Balance of power on San Jose council hangs on November election
The San Jose City Council is pictured in this file photo.

San Jose voters face a critical decision this election: vote in the new progressive candidates promising to shake the status quo on the City Council, or maintain the current leadership which has faced a number of split votes between business versus labor interests.

Over the past four years, the council has voted 6-5 on many key issues, where Mayor Sam Liccardo and his more conservative, business-friendly allies — Pam Foley, Dev Davis, Lan Diep and Johnny Khamis — comprised the majority.

But Davis and Diep could be unseated Nov. 3. Khamis, who termed out this year, will be replaced by tech entrepreneur Matt Mahan who won the March primary and will likely align with the mayor’s majority.

Davis won against her Green Party competitor, Jake Tonkel, in the March primary by more than 5,000 votes, while Diep lost by a smaller margin of three percentage points to Democrat David Cohen.

The council’s labor-oriented faction includes councilmembers Raul Peralez, Sergio Jimenez, Sylvia Arenas, Maya Esparza and Magdalena Carrasco. The group has banded together to oppose a number of issues, more recently the “strong mayor” initiative that divided the council 6-5 in July.

Liccardo ultimately dropped his push for the measure, which would have increased mayoral powers and extended his term by two years — a move celebrated by the so-called Latino Caucus.

Another contentious issue last year was the city’s decision to amend the Ellis Act, reducing the number of units developers would have to put back under rent control. Once again, Liccardo and his allies were the overriding force in the 6-5 split.

Cohen, Mahan and Tonkel — two Democrats and a Green Party candidate, respectively — could change this pattern by creating a like-minded majority with Jimenez, Esparza, Arenas, Carrasco and Peralez, who will remain on the council for another term.

Councilmember Johnny Khamis feared a shift in the council majority could lead to “group think” that will remove crucial dialogue from complex discussions.

“Nobody will be brave enough to ask tough questions,” Khamis said. “I already feel that we’re overly taxed and overly regulated as it is, and I think that a power shift could move us in a way that increases regulations and taxation in the city, and drives more hardworking small and medium-sized businesses out of the area.”

Councilmember Sergio Jimenez said if power does shift in favor of a more progressive council, he’d be pleased. But he doesn’t think governing with a like-minded majority is going to be any easier.

“I’m not interested in being part of a group that gains power for the sake of power,” Jimenez said.

The presence of a more progressive majority, he said, would obligate the council to take extra care in ensuring decisions are thoughtful and inclusive.

“I don’t think that’s necessarily happened under the status quo,” he said.  A more progressive council is essential for helping San Jose better tackle issues surrounding race and equity, according to Jimenez.

However, according to Terry Christensen, professor of political science at San Jose State University, a power shift wouldn’t be that simple.

“If one wins, that flips the balance 6-5 for the progressive — if both of them win, seven,” Christensen said. “That would be a much stronger majority and we don’t know that Tonkel and Cohen would align totally with the progressive Latinos on the council. So they could actually be a swing vote between the factions.”

Casting their (hypothetical) vote

Cohen, a self-proclaimed “ally of labor,” told San José Spotlight his views align more with the voting habits of the Latino Caucus. For example, Cohen said he would have likely sided with the five councilmembers who voted against commercial linkage fees, citing a need for higher fee structures for developers.

On the other hand, he said he isn’t opposed to a strong mayor system, putting him in agreement with the mayor and his allies. But Cohen said he wouldn’t have voted for it due to the way it was proposed to the council.

Cohen said he isn’t looking to be a swing vote for a 6-5 scenario and would rather create unity on both sides.

“The better outcome, maybe in some of these cases, is to build a policy that can be voted on by more than just six, by finding compromise so that you can get seven or eight votes on these issues, rather than having to have a 6-to-5 vote on them,” Cohen said.

Tonkel said his views would most likely mesh with those of the labor-aligned faction and he would have voted against the strong mayor initiative. He is also a rent control advocate and wrote an opinion piece for this publication last year about preserving the integrity of the Ellis Act.

Mahan didn’t want to speculate on how he would have voted but said, in general, he is “very focused on upward mobility and maintaining a strong middle class in San Jose and making it accessible to everyone.”

There’s always the possibility that one or all of the candidates would side with the mayor’s business-friendly faction, but all made it clear they want to move past the division.

“It’s unfortunate that the City Council has gotten into this divided-camps situation where people have felt like they have to be in one camp or another,” Cohen said.

How did we get here?

The emergence of a business-versus-labor split on the council can be traced back to the 1970s, Christensen said, as unions began to get more progressive and push not only for better wages, but for the general interests of working families.

Meanwhile, he said, the city’s Chamber of Commerce, now called the Silicon Valley Organization, grew more conservative once it hired Republican Pat Dando, former vice mayor under Ron Gonzales.

Christensen said the chamber and labor groups started “fighting it out” in campaigns for both mayor and council.

“While Gonzales was mayor, this evolves,” Christensen said, adding that many of the votes from this period were split 8-3 in favor of progressive interests. “Then comes Chuck Reed, the most conservative mayor we’ve had probably in half a century.”

Reed was a Democrat but Christensen said the former mayor’s concerns surrounding budget deficits and increasing pension costs caused him to vote more conservatively and go up against unions on pension reform, paving the way for the business-friendly majority that faces a potential runoff in this election.

“I am excited for us to be past the election cycle,” Tonkel said. “We might as well come to common ground and realize that no one is out to get each other. I hope we can make a lot of good happen. We’re trying to design a community that works for everybody.”

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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