A complaint filed against San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and a political action committee he formed to influence the 2022 elections has prompted a wave of reaction from local candidates and community leaders.
The complaint, filed last week, claims Liccardo and the committee “Common Good Silicon Valley, sponsored by Solutions Silicon Valley” has raised more than $500,000 inappropriately. The claim, first reported by San José Spotlight, said state law has several restrictions on how sitting elected officials can operate political action committees (PAC) to support other candidates.
The PAC and San Jose’s city attorney say city code “does not prohibit” Liccardo—who’s not running in the current election due to term limits—from opening and fundraising for a PAC. As of last week, the committee has doled out more than $230,000 to support Councilmember and mayoral hopeful Matt Mahan, roughly $53,000 to boost attorney Joanna Rauh’s campaign in the District 3 City Council race and $14,000 to help Fire Capt. Bien Doan unseat incumbent Councilmember Maya Esparza in District 7.
The complaint and news reports came just days before the consequential election where San Jose is picking the next mayor and five councilmembers. Some community leaders, including South Bay Labor Council Executive Officer Jean Cohen, have called for the PAC to halt all spending in the primary election.
Others said the mayor’s involvement in the consequential election—regardless of the law—is inappropriate.
“I think it’s unseemly for a sitting mayor to be involved in this activity,” Councilmember Dev Davis, who’s also vying for the city’s top seat, told San José Spotlight. “Whether it’s legal or not is for the courts to decide.”
Santa Clara County Democratic Party Chair Bill James said the mayor’s fundraising activities could create conflicts of interest.
“To think that the mayor or any other sitting officeholder could essentially raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporate interests, developers, landlords and others who have ongoing business dealings with the city, then put them toward their preferred candidates, I think it’s highly unhelpful and inappropriate,” James told San José Spotlight.
Mahan’s campaign spokesperson Adrian Rafizadeh said the councilmember has no involvement with the PAC. He did not address calls to condemn the PAC’s spending on Mahan’s campaign.
While Rauh didn’t respond to a request for comment, Doan kept things short.
“I’m concentrating on my race to win, not the politics distraction,” Doan told San José Spotlight.
A tarnished legacy?
Tom Saggau, a spokesperson for the San Jose Police Officers’ Association, said Liccardo’s involvement with the PAC might have tarnished his legacy—and the city’s reputation of running transparent elections. The police union has recently formed a PAC to support Chavez’s fight for mayor.
“It’s really disappointing that, in pursuit of victory, he would abandon an ethical course of action,” Saggau told San José Spotlight, adding the money spent by Common Good provided three candidates unfair advantages. “It’s underhanded. It’s sneaky. It’s unfortunate that his legacy—or lack thereof—could be tarnished by this type of scandal.”
Some councilmember hopefuls said the money Common Good has spent could hurt the democratic process.
“Fifty three thousands dollars is a very significant amount of money for a District 3 race,” Elizabeth Chien-Hale, an attorney running to represent downtown San Jose, told San José Spotlight, referring to the money Common Good has spent to support Rauh. “Injecting big money into a grassroots-level race like a City Council race blurs the ultimate goal of helping voters identify a candidate who is truly dedicated to the interests of the residents.”
Irene Smith, another candidate vying for the downtown seat, is calling on voters to reject Rauh, who she said is handpicked by the PAC.
“Sadly Sam Liccardo’s history is not new to District 3,” Smith told San José Spotlight, referring to Liccardo’s tenure as District 3 councilmember before becoming mayor. “For 16 years, District 3 has seen ethical corner cutting and ignoring (its) real problems. Enough is enough: District 3 is saying no to his hand picked successor, his poor judgement and his legacy of failure.”
Most of Liccardo’s council colleagues didn’t respond to inquiries about the complaint—with one exception. Councilmember Sergio Jimenez said it’s clear to him Common Good would be used to help Mahan’s campaign.
“He and Liccardo are using the same consultant, the same print shop, etc.,” Jimenez told San José Spotlight, who recently criticized Mahan’s campaign promises in an op-ed. “It’s the same type of candidate, different name.”
Mahan responded with an op-ed, refuting Jimenez’s claims.
It’s unclear when San Jose’s Board of Fair Campaign and Political Practices—the five-person independent committee tasked with investigating violations of campaign rules—would make a decision on the complaint. A third-party attorney would need to evaluate and investigate the claims, if they deem it to be credible, before presenting it to the board.
James, the Santa Clara County Democratic Party chair, said such scandals erode the public’s trust in local government.
“It’s a misjudgment and an error, it’s harmful (for Liccardo) to have done it and the mayor should just put a stop to it,” James said, urging Common Good to return contributions to its donors.