A man sitting in a chair
Congressional candidate and former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo has pulled his endorsement of Margaret Abe-Koga, who is seeking the District 5 seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. File photo.

A landlord interest group may be drawing battle lines across Santa Clara County’s hottest elections.

Congressional candidate and former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo has quietly dropped his endorsement of Margaret Abe-Koga, who’s running for the District 5 seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. Liccardo’s campaign hasn’t said why, but some Democratic Party delegates voiced concern about her while Liccardo sought their votes for the party endorsement between April and May.

In their conversations, progressive delegates flagged Abe-Koga’s stance on rent control while on the Mountain View City Council and warned Liccardo about her support from the most powerful landlord interest group in the state, the California Apartment Association. The group supported Liccardo for mayor in 2014. But this election cycle it’s supporting Evan Low, Liccardo’s opponent in the Congressional District 16 race. Now Liccardo is using that support to criticize his rival.

“It’s deeply troubling that groups like PG&E and a powerful statewide landlords group, the California Apartment Association, have spent nearly $600,000 supporting their candidate and political advocate in Sacramento, Evan Low,” Liccardo campaign spokesperson Gil Rubinstein told San José Spotlight. “Sam Liccardo has a record of taking on special interests and winning for our community. Sam has championed inclusionary housing, leading Measure E’s record investment in affordable housing and forged broad coalitions to fight PG&E’s rate hikes. Sam can’t be bought and we deserve that kind of integrity in Congress.”

The gas and electric company and apartment association gave nearly $600,000 to the “Golden State Leadership Fund” Super PAC that’s been spending in support of Low. The PAC spent nearly $400,000 in support of Low between January and March, according to the latest data from the FEC.

Elizabeth Power, Low campaign spokesperson, said Low is committed to tenants’ rights and affordable housing, and that his track record speaks for itself.

“He authored AB 2690 which allowed for rental stabilization in mobile home parks. Assemblymember Low has also partnered with local housing organizations in his district, such as Cupertino for All, to advance affordable housing access,” Power told San José Spotlight. “In Congress, Low will fight for more federal dollars to fund housing projects in the region, with the goal of making our community more affordable and inclusive for middle- and low-income residents.”

Representatives for California Apartment Association did not respond to requests for comment.

Housing punctuates politics

Abe-Koga, a former mayor and current councilmember of Mountain View, said Liccardo mentioned nothing about the California Apartment Association when he explained his decision to her personally.

“It would be news to me if that was the reasoning. From the conversation I had with him, it was because I chose to endorse Evan Low,” Abe-Koga told San José Spotlight. “For two decades, I’ve known Evan and worked for him as his district director when he was first elected to the Assembly.”

Margaret Abe-Koga stands next to Evan Low (right) at an election night watch party on March 5, 2024. Photo by Brandon Pho.

But before Liccardo’s decision, Anna Marie Morales, a Mountain View resident of more than 40 years, said she and other delegates told Liccardo that Abe-Koga’s rent control track record ran afoul of efforts to make life in town more affordable. She said she talked to him multiple times over a few weeks and urged him to consider either dual endorsing Abe-Koga and her opponent, Sally Lieber, or dropping Abe-Koga.

“He was trying to get our party endorsement, but he was also trying to get to know us,” Morales, who has lived in the Sahara Mobile Village since 2014, told San José Spotlight. “I’ve had so many people nod and smile in my face in my life. But he actually followed through. He seemed like he actually cared.”

Abe-Koga has chafed with tenant advocates over Mountain View’s landmark 2016 rent control law, which has capped rent increases at the consumer price index, usually 3.5%. She called the law too costly for the city in the years after its approval. The California Apartment Association unsuccessfully challenged it with a lawsuit. In 2020, Abe-Koga and the landlord group pushed for the failed Measure D that would have raised the rent cap to 4%. It would have also allowed landlords to raise rents for capital improvements and non-resident property owners to sit on the rental regulatory board. Proponents like Abe-Koga had dubbed it “reasonable” rent control.

Most significantly for Morales, the local ballot measure would have explicitly barred mobile homes from being covered under the rent cap. She said she was almost displaced multiple times after a serious car accident in February 2020, right before the COVID-19 lockdown, and that her friends and neighbors have been priced out of the area.

“We live in the most expensive city in the Bay Area, and it’s because of the California Apartment Association,” Morales said. “Even people who would be considered well off fear displacement. We’re a vulnerable community with a ton of seniors, veterans, low income families with children and people with disabilities such as myself and my mom.”

More than half the city’s population rents, according to 5-year estimates from the 2022 American Community Survey.

Affordability champion or not? 

Abe-Koga said she supported Measure D as a compromise between landlords and tenant advocates.

“There are different ways to address any issue and I do my best to build consensus and sometimes, that means compromise and unfortunately that may not be agreeable to everyone,” Abe-Koga told San José Spotlight. “Especially in our diverse population and community, we have to be inclusive and include all perspectives in the conversation.”

She said she’s made strong strides for housing in her community.

“My record speaks clearly,” she said. “During the pandemic and as mayor in 2020, I introduced the concept of rent relief and we ended up finding over $6 million in rent relief assistance to renters in our city. I think I have been a strong champion.”

Morales doesn’t agree.

“Margaret Abe-Koga has caused irreparable harm to me,” she said.

Liccardo himself enjoyed the California Apartment Association’s backing while running for San Jose mayor. Delegates who spoke to San José Spotlight said as progressives, they haven’t always agreed with the former mayor.

“We talked about that. He was open and said he wanted to learn,” Morales said. “Hearing my story firsthand I think really made a difference for him.”

Liccardo’s calls with delegates turned out to be unsuccessful last month, losing the Democratic Party’s endorsement to Low by one vote. In turn, Liccardo publicly criticized Low for “shifting delegates” and called out one California Apartment Association representative’s role in the scheme: Anil Babbar, senior vice president of local public affairs for the group.

As housing costs skyrocket and displacement concerns become more urgent in the county, Morales said county politics will be forced to reckon with the apartment association’s influence.

“My community will not be silenced,” she said.

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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