Downtown San Jose council candidates disagree on issues
San Jose City Council District 3 candidates Omar Torres and Irene Smith at a forum hosted by the San Jose Downtown Association on Sept. 9, 2022. Photo by Jana Kadah.

San Jose’s downtown council seat is up for grabs, and the two candidates running for the District 3 spot couldn’t be more different.

At a Friday debate hosted by the San Jose Downtown Association, candidates Omar Torres and Irene Smith shared their vision for the downtown core. Torres was the frontrunner after the June primary election with 44.18% of the vote. Smith came in second with 19.95% of the vote. The two are facing off in November to replace Councilmember Raul Peralez who terms at the end of this year.

Both have similar concerns, but how the issues are solved is where they split.

Torres, a San Jose-Evergreen Community College District trustee and business resiliency manager of the San Jose Downtown Association, is a progressive with 25 years of political experience and community organizing in San Jose. Smith is an independent candidate with more business leaning policies. She has work experience in mental health, finance at IBM and operated three different small businesses.

Homelessness

The candidates agreed the most pressing downtown issue is homelessness, which has grown 11% in the city since 2019.

During the debate Smith argued the city’s approach is all wrong. She wants to prioritize mental health services and support before finding permanent housing for homeless people. She supports providing housing vouchers, like Section 8, and sanctioned encampments.

Torres said the city needs short-term and long-term solutions, including more interim shelters and immediate services. If elected he wants to create a 24/7 one-stop service center for unhoused residents to get emergency medical, mental health and addiction treatment. He argues homelessness is in part the result of economic inequality. The long-term solution is more affordable housing coupled with community investments in career training, early childhood education and rent relief to promote economic mobility and stability.

Business

Although both support Google’s Downtown West project, they diverge on how it should be developed.

Smith said the city needs to make it as easy as possible for the tech company to set up its campus, limiting fees and demands. She wants to bring more businesses into San Jose because that means more revenue for city services.

“If San Jose is to grow and do all the progressive programs that we want and need, then we will need more Googles,” Smith said. “We will need to aggressively pursue and make it easier and attractive for more businesses to come here and not make a bunch of demands to chase them away.”

Torres said it can’t be all about business. When a major player like Google comes in, he said the city should partner with the business to make sure local communities also benefit. He believes the community investments made by Google are a good example of such collaboration—pointing to 6,000 new construction jobs and economic activity, as well as the nearly $155 million in community funds and the 4,000 homes, of which 25% will be affordable.

“Our community is going to be able to utilize these Google monies to improve their communities,” Torres said. “We have to do this right. Too much is at stake.”

Developers and taxes

Taxes are another area the two differ. Smith said she opposes increasing taxes and developer fees that would fund affordable housing development. Those regulations turn developers away from San Jose, she said.

“If we add to the costs of construction, through either time delays or additional fees, then we are the problem, and we are adding to the cost of housing,” Smith said.

Torres said he supports increasing taxes and fees for developers. However, for small businesses, he supports waiving business tax license fees, renewal fees and potentially forgiving permitting fees.

“(Our affordable housing fees) are one of the lowest here in our region,” Torres said. “Silicon Valley continues to thrive. And we can no longer have folks out on our streets or (displaced). This is one of the good first steps to take on building housing for all.”

Public Safety

Both candidates agree that to make San Jose streets safer, the city needs to hire more police officers. Torres said he supports the reimagining police process to build more trust with the community, noting he was subject to racial bias from law enforcement growing up in San Jose. He also wants more police to decrease the department’s massive overtime budget and to ensure responses to all emergencies, including break ins.

Smith wants to increase pay for officers and have the county respond to mental health needs, instead of San Jose police.

She also said the status quo needs to change and District 3 needs a new voice representing its residents.

“We are choosing between unconsciously following our old habits or consciously choosing a change agent,” Smith said. “Do we want more of the same? Or do we want a fresh start?”

Torres disagreed and said it’s his community work that gives him the tools to solve the city’s biggest woes.

“(Through community organizing) we were able to create a new library, a new youth center, open spaces, new parks, traffic lights, just for us to cross our street. That’s what I’ve been doing for 25 years,” Torres said. “My track record speaks for itself. I’ve worked with labor, with business and nonprofits to make sure our city of San Jose is thriving.”

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

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