face on, take a look at his speech notes, and then not read a thing. I know it wasn’t easy,” he says.
Afterward, Reed would ask his assistant for feedback. “Mostly he wanted to hear what he could have done better,” Furman says. “Sometimes my answer to that question was a little harsh: you never did smile in the whole second half of that debate. The tone of your voice in this one wasn’t right.”
Those pointers weren’t as necessary as the finish line came within sight. Furman says he saw Reed grow immensely as a candidate.
Now he’ll have the best behind-the-scenes view to see him grow as the mayor.
“My job is still one of service, and it will continue to be one of service to Chuck Reed for eight years, hopefully,” Furman says, adding:
“I’m sure that I’ll continue to be one of his reality checks.”
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