Salinas Mayor Joe Gunter, the former Salinas Police homicide detective who forged a political career in his retirement years as the head of Monterey County's largest city, died today, June 29, from an infection related to a recurrence of cancer. He was 73.
His daughter-in-law, Greenfield Police Sgt. Christina Gunter, says Gunter was having heart issues, but when surgeons attempted to repair the problems, they found he had a stomach infection and esophageal cancer and couldn't operate. He died this evening with family in attendance.
She described him as her second father and "always a cop," but one who cherished his grandchildren above all else.
"At my daughter's sporting events, people always wanted to talk to him. One time he told a woman, 'I don't mean to be rude, but I want to watch my granddaughter bat," Gunter says. "He was 100 percent there for his kids and grandkids."
Gunter joined the Marines out of high school and served in Vietnam, then joined the Salinas Police Department in 1969. He served 32 years on the department, first as a patrolman and then a detective before retiring in 2002.
Gunter spent his immediate post-retirement years as a community volunteer, directing security at the California International Air Show, where he also served as president; as a president of the Women's Crisis Center for Monterey County and as a volunteer with youth sports and the California Rodeo. In 2012, he was elected to the mayor's seat in a five-way race. Gunter was the first police officer to be elected as mayor of Salinas.
He was a conservative with a conscience. When Councilmember Scott Davis floated the idea that Salinas City Hall should fly a Pride flag during the month of June, Gunter willingly got on board, saying, "it's the right thing to do." If someone didn't like one of his decisions—and over the years, a lot of people didn't like his decisions—he'd shrug and say, "Well, they can always vote me out come next election."
News of his death sent a shock through the community. Few people realized he was ill again, as he kept up a schedule that had him at City Hall most days, and on committees throughout the county, in addition to his volunteer work.
"I knew he was sick and I thought he was getting better. I'm still trying to process the news," Davis says. "Over the past four years, I grew kind of close to the mayor. In working with him on City Council, something that always impressed me about him was that he really did care about the community, and about the community's kids specifically.
"At times it could be difficult for him because there were so many people pulling him in so many different directions," Davis says, "but he was reasonable and fair and did the best he could."
Reporters could count on him for no-bullshit answers, and an ever-present willingness to answer questions, tell stories, feed them candy from a bowl on his desk and always return phone calls. His colleagues described him in much the same way.
"Even though it's technically a part-time role, Joe was a full-time mayor. He was at City Hall seven days a week," says former City Councilwoman Kimbley Craig. "He cared for and loved the city, and worked hard for it to be better for our residents.
"I think we're all mourning the loss of a great man, who literally dedicated his entire adult life to the citizens of Salinas," she says.
Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo called Gunter one of the most dedicated public officials he'd ever met and Salinas' greatest champion, in addition to being a true friend.
"Mayor Gunter loved all of Salinas. He made a point to be everywhere from the East Side to the South, and everywhere in between. Without him, we couldn't get the big projects like the homeless shelter, soccer complex or new police station accomplished," Alejo says. "We have lost a tremendous public servant who cared about helping the most vulnerable in our community."
He had a grand vision for what Salinas could be and deserved to be. He presided over a Downtown Vibrancy Plan (and rebranding of Oldtown to Salinas City Center) and advocated for the concept of Alisal Marketplace, a project designed to bridge neighborhoods. In his first term as mayor, he championed a proposal to build a baseball stadium and woo a minor league team to Salinas. He supported the Transportation Agency for Monterey County’s plans to improve the transit center and eventually build a commuter rail line, despite opposition from long-time business owners.
“Joe was a Salinas hero,” City Manager Ray Corpuz says. “He made the difference in moving the city forward. His legacy is significant. I will miss him very much.”
He served as mayor of the county’s largest city, but Gunter also wielded an outsized influence in the region, serving on a number of significant government agency boards. He served on the board of the Salinas Valley Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency, an agency that he successfully advocated into existence.
He also served as vice chair of the Fort Ord Reuse Authority, which is scheduled to sunset tomorrow, June 30, and on the Local Agency Formation Commission of Monterey County.
In her book Blood in the Fields, former Herald reporter Julie Reynolds wrote about the time when a Nuestra Familia member ordered a hit on Gunter while at a bar.
"The cop, one detective Joe Gunter, offered to buy Matt (Rocha) a drink—a conciliatory gesture considering that Matt and the infamous Rocha siblings figured so prominently in and around the NF. Matt, however, took offense at this, and his crew of gangsters had to follow him out to the sidewalk.
"Matt was drunk and pissed off and told Pablo to whack Gunter right there, but Pablo said, 'Hell no, not in a bar.' The debate went on for an hour as they kept drinking outside of the bar.
"The group piled into a car and drove to a West Side park for a business meeting. They argued. Pablo said fine, if they needed the cop killed, they should take the time to concoct a decent plan and he'd gladly do the job. But he said that at that moment, Matt was way too drunk to be throwing out that kind of crazy-ass order."
Asked about it years later, and Gunter said he didn't remember the encounter at the bar, but added that if Julie Reynolds wrote it, it must be true.
Gunter is survived by his wife, Lisa Eisemann, and children and grandchildren. This story will be updated as more details become available.
Sara Rubin contributed to this report.