Look around San Jose, and you’ll be reminded of the groups of communities that live in the city: Places like the Mexican Heritage Plaza and Little Saigon speak to the city’s diversity.
Leadership, however, depending on who you ask, hasn’t been so diverse. Since the city began electing mayors instead of appointing them in 1967, the city has had only two mayors of color: Norman Mineta and Ron Gonzales.
“I think the nature of public office has changed a great deal in the last 20 years—the advent of social media, the amount of scrutiny elected officials face now, the exposure on a personal basis is higher,” Gonzales said. All candidates, he said, face the increased criticism that wasn’t as prevalent in 1998 when Gonzales ran for mayor. In addition, campaigns have become increasingly expensive.
San Jose, where more than two-thirds of the population are ethnic minorities, has had one Latino mayor and one Asian American mayor.
“It’s important to have someone running from this community that people know,” said Brenda Zendejas, a volunteer with Igualdad Del Voto, a local voting rights group that pushes local elected leaders to allow undocumented residents the right to vote.
Political experts and local activists blame a low voter turnout in San Jose, particularly among communities of color. Shifting the mayor’s election to presidential years, they say, could boost turnout among minority communities, along with outreach in those communities, making it easier to vote and making it easier for people of color to run for public office.
“San Francisco’s Mayor London Breed grew up in public housing. We won’t have that story in San Jose, because she would have never been able to grow up here,” said Basil Saleh, who works for Supervisor Susan Ellenberg and unsuccessfully ran for Campbell union school board last year. “Literally, large parts of our city were built after public housing was made illegal in the state constitution.”
An unaffordable housing market and a history of redlining tips the scales in favor of areas and people with access to considerable political ties and money. For example, Bellarmine College Preparatory, a private high school in the generally affluent neighborhood of College Park, has produced several big political names: former State Sen. Jim Beall, state Sen. Dave Cortese, Councilmember Matt Mahan and Mayor Sam Liccardo.
A movement to shift the election of the mayor to presidential years via a ballot measure fizzled out in 2019. A city commission has been exploring possibilities since then, hoping to eventually bring a similar proposal to voters. Turnout is historically higher in presidential elections than in off-presidential years, which brings voters of all stripes—not just people of color—to the ballot box.
“The question is around politics too. We’ve had two business-friendly mayors in a row. Why hasn’t there been a more progressive mayor?” said Scott Myers-Lipton, a sociology professor at San Jose State University. “Not only would there be a more progressive mayor if we hold elections in the presidential year, but also more folks of color, particularly Latino and Asian American.”
Salvador “Chava” Bustamante, executive director for Latinos United for a New America, or LUNA, has worked in get-out-the-vote campaigns for decades, including one in 2016 where Bustamante was arrested for registering voters outside of an East San Jose Target, drawing the ire of the local Latino community.
“When you consider that in the eastside, we have a huge number of people who are not in the habit of voting and you schedule the election where people don’t vote, that makes a problem,” Bustamante said.
While there haven’t been many people of color in the mayor’s office, they have also mostly been men. Since holding elections for mayor, two of the city’s 65 mayors have been women—Janet Gray Hayes and Susan Hammer.
“San Jose has been progressive on this,” said Myers-Lipton.” When voters were given the opportunity to vote for mayor, they voted in a Japanese American, two women—which prompted newspapers across the country to call the city the “Feminist Capital of the World” in the 1970s—and the city’s first Latino mayor. “The question is why (former Mayor) Chuck Reed and Sam Liccardo, two white men, changed that dynamic?”
While more can be done to bring diverse candidates to the mayor’s race, some say the trend could be changing.
“The challenge is getting to the state where you can be a credible candidate,” said retired SJSU political science professor Terry Christensen.
Christensen said as the city’s demographics change, there is a stronger chance of electing people of color to the San Jose City Council which can serve as a “launching pad” to the mayor’s office.
According to Gonzales, appealing to non-minority voters and other large racial groups in San Jose is also key. That too can be bolstered by a resume that includes serving on the City Council, but will almost always need broad support across the entire city.
“There’s some voters that have certain generalizations about certain minority groups and you have to overcome those. Sometimes you can overcome them,” Gonzales said.
That’s exactly what’s happening in the 2022 election cycle. Downtown San Jose Councilmember Raul Peralez, one of five Latino councilmembers, is running for mayor.
“People like myself, who don’t come from families of wealth, families who are politically connected or even families who had high levels of education … When you have those disadvantages, you’re going to have a disadvantage in raising money,” Peralez said. “You’re going to have a disadvantage in things like politics.”