Susan Hammer, the trailblazing 62nd mayor of San Jose known for her infectious laugh and push for diversity and equity, died Saturday. She was 81.
Hammer’s family made the announcement Sunday afternoon, citing health reasons. Hammer, who battled Alzheimer’s disease, was surrounded by family and friends.
“We are heartbroken at Mom’s passing and feel so grateful for her boundless love for her family,” her son Matt Hammer said in a statement. “She was our model of living a life of compassion and devotion to community.”
Terry Christensen, a longtime political scientist and San Jose State University professor, met Hammer in the 1970s when the pair worked as neighborhood activists championing grassroots causes, such as establishing district elections in San Jose. Christensen watched as Hammer was appointed and then elected to the San Jose City Council from 1983 to 1990, representing the city’s downtown core, before eventually becoming the city’s second female mayor in 1990. She served two terms until 1998.
“It was fun to watch her through that process and see her blossom into what she was capable of,” Christensen told San José Spotlight on Sunday. “She was a very good mayor in a pretty difficult time.”
During her time, Christensen said, the city faced gaping budget deficits and Hammer’s hands were tied when it came to spending. Instead, Hammer focused her efforts on shifting redevelopment money from the city’s downtown to help underserved neighborhoods and to fund social services, a trailblazing move that helped pave roads and fix infrastructure in some of San Jose’s neediest areas.
She also spearheaded the city’s efforts to hire and appoint minorities and people of color, making diversity a cornerstone of her legacy. She hired the city’s first African American city manager, Regina Williams, in 1998.
Mayor Sam Liccardo on Sunday shared a touching story about how he met the former mayor.
As a young candidate for City Council, he drove to Hammer’s house for advice. She shared her “time, advice and encouragement” with Liccardo — just before his Chrysler broke down in her driveway.
“She didn’t bat an eye — she helped me get a ride, and let the car sit at her house until I could get it towed the next day,” Liccardo said.
Liccardo said he spent a few moments with Hammer on Saturday evening during her final hours.
“Susan was an extraordinary role model for me and entire generations of aspiring leaders. She was a study in contrasts — she had a deep commitment to underserved communities, a steadfast civility in the face of heated disagreement, and a genuine humility despite her tremendous professional and personal accomplishments,” he said. “I know I’m not alone in saying that I will miss her tremendously.”
Christensen also credits Hammer with creating a collaborative partnership between the city and San Jose State University to build the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in the heart of downtown. She also created the Mayor’s Gang Task Force to help curb youth violence on the streets.
“Susan Hammer was really unique as an elected official — so different from any other I’ve known,” said Margie Matthews, a former San Jose councilmember and council assistant to Hammer, in a statement. “She was driven by public service, never by her by ego. Her tenure as mayor of San Jose was remarkable for the number of women in leadership positions and she was at the center of it all. Susan was a mentor to all of us, and I was honored to be her friend and colleague.”
Blanca Alvarado, a former San Jose vice mayor and Hammer’s close friend, said Hammer wanted to be remembered “as a builder of community, a mayor who put families first, championed the potential of people, fostered social action and changed the face of the city by nurturing its spirit.”
“I can’t think of a better way to honor Mayor Hammer than to remember her in this way,” Alvarado added.
Even after leaving City Hall, Hammer remained politically active by endorsing candidates and causes, as well as hosting fundraisers. She also got involved with advocacy for charter schools and arts and culture, with the Hammer Theatre in downtown San Jose being named after her.
“Our first acquaintance was grassroots,” Christensen said. “It’s too bad more people in politics don’t start that way because she never got far from those roots.”
Christensen recently interviewed Hammer on his political talk show, Valley Politics, in what could be the final public interview with Hammer.
But her biggest joy, Christensen said, was spending time with her children and grandchildren.
Hammer was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease several years ago, according to her family and friends, and it progressed rapidly over the past several months. Hammer is survived by husband Phil, her three children Bo, Hali and Matt, their spouses and six grandchildren.
No public ceremony to celebrate Hammer’s life has been scheduled. The family encourages donations to be made to ACE Charter Schools, the Susan Hammer Scholarship at City Year San Jose/Silicon Valley, or MACLA.