A tale of two East San Jose council candidates
Rolando Bonilla and Peter Ortiz, two candidates running for the District 5 San Jose City Council seat. File photo.

The local Democratic party condemned one San Jose City Council candidate for his alleged past, but has completely ignored the criminal history of another candidate.

Over the last few weeks, three local Democratic clubs in the South Bay denounced District 5 candidate and San Jose Planning Commission chair Rolando Bonilla because 20-year old allegations of domestic abuse.

But District 5 candidate and Santa Clara County Board of Education President Peter Ortiz has not faced a similar backlash. Ortiz was arrested in February 2012 in connection with a strong-armed robbery while he was in a gang. The charges were later dropped in May 2012, with Ortiz promising to sever ties with the Norteño gang and comply with community rehabilitation and periodic check-ins.

In fact, he has the endorsement of the Santa Clara County Democratic Party—the same group that asked Bonilla to end his campaign.

When asked why the party appears to be playing favorites, its leader said it’s because the way the candidates have responded to their pasts is different.

“In one case, there’s a very concerning allegation of domestic violence, the passage of time, the fact that it was raised in the context of their divorce, that doesn’t negate that these allegations were made,” Bill James, the party’s chair, told San José Spotlight. “On the other hand, Ortiz acknowledges the underlying facts, he explains the circumstances that led up to them and he takes responsibility for the harm that he’s done.”

But Bonilla said the party is being hypocritical, and it’s a disservice to voters.

“For them to have credibility, they need to universally apply standards to all candidates, and not seek to tarnish candidates for the sole purpose of advancing the interests of their friends,” Bonilla told San José Spotlight. “Otherwise, they are hypocrites to the values that they espouse.”

Terry Christensen, a political observer and San Jose State University political science professor emeritus, said both can be true—the condemnation of Bonilla is from genuine concern, but also a game of politics.

“Ortiz has been endorsed by the (South Bay) Labor Council. It’s a dual-endorsement with Nora Campos, but labor and Democrats are usually on the same page,” Christensen told San José Spotlight. “I don’t doubt the sincerity of the people behind the resolution, but this is also a way to boost their candidate.”

He said Bonilla’s endorsement by the Silicon Valley Business PAC might also imply his positions are not as progressive as the local Democratic party may want.

“Bonilla also plays politics San Francisco style—elbows out. And that’s not San Jose style which is pretty civil and respectful of other candidates,” Christensen said. “I think that offends some people.”

‘I have made mistakes’

According to police reports, Ortiz in February 2012 allegedly grabbed one of two victims and punched him in the face repeatedly until he gave his wallet to Ortiz and another suspect. When officers arrived at the scene, Ortiz allegedly resisted arrest, yelling profanities at the officers before they pulled their gun and Ortiz complied. He was charged by the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office for attempted robbery in the second degree, a felony, allegedly in benefit and direction of the Norteño gang.

Ortiz told San José Spotlight he regrets his actions but his past has shaped him into the person he is today.

“I have made mistakes and I’ve learned from them,” Ortiz said. “It’s my past that moved me into activism, and if anything, my mistakes have shown me insight to different populations, different experiences that the average elected official doesn’t have.”

He explained that he joined the gang at 12 years old, a year after his father left. He said he turned to the gang looking for male guidance—a position he said many young boys in disenfranchised communities find themselves.

“I’m not the traditional elected official. I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth,” Ortiz said. “My background provides a lens to approach this issue because I’ve experienced it firsthand. I know what these youth are going through and I know the support and resources they need.”

Double standards?

The Santa Clara County Democratic Party has also remained mum on other concerning revelations with public officials.

They haven’t denounced Gilroy Councilmember Rebeca Armendariz who faces 10 administrative citations after an investigation found she helped organize a Halloween party outside her home last October that led to a fatal shooting.

They also haven’t taken a stand against Assemblymember Marc Berman, whose district director has been accused of sexual harassment by staffers. According to an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, when the staffer leveled complaints against the district director, they allegedly were ignored by Berman and his office.

“It is something that I expect will be looked at by the party, at least as an initial matter, but I know there’s not an accusation of any specific conduct by Assemblymember Berman himself, which I think is an important distinction,” James said. “But whenever we consider supporting a candidate, we look at the public record of what they’ve done, and anything that has been said about them, and try to understand what it implies for our support.”

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: Perla Rodriguez, spouse of District 5 candidate Rolando Bonilla, is on San José Spotlight’s board of directors.

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