A man sitting in a chair with a flag in the background
Former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo discussing his two terms in office during an interview with San José Spotlight on Dec. 14, 2022. Photo by Joseph Geha.

Congressional candidate Sam Liccardo is best known as San Jose’s former mayor, but now he’s describing himself to voters as a small business owner.

The designation on the March 5 primary election ballot may be surprising to some. While Liccardo made a name for himself as a politician, prosecutor and Stanford University professor, businessman hasn’t been one of them. That’s because it’s a relatively recent endeavor: Liccardo started his own consulting firm, 15th North Street Consulting, in September.

Liccardo is one of 11 candidates running for the congressional seat in District 16 to replace retiring Rep. Anna Eshoo after three decades in Congress.

Campaign spokeswoman Julie Edwards said state election laws only allow candidates to list their vocation or profession during the calendar year or 12 months prior, so Liccardo missed the window to put former mayor. Liccardo left San Jose City Hall at the end of December 2022 when his two terms as mayor ended. He filed papers to officially run for the seat on Dec. 8, 2023, the last day to file.

That’s why he opted for “small businessperson/educator” instead.

“Sam is a small business owner. He paid a business tax and registered with the city months before he learned anything about Congresswoman Eshoo’s decision to retire,” Edwards told San José Spotlight. “He has a sole proprietorship similar to many entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley who serve customers on a contract basis.”

Liccardo received a business license from San Jose on Sept. 1 to start his consulting firm, according to city records. The move came two weeks before he announced in a Mercury News article on Sept. 13 that he was joining San Francisco-based Ground Floor Public Affairs in an executive role.

Screenshot of Liccardo’s business license from San Jose.

Liccardo’s campaign said the job at Ground Floor as a senior advisor and counsel was a temporary contract gig. Neither the article nor the firm’s website noted the role was temporary, or mentioned his newly-formed consultancy. Ground Floor gave Liccardo a company email address.

Ground Floor founder Alex Tourk told San José Spotlight Liccardo was hired for a six-month contract through 15th North Street Consulting.

“I was certainly aware of his future ambition (to run for Congress), but I just thought it was down the road,” Tourk said. “When the opportunity happened, (Liccardo) informed me, and obviously, we ended the contract amicably.”

Screenshot from Ground Floor Public Affairs’ website showing Liccardo’s new role.

Tourk said Liccardo primarily worked with FAIR California, one of Ground Floor’s clients. The advocacy group was launched in 2023 and comprises of a coalition of elected officials and a myriad of advocacy groups to challenge PG&E’s rate hikes and demand more accountability.

Ground Floor appears to be Liccardo’s only client. He did not register as a lobbyist in San Jose or San Francisco and doesn’t plan to lobby, Edwards said.

Fighting PG&E became a signature move for Liccardo. As mayor, he sought several alternatives to PG&E, including a plan to create a cooperative, customer-owned utility to replace PG&E in Northern California. The plan ultimately fell short, but he tried again by proposing a city-owned public utility. Last October, the San Jose City Council approved exploring the possibility.

Dan Schnur, professor at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, said ballot designations are important because it’s often the only thing a voter will know about a candidate. Many candidates even do polling to see what resonates better with voters — for example, a small businessman might be more favorable than a politician or lawyer.

“Campaigns spend an immense amount of time trying to come up with a designation that can help attract votes,” Schnur told San José Spotlight. “A small business owner, for example, is particularly helpful with many elections.”

Schnur said candidates who say they’re small business owners appear relatable and gives voters the impression that they’re “one of us.” If Liccardo runs his own consultancy, regardless of when it was started or how many clients it has, Schnur said it’s fair to call himself a businessman.

“These are the rules, and he’s playing by them,” Schnur said. “And in an era in which voters don’t think all that highly of politics and politicians, it’s almost certainly a better designation than former mayor.”

Before his firm

Before creating his own firm, Liccardo helped with his wife Jessica Garcia-Kohl’s consulting company, Koine Strategies. That’s what inspired him to forge his own path, according to his campaign.

The San Francisco Foundation hired Koine Strategies last year to help the organization advocate for its policy goals and work with other 501(c)(3) organizations. Liccardo did academic research and drafted training documents for them, Edwards said.

A San Francisco Foundation spokesperson confirmed the group worked with Liccardo through his wife’s firm from March to June 2023.

The primary election is weeks away. The top two vote getters in the District 16 race will advance to the November runoff. An independent poll sponsored by San José Spotlight found Liccardo and Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian are the most likely candidates to advance — with the two men locked in a statistical tie. The poll also found one-third of voters were still undecided as of Jan. 11-28, leaving some wiggle room for the other candidates to make a last-minute appeal to voters.

Contact Jana at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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