How progressive is Silicon Valley? The answer might surprise you
An aerial view of downtown San Jose. File photo.

Among the seemingly solid-blue picture of the Bay Area, pockets of a more conservative population are growing.

When former President Donald Trump first ran for office in 2016, roughly 20% of Santa Clara County residents, or 144,514 people, voted for him. As hundreds of thousands turned out to vote again last year amidst the rampant COVID-19 pandemic and a crippling economy, support for Trump only grew — to 214,612 voters.

This streak of conservatism seems to run through San Jose, the Bay Area’s largest city and the heart of Silicon Valley. The city of more than a million people was once praised as a leader on many left-leaning issues, including raising the minimum wage and legalizing cannabis. But longtime political observers say the city now drags behind others.

San Jose might not be as progressive as people think.

In responding to COVID-19 and the challenges it poses, the City Council last month fumbled on adopting a higher hazard pay for grocery workers — opting to give them $3 extra per hour instead of $5. City leaders failed to ban police tactics that injured peaceful protestors and still shuns the cannabis industry despite voters legalizing weed five years ago. Now City Hall is facing a bitter fight over allowing density in single-family neighborhoods to help alleviate the housing crisis.

“If you look at the voting numbers, they are generally more progressive,” said Sean Kali-rai, a longtime political analyst and a cannabis lobbyist. “But NIMBY (not in my backyard) is stronger. NIMBY trumps progressives every day of the week.”

Santa Clara County Democratic Party Chair Bill James said San Jose’s quest to be a liberal city is dwarfed by its tug of war between business and labor interests.

“San Jose has tried to be more democratic…over time,” James told San José Spotlight. “But sometimes things end up being viewed in a very binary way.”

So how progressive is San Jose exactly? Political observers say the truth lies in the details.

Housing policy

Among a number of urgent issues in San Jose, housing — or the lack thereof — has been at the top of residents’ minds. Opportunity Housing, which would allow up to four homes on a piece of land zoned for a single home, is one solution being considered by city officials.

But the progressive housing policy is facing a robust opposition campaign. A former San Jose councilmember and now planning commissioner is penning op-eds and warning residents that it would “eliminate single-family zoning” — which is not true.

A poll sponsored by a neighborhood group found nearly half the residents surveyed opposed the measure, but backers say the survey was flawed and critics lobbied respondents to voice opposition. Then the county’s Republican Party said the measure would “nuke” single-family neighborhoods.

Last year, real estate and business groups — often a powerful lobby in San Jose — released mailers attacking a San Jose City Council candidate for supporting Opportunity Housing. The mailer, which showed tall, dark grey high-rise towers next to cheeky colorful single-family homes, was largely viewed as a dog whistle against poor people.

The debate over the policy — which has not even been crafted yet — puts San Jose, the heart of Silicon Valley, behind other cities such as Sacramento, which approved it in January.

“You have companies like Apple that are now valued at $2 trillion after breaking the $1 trillion barrier just in 2018,” said San Jose State sociology professor William Armaline. “And in the shadow of that you have one of the largest homeless encampments in the country. You have the most inaccessible, unaffordable housing market in the country.

“So I don’t think you can claim that we are progressive,” he added. “I think what you can claim is that we reflect some of the most horrific aspects of our political-economic system and implications.”

In 2020, 76% of participating San Jose residents rated the city’s availability of affordable housing as “poor” in an annual survey. The cost of living in San Jose, among the highest in the nation, was rated “poor” by roughly 70% percent of residents,

San Jose also waffled on other liberal housing policies, including expanding rent control to 11,000 duplexes and tying rent increases in those units to inflation in 2017.

Protesters clashed with San Jose police during the third day of protests Sunday over the death of George Floyd. File photo.

Police reform

Amid a national reckoning following the murder of George Floyd, police across the country fired tear gas and rubber bullets at Black Lives Matter protesters.

San Jose was no exception.

The city’s police officers used such tactics against nonviolent protesters in downtown San Jose, injuring many including a local musician who was shot in the eye while strumming his guitar.

Mayor Sam Liccardo  pushed to permanently ban the use of rubber bullets for crowd control, but the City Council did not agree. Local lawmakers ultimately voted to allow their usage if an individual posed a threat to officers.

Liccardo rejected calls from the left to defund the police, saying San Jose’s thinly-staffed department needs more resources. Other cities such as Minnesota and Portland have voted to cut funding from their police departments and redirect it to other services like mental health teams and violence prevention programs.

James said San Jose is not doing enough on police accountability which is a token issue for progressive Democrats. He wants to see officers make an attempt to deescalate conflicts, rather than using weapons or force.

Rev. Jeff Moore, who leads the local NAACP, agreed.

“Our police department just got a new BOLA gun instead of going in and defunding the police to get another type of response unit,” he said. “We didn’t go there.”

But Shane Patrick Connolly, chair of the local Republican Party, said San Jose has taken a sensible “centrist” approach to police reform.

“Rightfully, we’re looking at ways to improve public safety when it comes to unruly crowd control,” he said. “(The council) very sensitively limited (rubber bullets) without banning them because they also need to consider alternatives.”

Some school districts in San Jose still have not cut ties with police officers on campus, Moore added, while schools across the country have banned officers in schools.

“San Jose Unified refuses to do it. Why?” Moore said.

Higher wages

In 2012, San Jose voters approved raising the city’s minimum wage to $10 per hour with annual increases.

But San Jose, once a leader in raising wages, has now fallen behind its neighboring cities. The minimum wage here in January went up to $15.45 an hour, putting the city behind Sunnyvale and Mountain View, where the rate is $16.30. It’s $15.65 an hour in Santa Clara, Cupertino, Palo Alto and Los Altos.

The fight for higher wages in Silicon Valley is not new — especially for the city’s most vulnerable.

In 2017, Liccardo suggested studying exempting certain “hard-to-employ” people from a higher minimum wage, such as parolees, homeless and foster youth — but those carve-outs weren’t ultimately approved.

“Given the reality of the cost of living in the San Jose area, the minimum wage should be more here,” James said. “I’ve heard people advocating for $17 or $18.”

More recently, San Jose failed to give essential workers, such as grocery store clerks, a full $5 pay bump for working during the COVID-19 pandemic and risking their lives. Instead, local lawmakers narrowly approved a more modest $3 pay bump for 120 days after opposition from the grocery industry. Other cities such as San Leandro, Oakland and San Francisco opted for a $5 boost.

Santa Clara County approved a $5 pay bump for 180 days, but scaled back the plan to exclude restaurant workers.

“We had to struggle to get hazard pay for our people,” Moore said. “That should not have been a struggle.”

San Jose Councilmember Sergio Jimenez fought for a $5 per hour pay boost for grocery store workers for risking their health.

“I felt we lost traction in helping our local workers but realized (lowering the dollar amount) was necessary to get something over the finish line,” Jimenez said.

San Jose-based cannabis dispensary MedMen is pictured in this file photo.

Cannabis

Five years after voters in Santa Clara County overwhelmingly approved legalizing marijuana, the Bay Area’s largest city still shuns cannabis.

City Hall allowed only 16 dispensaries to open — for a city of more than a million residents — and they’re restricted to industrial sites, about 1% of the city. Most of those sites are hidden from view or in areas with limited parking.

San Jose administrators were expected to discuss expanding cannabis to retail storefronts — a plan in the works since 2019 — but leaders recently said COVID-19 recovery must come first. The plan would also allow existing dispensary owners open more than one location.

Other Bay Area cities, including Union City, Redwood City and Oakland, have allowed dispensaries in more accessible, retail areas.

In comparison to San Jose’s 16 dispensaries, Sacramento has 29 dispensaries citywide, while San Francisco has more than 200 cannabis businesses.

“This was the number one council priority in 2019, and we got more votes than anything else on the council priority list that year,” Kali-rai said. “And we still haven’t gotten it done.”

The city’s leaders also struggled to approve cannabis delivery services in 2016, while innovative delivery apps such as Eaze were being invented in neighboring cities such as San Francisco.

Over the last five years, the cannabis market has at least doubled. The marijuana businesses brought in more than $13 million in tax revenue to the city in 2018, a city report says.

“And the dispensaries have not increased in size and there are no new dispensaries,” Kali-rai said. “They have not moved to retail locations.”

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

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