Embattled San Jose business group names new leader, blames consultant for racist political ad
The headquarters of The Silicon Valley Organization is pictured in this file photo.

    A little more than a month after The Silicon Valley Organization posted a racist image on its website — leading to the ouster of its CEO Matt Mahood — San Jose’s largest business organization has a new leader.

    At least for now.

    The SVO officials on Dec. 9 announced Robert Linscheid will serve as interim president and CEO. Linscheid has more than 15 years of experience as CEO of various chambers, according to a news release, most recently the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.

    Robert Linscheid is the new interim president and CEO of The Silicon Valley Organization. Image courtesy of LinkedIn.

    SVO officials also released a statement about an investigation into a racist campaign ad that was posted on the organization’s website before last month’s election — though they still did not hold anyone directly responsible.

    The group did, however, say its consultant, Storefront Political Media, played a key role.

    “We are no longer engaged with the Storefront Political Media consultancy firm who was integral in creating the PAC campaign ads and imagery,” the statement said.

    Storefront Political Media is the consulting firm often used by San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. Katie Scally, an account executive with the company, told San José Spotlight in October the company had no involvement in the campaign image.

    Scally reiterated the company’s position Dec. 9.

    “We did not request, see or approve the image before it was posted by SVO staff and any comprehensive investigation would have shown that,” Scally said. “The SVO was in possession of an appropriate image from an approved mailer and did not use it for their website. Shifting blame to outside consultants is just part of politics, particularly these days. But the fact is we had nothing to do with the posting of this image.”

    Scally formerly worked for Liccardo during his mayoral campaign and his first term. Storefront Political Media’s CEO Eric Jaye is a closer advisor to Liccardo.

    The image, posted on Oct. 27, showed Black people in the streets surrounded by tear gas with the words “Do you really want to sign on to this?” printed at the bottom. The ad was intended to be an attack on progressive San Jose City Council candidate Jake Tonkel’s stance on police reform.

    This image on the website of The Silicon Valley Organization prompted an outcry.

    Campaign finance reports show Storefront Political Media was paid more than $134,000 from Sept. 20 to Oct. 17 to design campaign mailers and digital ads opposing Tonkel and District 4 Councilmember-elect David Cohen.

    The business group saw immediate and widespread fallout. Mahood was put on administrative leave and resigned two days later. Prominent board members and loyalists, including Joshua Howard and Jeanne Serpa, cut ties.

    Influential businesses and nonprofits rescinded memberships. Lawmakers denounced The SVO and Councilmember Dev Davis — who was being challenged by Tonkel and was endorsed by The SVO — said she was “ashamed” by its support and donated campaign contributions from the organization to the NAACP. The group’s PAC, which was responsible for political activity, was dissolved.

    The SVO officials quickly blamed a “web administrator” for the post but declined to name the company or individual. Less than two weeks after the image was posted, a third party investigator declared the group had ‘no intent to do harm,’ but provided little to no details about how the image was posted.

    Despite now pinpointing Storefront Political Media’s involvement, The SVO said the investigation “revealed that no single individual was responsible for the ads.”

    “The PAC operated largely independently with little oversight and direction from The SVO board and executive management,” the statement continued. “As such, their activities were operating outside of clearly defined SVO policies and procedures. Staff were not adequately trained on and did not adhere to SVO policies and procedures and were not provided effective project oversight.”

    The SVO claimed one of its employees was instructed to find an image of police protests or riots to accompany the controversial online ad. The employee, whose name has not been released, was believed to be working at the direction of the political consultant and posted the image to SVO’s website.

    The PAC met weekly with SVO staff during election season to review content of mailers, but the groups didn’t not vet digital ads since the content often resembled approved mailers.

    The statement said “there is no excuse for stoking fear and division in our community” and acknowledged the recent ads were not isolated incidents and “there has been a pattern of insensitivity in PAC ads.”

    In February, the business group darkened the face of San Jose Councilmember Sylvia Arenas in a campaign ad that was called racist. It blamed a campaign consultant — Chariot Campaigns — for the ad, but continued to work with the consultant on future campaigns.

    The group faced similar allegations in 2016 when it darkened an image of Councilmember Sergio Jimenez and doctored an image of council candidate Kalen Gallagher in 2018 to look like he’s flipping off the camera.

    The SVO announced it will hold listening sessions to “improve its sensitivity” and better engage with the community. In the past few weeks, The SVO established a diversity working group of leaders to help guide these changes, but had trouble recruiting people to serve on it.

    But Rev. Jeff Moore, president of the Silicon Valley NAACP, said The SVO has fallen short of its effort to diversify by hiring another white male to replace Mahood.

    “To go back to a male and not consider minority people when there are plenty of minority people out there — Latino, Asian, African Americans — who could fill that position, it’s going back to the same old thing or the old San Jose,” Moore said. “I hate to be judgmental when I don’t know anything about the person. But the goal was to diversify.”

    Prior to his work in San Francisco, Linscheid was the managing director of Innovate North State, a regional innovation catalyst organization, according to his LinkedIn. He also serves as a senior advisor in the Office of the President at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and was the former chairman of the Board of Trustees at California State University.

    “Robert brings a wealth of advocacy, community engagement and strategic planning experience to the role,” a statement from The SVO said.

    Linscheid told San José Spotlight he helped create a diversity and inclusion task force at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. While he is indeed a “white guy,” he said he has the necessary experience to help The SVO get stay on track while looking for a new CEO.

    Linscheid said being inclusive means “including white guys.”

    “The fact is, if I’ve got the the experience and reputation that the Silicon Valley Organization can take advantage of in the short term, that could be a major benefit to the region,” he said.

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

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