The Profiler: Mayor Marie Gilmore
The Profiler: Mayor Marie Gilmore
Mayor Marie Gilmore. Contributed photo.
Who would think the Island of Dominica in the Lesser Antilles region of the Caribbean would have anything in common with the Island of Alameda in the bustling San Francisco Bay? They do, indeed, share some common traits.
Both have a population of just over 70,000. Both are destinations unto themselves (you don’t pass through them to get anywhere). And both have been home to Mayor Marie Gilmore.
Here in Alameda, Gilmore, 52, has spent two decades in public life – a stay she hopes to extend into a second mayoral term. Voters will decide whether to extend her history-making reign as the city’s first black mayor in November 2014.
“My chief aim in running for re-election is to continue the momentum with Alameda Point and the city's finances,” said Gilmore, referencing the city’s recently upgraded bond rating, which she said is the highest in the East Bay.
The unofficial greeter at Mayor Gilmore’s City Hall office is furry, four-legged Fergie, a friendly little wisp of a Javanese. The day I entered the mayor’s office, a week or so before Halloween, the former petite pageant princess was already dressed for fall, sporting a little orange and black bow on her head.
“Fergie gets my day going,” Gilmore said of the city’s First Dog. “We’re out for a walk first thing, then I feed her and then I hit the gym. If it doesn’t happen in the morning then it doesn’t happen.”
Despite her disciplined attempts at strength training, Gilmore says a recent tear in her Achilles tendon has kept her off the tennis courts she loves. Still, she started her civic career working to ensure that Alameda’s courts and parks are in fine shape for the rest of us.
Gilmore joined Recreation and Park Commission in 1992, just three years after moving to Alameda. At the time, she was a young mom taking a break from practicing labor law to raise a rambunctious toddler, Anthony, whose prescription for a good night’s sleep was to run like crazy through the park during the day.
“Since I spent so much time in Alameda’s parks observing the programs for kids and talking to people, it seemed that was a good place to start,” Gilmore said of the beginning of her civic career. “It was my way of giving back.”
Soon after joining the Recreation and Park Commission, Gilmore gave birth to a baby girl, Nicole. When Gilmore’s full plate didn’t deter the late Mayor
Ralph Appezzato from offering her a position on the Planning Board, in 1994, she accepted; she served until 2003, leading the board in her final few years before being asked to fill the late Al DeWitt’s seat on the City Council.
Gilmore bested a dozen candidates to win appointment to the council, in September 2003, reportedly emerging as a consensus candidate after council members deadlocked on now-Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and the late Jean Sweeney. DeWitt’s widow, Virginia, reportedly said in a letter to the council that she believed her late husband would have wanted Gilmore to replace him on the dais “not because she is black – but that was important to him – but because she represents so much of Al's legacy and his ideas.”
Still, Gilmore – who was the first black woman on Alameda’s City Council in its 150-year history – told the Oakland Tribune that she believed diversity was important.
"If you see someone who looks like yourself up there you tend to think the process will be more democratic and someone will listen to you," Gilmore told the Tribune in 2003.
An only child, Gilmore immigrated with her family when she was two years old. Following a brief stay in New York, the Caribbean immigrants settled in Santa Barbara, where her father studied photography at Brooks Institute.
Gilmore said that Santa Barbara back then was very different from the Santa Barbara of today. When Gilmore lived there, she said, the city’s now-iconic Spanish style El Paseo filled with gardens, restaurants and shops, wasn’t so lovely.
“It used to be pretty derelict. You didn’t go there after dark unless you were looking for trouble,” Gilmore recalled.
From Santa Barbara, it was onward to “The Farm” – Stanford University – where as an entering freshman Gilmore admitted, “I had no clue what I wanted to do.” Gilmore said she waited until the last moment before declaring a major, “because there were so many things that interested me.”
Alameda’s future mayor ended up a human biology major, saying that Stanford’s program had a scientific side, but also a “social science side of it, where you study sociology and psychology to understand how the mental aspect of people works.”
Required to design an area of concentration for herself, which she said becomes a sort of major within a major, she chose public policy. Gilmore didn’t foresee it at the time, but it certainly served her well.
“I wish I could say that I knew back in college that public policy as my area of concentration … would lead to intense engagement in civic life. It was simply what fired my imagination at the time,” Gilmore said.
Both the former Marie Robinson and her husband, Rodney Gilmore, received their undergraduate degree from Stanford, and both attended Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law. Apparently, it took a bit of time and effort for Rodney to get Marie to notice him.
“Rodney likes to say he met me at Stanford and I met him at Boalt,” Gilmore said.
Rodney Gilmore commutes to a different college campus every week as an ESPN college football commentator, while keeping his day job as an attorney practicing corporate law. He usually leaves town for the game on Thursday and doesn’t return home until Sunday morning, making it a challenge for the Gilmores to find a date night between Tuesday night City Council meetings and other civic events. But his wife holds out hope.
“It’ll get better come December when the season ends,” said Gilmore, who, like her husband is a big sports fan and loves to go to games together when given the opportunity.
Good time management and priorities, Gilmore said, were the keys to her success during her early days of service in Alameda. She credited her ability to juggle a husband, two young ones and the call to civic duty to the organizational skills she gleaned as an attorney.
“Time management is something that I’ve always done,” Gilmore said. “It’s something that you do as a lawyer working for a private firm. You bill your time in six-minute increments!”
Still, she said, she made a commitment early on not to let her family suffer as a result of her civic participation. Gilmore said she logged one day a week as a volunteer in her daughter’s kindergarten class and cheered her son on from the sidelines of his games. Two decades later, her son now lives and works in San Francisco, while Gilmore’s daughter, now 20, is attending college.
Fast-forward to 2008, when as a member of the Alameda City Council, she saw her own shot at the redevelopment she said worked “spectacularly” in Santa Barbara come to fruition with the restoration and opening of the historic Alameda Theatre. Gilmore – who was one of three council members who voted for the controversial project – credited the theater with enhancing the vitality of Park Street.
“You walk down Park Street and there’s a there, there!” Gilmore said. “I give (former Mayor) Beverly Johnson all kinds of credit for that. It was a huge fight.”
Another major challenge Gilmore faced as a member of the City Council was the construction of the new main library, due to the cost and scarcity of steel. Plans for the library were in the works at the same time China was gearing up for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, she said, and steel prices were not only soaring, but the material itself was in short supply. Despite the challenging circumstances, Gilmore said, the city got the library built on time and on budget.
With the major projects of the theater and library under her belt as a council member, Mayor Gilmore said her next goal is to “see that first shovel in the ground and dirt turned at Alameda Point.” As mayor, Gilmore said she spends most of her time “thinking and talking about Alameda Point.”
Getting the deeds to Alameda Point from the Navy this past June is what Gilmore considers to be her greatest accomplishment so far as mayor. At the ceremony announcing the transfer of the deeds, Mayor Gilmore hailed the development as not only good for our Island economy, but said it also “presents a great opportunity for a more sustainable economic recovery for the Bay Area."
The mayor listed “the care and feeding of local businesses” at the Point as a priority, visiting businesses there, ascertaining why they moved here and how to keep them here.
“The best marketers for Alameda are those who are already here and successful,” she said. “That’s the best way to attract new business.”
In Alameda, there’s always a fine line to walk between development and maintaining that small-town feel, said Gilmore, who said she hasn’t thought about politics beyond her re-election.
“Even though we’re a town of 75,000 people, we act and behave like we’re 35,000,” she said.
And how would she like Alamedans to think of her?
“As someone who really cared about the town and its people,” she said, “and who tried to do right by both to the best of her ability.”