Chico Mayor Scott Gruendl handles weighty political issues, a demanding day job and living with HIV
If someone had posed the old question, “Where do you see yourself in five years,” to Scott Gruendl back in 2000, the answer could have been a real downer.
After literally running himself ragged for Chico City Council and then state Senate to no avail, Gruendl was discouraged and in debt. Soon, he found himself near death due to a rare form of meningitis. And it looked like his HIV-positive status could bump his health down from bad to worse.
But five years later, Gruendl is on top of the world. The sting of his political losses was replaced by victory in the 2002 Chico City Council race, and now he’s mayor—and loving it.
“I’m healthier than I’ve ever been.” said Gruendl, who hits the gym daily. His body is toned, his face is animated and, best of all, his viral load is undetectable.
He’s also very busy.
Gruendl’s cell phone lies in wait on the coffee table in the tidy, stylishly decorated home in the Doe Mill Neighborhood that he shares with his partner of 10 years. Beneath the glass-topped table, the couple’s reading material of choice is fanned out: Architectural Digest, some cooking magazines and The Advocate.
The phone lets out one of two distinct rings. That way, he can tell if someone’s calling on city business or for his day job, as deputy director of Glenn County’s Human Resources Agency. “Depending on what tone the ring is, I will either answer it or let voicemail pick it up,” he explains.
Gruendl’s day job, based 35 minutes away in Willows, calls on him to do everything from balance a $25 million budget to intervene in a Child Protective Services case. It’s the county calls he answers right away.
But Chico residents know him, he hopes, as their mayor.
It’s a role he relishes.
“It’s so fun,” he said. “Everyone wants you to do something. It’s like all of a sudden you’re important.”
Gruendl is no egomaniac, but he admits it is pretty cool to be the person many call when they want something done. Even though Chico has a “weak-mayor” system of government, with a councilmember chosen by his or her colleagues to lead the pack, “The mayor actually has more influence than I think people realize.”
City Manager Tom Lando praised Gruendl. “He’s a very articulate guy, a very good spokesperson for the city,” he said. “He hasn’t had any learning curve. And he’s available when we need him.”
Not everyone wanted him to be mayor at first, however, even though he’d served well as vice mayor, the usual stepping stone to the mayor’s post.
Maureen Kirk, pushed last December by conservative Councilmen Larry Wahl, Steve Bertagna and Dan Herbert to re-up as mayor, instead backed Gruendl.
Herbert worried that Gruendl, working so far away, couldn’t be everywhere a mayor needed to be. It’s a job that takes about 20 to 25 hours a week, former mayors figure. And Herbert, Wahl and Bertagna found Gruendl too liberal for their liking.
“It was below the belt,” said Kirk, who dressed down her conservative colleagues at the meeting for refusing to vote Gruendl for mayor.
“I am a liberal,” Gruendl agrees. “I have a little bit of a reputation that needs to be lived down from when I was on the Planning Commission. I was aggressive, extremely liberal and had a pretty big chip on my shoulder. I was younger, more naïve. It was almost 10 years ago.”
Working on the city’s General Plan Task Force, he wasn’t shy about speaking his mind, and, Gruendl said, “I earned a reputation that follows me to this day.
“I also learned that, by focusing on the extreme approach, one can just as easily not be reappointed to the commission.”
Kirk agrees that Gruendl learned his lesson. “When he was on the Planning Commission he was much more acerbic. He didn’t seem like he wanted to work with people so well. It was his way or the highway. He’s totally different now.”
Wahl said he resisted appointing Gruendl simply because “he and I are at opposite ends philosophically.” Now that Gruendl’s mayor, Wahl said, “I think he’s being fair.
“I didn’t vote for Jimmy Carter and he became my president. It’s the same thing,” he added. “It’s nothing personal.”
His fellow councilmembers’ concerns about his availability, Gruendl said, “cause me to try harder to prove them wrong.”
Sometimes, he overcompensates.
“I’m sorry, but I have severe Catholic guilt,” he said. If he’s in Glenn County, he feels guilty that he’s not working on city matters, and vice-versa.
“I do a lot of city stuff on the weekends,” Gruendl said, as well as the morning and evening hours. Occasionally, Gruendl will take a vacation day and schedule back-to-back mayoral tasks. He also doesn’t shy away from asking other councilmembers to take on ceremonial duties, especially when they fall in those members’ areas of interest. “Each member has a niche,” he said. “And my boss is very cool, and I’m actually able to rearrange my schedule.”
Born and raised in Oakland by an electrician father and a real-estate-agent mother, Gruendl attended Catholic elementary and high schools and began pre-seminary studies to become a priest. The youngest of five, including four boys, he said, “I was Mom’s last hope for a priest in the family.” But the others in his class “were just weird,” and he decided the priesthood wasn’t for him.
“I pretty much knew I was gay from age 11 and way too young to understand how to deal with it. A religious upbringing didn’t make it any easier. … I was raised an all-American kid, so the crisis I had growing up was, ‘How can I be gay?'”
Being gay, he said, “made it really difficult, because apparently it wasn’t ‘right.’ The whole thing about being gay, I thought, ‘I don’t think I’m worthy. The church rejects me.’
“I went for years without having a relationship with the church.”
It was Gruendl’s close friend, City Councilwoman Coleen Jarvis, who assured Gruendl and his partner, Nicholas Goodey, they’d feel comfortable at the Newman Center, and Jarvis, who died of cancer last May, has been proven correct.
He and Goodey “go to church every Sunday morning,” said Gruendl, along with Goodey’s 6-year-old niece, Cory, whom the pair watches on weekends.
Gruendl considers himself the most traditional and normal member of his family. He’s also well aware that he doesn’t follow any gay stereotype. “I just happen to be a masculine gay guy,” he said. “I think that most people in these parts either don’t know I am gay or don’t allow it to affect how they interact with me. There are plenty of issues to be resolved in these parts that don’t have a thing to do with being gay.
“I am extremely open about my sexuality, but I don’t impose it on others,” he said. “It has been interesting how infatuated people are with the fact that the mayor is gay, and it does cause me to be a more visible community leader.”
Gruendl is one of a handful of out gay mayors nationwide and one of only eight government leaders nationwide who have shared that they are HIV-positive.
“Externally, I do not think being gay has been a big deal. Most people respect me for who I am rather than what I am.”
Gruendl, an Eagle Scout, credits the Boy Scouts for his interest in leadership. Gruendl’s first office was commissioner of school spirit when he was 11. From there, the young solon went on to become student body president of his elementary school and, later, his high school. While at Chico State University, he ran for Associated Students president.
It didn’t seem a reach, he said, to run for Senate and Assembly in a district that’s so heavily Republican that the state Democratic Party rarely helps out local candidates.
His bids in 1998 and 2000, he said, “were primarily to assure that a Democratic point of view was well-represented in the Northstate.” (As a bonus, the Senate race was the one time his parents got to vote for him.)
He doubts he’ll run for Assembly or Senate again. “I’ve already got my taste of all that.”
Today, Gruendl is more moderate politically, though he still fights hard for social causes.
The last time he let emotion take hold of his actions was when the conservative council majority refused to appoint someone to replace Jarvis. But emotion was only a small part of it. Gruendl was outraged that the City Council would violate its own charter.
“You can’t act outside of a basic document like that,” said Gruendl, who considered hiring an attorney and suing the city.
“If there’s anything I went overboard on, that was it. Out of respect for Coleen.”
He’s become even more cautious since becoming mayor. “I’m a little bit more balanced in my approach because I try to facilitate the conversation rather than lead it.”
Kirk agrees. “He’s surprised me with some votes where I’d think he’d go a different way. He’s definitely not knee-jerk.”
Then again, she said, “We haven’t had anything really controversial yet.”
On April 5, the council began to tackle what to do about development possibilities at Bidwell Ranch. There’s also the Enloe Medical Center expansion coming up. And on the issue of another downtown parking structure, Gruendl has gone from being against it to being cautiously for it, mainly because interest rates are good now and it could mean a permanent home for the Farmers’ Market.
Though it may seem like the pleasure of a conservative, Gruendl enjoys going out to meet major employers with local economic development consultant Bob Linscheid. “I love doing that kind of thing. It’s a side of me people don’t expect.”
“People think, ‘Here’s a guy who works in welfare, so all he’s interested in is the redistribution of everyone else’s income.'”
Linscheid said Gruendl has been “a great ambassador” to the business community.
“He’s incredibly bright, there’s no doubt about it,” Linscheid said. “I’ve seen him willing to not necessarily change his position but to modify his position based on what he’s learned. He asks a lot of good questions.”
Gruendl is also eager to continue revitalizing Park Avenue, unifying the neighborhoods on both sides of the street, and to develop the historic Diamond Match property. Also, he said, “I’d like to see us facilitate moving the fairgrounds.”
The council will deal with many growth issues this year, including the Northwest Chico Specific Plan and the Bell-Muir project.
Gruendl’s also not afraid of moving the Greenline, which protects agricultural lands from development.
“The line’s become indefensible over time,” said Gruendl, who feels the line should follow Mud Creek in northwest Chico, not property lines. “Rather than just a line on a map we should make it a permanent agricultural easement.”
While land use planning is at the top of Gruendl’s agenda, nothing calls him to action like issues of racism and hate crimes.
“People here believe that Chico is a very diverse community, but if you’re a person of an ethnicity that could be considered minority, you’d say the exact opposite,” he said. “Chico gets into this mode of thought where they don’t even know they’re discriminating.”
One need only view the reader call-in section of the local daily paper, he said, to see that “racism is alive and well in Chico.”
Still, Gruendl was surprised at the resistance he found within the Chico Area Recreation and Park District when he facilitated a meeting on renaming 20th Street Community Park after Martin Luther King Jr.
“Community Park is actually a planning map designation. It’s a technical name,” Gruendl said, sounding exasperated. He might, he half-joked, also seek to change the name of Whitman Avenue “because it sounds a little too much like White Man.”
Discrimination is the one area where being gay has influenced him politically.
“I understand what it is like to be different and underrepresented. It causes me to be prouder of who I am because of what I have been able to accomplish and where I am today,” he said.
Gruendl is resigning from his role as president of the Community Collaborative for Youth (CCY), which offers programs for young people in disenfranchised groups. He feared a conflict of interest could prevent him from voting on community projects.
“Nobody can replace him,” said Emily Alma, director of CCY. “He’s such a treasure. We were brand new when he came on board, [and we had] no experience in administering a nonprofit.”
One of CCY’s partners is the Stonewall Alliance, which represents gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youths. “By him being willing to be out and gay normalizes sexual orientation. I think it’s been a real gift to our community,” Alma said. “He’s comfortable in his own body and in his own skin.”
Gruendl also counts among his interests campaign finance reform, alcohol abuse prevention, increasing solar production, parks and high-quality health care.
One recent week found him dining with firefighters, presenting a proclamation for the Persian New Year and preparing to judge a competition for Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) at Chico State.
Gruendl realizes people tend to forget he has a whole other life, working for Glenn County at least 40 hours a week. “A lot of people don’t know what I do [at work],” he said.
He’s been with the county for 12 years and oversees the welfare office, employment services and a community action agency that covers Colusa and Trinity counties as well. He works on some 180 contracts a year. Gruendl praises the department’s innovative approach to social welfare, with 118 programs ranging from child services to those for the elderly. He talks passionately about foster-care issues and the need to help families via social services.
He keeps a punching bag by his desk to let off steam when he gets annoying e-mail, and he also has the obligatory perpetual-motion machine and sundry Dilbert-like stress relievers. When he was chosen to be mayor, his coworkers greeted him with a picture of McDonald’s Mayor McCheese and a note: “Congratulations to Scott, the new mayor of Chico.”
Gruendl moved here to attend Chico State University, and after graduation he owned an environmental engineering firm in downtown Chico with two of his fraternity brothers.
The 1986 Chico State graduate is just a few courses shy of a master’s degree in public administration. (He’s currently researching child welfare reform, along with municipal taxation.)
The desire to sew up the graduate degree has sent him back to school at age 40. “It’s something that was unfinished, and I hate unfinished things.”
But, because he did most of his coursework in the 1980s, Gruendl is finding that getting that diploma is taking a lot longer than he’s bargained for, as the university contends some of his classes don’t count anymore. Not one to tolerate getting the run-around, Gruendl has hired a lawyer to review the Education Code and perhaps intervene on his behalf.
"[They say] I have to redo another 24 units,” Gruendl said, even though he’s already been practicing in the field for which he is training. “If I lose and the bureaucrats remain correct, I’ll probably say forget it.”
Classes notwithstanding, Gruendl has been no stranger to campus in recent years. It was he who pushed for the formation of the Town-Gown Committee in which city officials meet with student leaders at Chico State to discuss issues in common and keep the relationship between the two worlds positive.
The University Master Plan is of great interest to him. “A lot of the construction we’re going to see on campus is big construction,” he said. “The city has no control because they’re a higher level of government.”
“I’m a workaholic,” Gruendl admits—or boasts. “I don’t know if I’m ADHD or what, but I can’t sit and do nothing.”
Gruendl is not one to relax much. “The only down time is vacation,” Goodey said. Even then, he brought a copy of the environmental-impact report for the Humboldt Road Burn Dump to Puerto Vallarta. “I sat on the beach and read the whole thing,” Gruendl said.
“We’re going to try to prevent that this year,” countered Goodey, who works as fund-raising coordinator for Krispy Kreme. “This year, [he’s promised] he won’t answer the phone or take a laptop.
“He just expects a lot out of himself.”
There’s another reason Gruendl takes on as much as he can.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m going to die sooner than later, and there are a lot of things I want to do in my life,” he said in an upbeat tone. “I constantly think about my mortality. I don’t fear death, so I accept it. I just worry that it will happen before I accomplish everything I want to do in my life.”
Sometimes, Gruendl admits, he realizes too late that he’s taken on more than he and his body can handle.
That’s what happened in 2000 when he followed up his unsuccessful bid for state Senate with a high-pressure campaign for Chico City Council. He clocked 26,000 miles in less than four months while working full time and running back-to-back campaigns.
“I lost to Larry Wahl by 73 votes,” said Gruendl, obviously still feeling the sting of the narrow loss. He considered a recount but stopped it as he became very sick from cryptococchal meningitis, a rare brain infection attributed to the diminished immunity caused by HIV. The infection can be deadly, and in Gruendl’s case it blinded him for a time.
He was in the hospital, and visitors had to put on gowns to protect Gruendl because his immune system was so weak. His temperature reached 107 degrees, and he began hallucinating. “My brain was frying.”
“That was a very difficult time,” Goodey said. “He was so sick, and I didn’t know how to help him.”
(Gruendl and Goodey were planning to marry in San Francisco last year, until the state Supreme Court ruled against the ceremonies. They had the tuxedos, rings and everything. “I think my parents were more disappointed than I was,” Gruendl said. Now he and Goodey are registered domestic partners.)
During his illness, Gruendl’s coworkers donated enough sick time for him to take three months off. They urged him to take more, but he wanted to get back in time to write the next budget.
“I got no less than 150 cards,” he said, and entire congregations prayed for him.
That was in 2000. Before the meningitis, Gruendl was pushing 225 pounds, exercised sparingly and ate whatever he wanted. When his mom made a Christmas gift of the book Body for Life, he realized it was time to begin taking better care of himself. He started a workout regimen and eats more healthfully.
He also set new goals for his life.
One of those goals was to try again for City Council. “I could not give up on such a loss by a small margin and ran again in 2002.”
Winning was sweet.
“It’s going to be hard giving this up in two years,” he said. “But that’s kind of the deal I made with my employer.”
Recently, he missed a council meeting and some work due to a bout of walking pneumonia. “It was no big deal,” Gruendl said.
But he also acknowledged that the illness struck during a week when he’d been hopelessly overscheduled, including flying to a conference in Texas. “I instantly got sick,” he said.
He’s also realized that trying to graduate with a master’s in May is too ambitious. “Six units is just too much. I can handle three.”
One thing he’s sure to make time for is speaking to teens about HIV and safer sex. The program is called Positively Speaking.
He usually doesn’t mention that he’s gay, because it’s not just gays who contract HIV.
“I tell the kids, don’t trust love. We feel invincible and we’re willing to do anything for love.”
He wants to scare his audience but also communicate that “just because you have a terminal disease doesn’t mean your life is over.”
Gruendl learned he had the virus on Oct. 5, 1995.
His partner had died that July, and, “When the autopsy came back it was an AIDS-related strain of pneumonia.”
Gruendl got tested at the Butte County Health Department, and when they called and asked him to come back in, “That was the first bad sign. There was a nurse and a psychologist.”
That day, Gruendl was supposed to pick up the welfare checks Butte County had printed and take them with him to work in Glenn County. The health workers urged him to go home and relax.
“I said, ‘If I go home and relax all I’m going to do is think about this.'”
But he did think about it. Every day, along the 35-minute drive to and from Willows. “That’s a lot of time to spend by yourself. I just cried and cried. I thought, ‘My life is over. My parents are going to hate me. I thought that was it,'” Gruendl said. “I had visions of having to move back in with my parents and living off disability.”
But HIV is not the immediate death sentence it used to be. He didn’t even need to take drugs for it until his bout with meningitis.
“That was a personal deal I made with myself, that I would go as long as I could without medication,” he said. “Even my doctor felt like I could probably go 10 years without medication.” He lasted five.
“I had to admit that my disease was no longer manageable under my own power. … I was really depressed when I had to go on medication.”
But his viral count, previously undetectable, had reached 750,000—way too high. “In the old days, you would be dead. It would have been full-blown AIDS.”
He takes antiviral and retroviral medications for the HIV plus two more medications to keep the aftereffects of meningitis at bay. He sees his doctor every six weeks.
His HIV status became public in 1998 when he discussed it with a reporter from Chico State’s The Orion. KCHO picked up the story, and it went out on the news wire. “I had always dreamed that I would one day make news on the wire, but little did I ever dream it would be because I am HIV-positive,” Gruendl said.
He tries not to let HIV affect his life, but it has in one big way.
Were it not for his HIV-positive status, Gruendl suspects he would have had children, or foster children, by now.
“My only regret is that I haven’t procreated,” Gruendl said, revealing again his quick wit. “I’d hate to be responsible for a child and end up dying on them.”
Instead, Gruendl spends time with his and Nicholas’ 8-year-old godson, Bray, and niece Cory.
“He would make a very good father,” Goodey said. “He’s so patient.”
Kirk said there’s not much talk on the council about Gruendl being gay.
“I haven’t heard it come up. Being gay isn’t really an issue,” she said. “I think it’s good for our community to have a gay mayor who’s doing a great job.”
Gruendl said, “Living with a terminal disease causes me to be more sensitive with certain political issues, but for the most part it does not frame my political discussions. It is an issue if people want it to be.”
With his cool confidence and new, muscular build, Gruendl is really for battle if someone thinks differently.
“I pity the day someone takes me on on the street over something like that. I’ll kick their butt.”