How are special interests swaying Silicon Valley elections?
A Santa Clara County resident demonstrates casting a ballot at the Registrar of Voters in May 2022. Photo by Jana Kadah.

Special interest groups have spent a whopping $2.3 million to boost their preferred candidates across eight local races—making the 2022 primary election one of the most expensive seasons in recent Silicon Valley history.

More than half of all political action committee (PAC) spending has gone to the San Jose mayor’s race. Special interests are also spending to support—and in some cases, attack—candidates in City Council District 1, 3, 5 and 7 races.

At the county level, numerous candidates are fighting to represent District 1 with the support of several committees. At least one PAC is spending big bucks in the Santa Clara County sheriff and district attorney contests. The sheriff seat is up for grabs, with incumbent Sheriff Laurie Smith not seeking reelection. District Attorney Jeff Rosen is fighting off two challengers.

Candidates at both the city and county level face certain contribution limits. In San Jose, the cap is $700 per donation for council candidates and $1,400 for mayoral candidates. County-level candidates are limited at $1,000 per contribution. PACs aren’t limited on how much they can raise—and spend—in an election.

In the most contested—and expensive—race, six PACs have spent $1.5 million to boost two candidates for San Jose mayor—with more than $1.1 million of those funds going to support county Supervisor Cindy Chavez’s campaign. San Jose Councilmember and mayoral candidate Matt Mahan has the support of a PAC formed by outgoing Mayor Sam Liccardo, which has spent more than $360,000 for Mahan in May and June.

“At the council, we’ve talked about ways to curb the amount of influence that money has on elections, but where we continually get stumped is with independent expenditures,” mayoral candidate and Councilmember Raul Peralez told San José Spotlight. Peralez did not get any outside spending. “It’s absolutely an unequal playing field in politics.”

The district attorney and sheriff races have also become expensive. A PAC backed by county law enforcement and labor unions has spent more than $189,000 to support DA Rosen in his reelection campaign and Kevin Jensen, a retired sheriff captain, in his fight for the sheriff seat. The PAC split its spending evenly between both candidates.

The PAC, called “United Today for a Better Tomorrow Supporting Jensen for Sheriff, Rosen for District Attorney, and Rossi for Supervisor 2022, sponsored by law enforcement and labor organizations,” also spent about $30,000 to support Santa Clara County Board of Education trustee Claudia Rossi.

No other candidates in these races received outside spending supporting their campaigns.

PAC spending goes both ways

PACs are not only spending to support their preferred candidates, but also to attack others.

Rossi and San Jose Councilmember Sylvia Arenas, both of whom are running in the county District 1 race, share a dual endorsement from the South Bay Labor Council. The labor union’s PAC has spent roughly $35,000 on each candidate to support their campaigns, and also budgeted more than $37,000 to attack former San Jose Councilmember Johnny Khamis, who’s vying for the same seat.

“I just wish the politics were less dirty,” Khamis told San José Spotlight, referring to negative campaign mailers. “We all have different opinions, and I wish they would respect mine.”

In the contested San Jose City Council District 5 race, the labor council PAC spent roughly $25,000 to support county Board of Education President Peter Ortiz and former Councilmember Nora Campos—as well as $34,000 on negative mailers against San Jose Planning Commissioner Rolando Bonilla.

Mahan is also facing a $48,000 negative ad campaign funded by the the United Food and Commercial Workers Independent Expenditure PAC.

Previous elections in Silicon Valley have gotten ugly, as political observer and San Jose State University political science professor emeritus Terry Christensen told San José Spotlight. He points to a racist ad funded by the now-defunct Silicon Valley Organization PAC last election that prompted swift backlash and the CEO’s departure.

“It’s okay to criticize positions candidates have taken, but you got to keep within the realm of reality,” Christensen said. “A lot of those pieces go way beyond that to make their point.”

PACs outspending candidate fundraising efforts

In some races, PACs are outspending what candidates have been able to fundraise to fuel their campaigns.

The City Council District 1 race to replace Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, who terms out this year, has heated up. Community leader Ramona Snyder has spent about $22,000, while Santa Clara County Board of Education Rosemary Kamei has doled out $43,600 to win the seat.

That’s dwarfed by the financial boost Kamei received from the labor union PAC, which has spent more than $70,000 to promote her campaign. Silicon Valley Biz PAC has also spent more than $31,000 to boost Snyder’s campaign to combat the labor unions’ effort.

“We believe Ramona’s experience and dedication to District 1 and the businesses within it will benefit from her being in office and will work hard to create more jobs for San Jose residents,” Victor Gomez, executive director of the Silicon Valley Biz PAC, told San José Spotlight.

The labor PAC did not respond to a request for comment.

Support outside Silicon Valley

Several smaller PACs have popped up this election to support labor-friendly candidates in the San Jose City Council races for Districts 3 and 5, and the County District 1 race.

Three PACs, all with similar names “Working Families for Responsible Leadership,” are being funded by labor unions from Los Angeles, San Diego, Ventura and other locations, campaign filings show. They all list the same person as treasurer. The representative did not respond to an inquiry about the committees.

One of the PACs has spent more than $15,000 to support San Jose-Evergreen Community College District board trustee Omar Torres in the downtown District 3 race. Ortiz, fighting for the District 5 seat, got more than $37,000 in support from a similar PAC. The committee also doled out more than $42,000 for Arenas’ campaign for county supervisor.

Business owner Irene Smith, who’s also running in District 3, said she remains confident in her campaign despite the big PACs spending on her opponents.

“They know they can’t beat me with hand-picked candidates on the issues so they hope they can make up the difference by outspending me, it’s not working,” she told San José Spotlight. “Grassroots enthusiasm will beat out-of-touch big corporate money any day of the week. Their big spend is a sign of their small support.”

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter. Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: Perla Rodriguez, spouse of District 5 candidate Rolando Bonilla, and Victor Gomez sit on San José Spotlight’s board of directors.

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