How will David Cohen shake up the San Jose City Council?
David Cohen chats with District 4 residents at a Sept. 23 neighborhood meet-and-greet. Photo courtesy of David Cohen.

As the newly-elected David Cohen gears up to represent San Jose’s District 4, political observers look to the past to see where local policymaking is headed.

The council for years has been divided across business and labor lines, leading to a handful of 6-5 split decisions in favor of Mayor Sam Liccardo’s voting bloc, which includes Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, councilmembers Johnny Khamis, Dev Davis, Pam Foley and Lan Diep — who Cohen unseated in the Nov. 3 election.

After winning a hard-fought race, Cohen could dismantle the current business-friendly majority on the San Jose City Council by pushing back against policies traditionally supported by Liccardo and his allies.

With Diep gone after one term, Cohen’s progressive presence will shift that power in favor of the labor-oriented faction known as the Latino Caucus. But Cohen said he is not looking to play partisan politics.

“While my values align more with the labor-aligned bloc, my expectation is that the entire council will come together and be able to compromise rather than just switch from 5-6 to 6-5 on difficult votes,” Cohen told San José Spotlight. “I plan to work well with all my council colleagues.”

The labor-aligned bloc includes councilmembers Maya Esparza, Sylvia Arenas, Magdalena Carrasco, Raul Peralez and Sergio Jimenez. Peralez and Jimenez publicly endorsed Cohen for his progressive values. Yet it is still unclear whether Cohen will actually vote alongside one faction or another.

“It’s a little too early to fully determine, but I definitely think we will see some change — I just don’t know exactly what,” Peralez said. “David is clearly going to come in with his own priorities … I endorsed him because I feel that he’s more closely aligned with the values that I’ve been fighting for.”

He said the council will just have to wait and see how contentious votes play out. Cohen’s campaign and past stances on split decisions may provide a glimpse into how he might vote as a new councilmember.

Some major split votes and stalemates over the past year could have been swayed by Cohen.

Last year, the council majority led by Liccardo shot down a labor-backed proposal called the Fair Elections Initiative to move mayoral elections to presidential years to increase voter turnout, particularly among communities of color. Cohen supports the Fair Elections Initiative.

Diep was also the deciding factor in a split 6-5 vote to charge fees of commercial developers at a lower rate to fund affordable housing — a decision Cohen said he would have opposed because of the lower rates.

Liccardo’s majority also won a split vote last year to extend a tax break for high-rise developers in downtown San Jose, a move critics called a giveaway to developers.

Cohen, who has been a longtime advocate for racial equity and working families, has also criticized the current council for their divisiveness surrounding the creation of an equity fund.

Peralez recalled the Latino’s Caucus’ initial push in 2019 to create the fund, which would have set aside city dollars to go toward neighborhoods facing the greatest poverty and crime in San Jose. After hours of back and forth between councilmembers, the proposal was shot down by Liccardo and the final budget was adopted without the equity fund.

Jimenez said Cohen will be a “breath of fresh air” on the City Council.

“It’s no secret that we’ve lacked the ability to move progressive sort of items on the agenda in a meaningful way, because we haven’t had enough votes,” Jimenez said. “When necessary, you’ll see us pushing things in the right direction.”

Mayor Sam Liccardo said the notion that one faction is more pro-equity than another is inaccurate, saying the budget issue has been mischaracterized.

“I think there is a broad consensus that we need to focus resources where the needs are the greatest,” Liccardo told San José Spotlight in a recent interview. The mayor said he believes he’ll work with with Cohen, despite any business-labor division.

“I think a lot of folks want to apply whatever dysfunction they see in Washington, to local politics and assume that all must work the same way. But I don’t think mayors have the luxury of being overly partisan, or ideological,” Liccardo said. “Mayors are expected to get things done and that’s been my approach since the time I got into office.”

Garrick Percival, political science professor at San Jose State University, said he expects to see the most notable change in how the council votes on housing policies, as Diep was a proponent of “deepening incentives for developers.”

When the council discussed commercial linkage fees — a fee that would obligate commercial developers to fund affordable housing projects — the Latino Caucus opposed the fees for being too low. Cohen previously told San José Spotlight he would’ve voted for higher commercial linkage fees than those approved in September.

During his campaign, Cohen also advocated for housing projects for all income levels.

Cohen said he has yet to take a stance on Opportunity Housing, which allows up to four units to be built in single-family neighborhoods, but said he supports tiny homes, ADUs and permanent supportive housing for homeless residents.

“We have to have a discussion about adding density to existing neighborhoods,” Cohen said. “Opportunity Housing may be a way but there are some issues to work out before it could be implemented citywide.”

If San Jose resumes its discussion about adopting a strong mayor system, Cohen may align more with Liccardo’s voting faction. The majority gained the upper hand to increase mayoral powers in a 6-5 split before Liccardo dropped the plan.

Cohen said he took issue with the rushed nature of the proposal to increase the mayor’s power and extend his term by two years — which the Latino Caucus called a “back room” power grab — but he doesn’t oppose revisiting the idea of a strong mayor system in San Jose.

Cohen’s long history of serving as a Berryessa Union School Board trustee might also affect his policy decisions.

For example, Cohen opposed a council vote to add an overpass near Orchard Elementary School. The overpass —which Diep voted to install — threatened child safety, according to Cohen.

Esparza, who endorsed Cohen in the runoff, said the new elect’s experience on the school board and relationship with the Democratic Party will keep him focused on the needs of the community.

“What I’m hoping to see is a lot more give and take during council meetings,” Esparza said.

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

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