In 2020, San Jose leaders contended with protests, a pandemic, housing shortages — and their own flubs
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo is pictured in this file photo.

    In 2020, San Jose endured weeks of protest, a housing crisis, a historic election and a pandemic that led to the deaths of more than 650 area residents. Local lawmakers were forced to make tough decisions to keep the city running. Here are some of the year’s most contentious and impactful political moments.

    George Floyd’s death leads to (some) police reform

    The death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, sparked protests nationwide and in San Jose against police brutality and systemic racism. City lawmakers responded to the protests with a smattering of reforms. After more than 1,000 people contacted the San Jose Police Department to complain about the use of force, the city discussed ways to hold law enforcement officials accountable for abuses.

    Protesters clash with San Jose police during the third day of protests over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man. Photo by Luke Johnson.

    The City Council voted in favor of publicly posting police body-worn camera footage when an officer’s behavior was called into question. And after  leaders voted to put it on the November ballot, voters approved Measure G, which gives the independent police auditor additional authority to review officer-involved shootings and uses of force.

    But not all attempts at reform were successful. After numerous people were injured by rubber bullets at the Floyd protests, Mayor San Liccardo proposed police be barred from firing them into crowds. However, the City Council rejected his proposal on a 11-1 vote.

    Business closures, lack of help

    As COVID-19 raged across the country, state and local leaders set strict safety guidelines that initially forced most businesses to close, then gradually allowed many to reopen but often at only limited capacity. As the pandemic ebbed and flowed, state and local officials repeatedly adjusted the rules governing which businesses could be open and how many customers they could have at a time. Local gyms, hair and nail salons, restaurants, shops and the like struggled to comply with the rules — and stay in business.

    Local lawmakers tried to buoy local businesses. The county enacted an eviction moratorium that barred landlords from kicking out commercial tenants who weren’t paying rent — then repeatedly extended the moratorium as the pandemic raged on. For its part, the city enacted a program known as San Jose Al Fresco, which represented an attempt to help keep alive businesses barred from offering indoor services by allowing them to offer those services outdoors instead. But the fluctuating rules governing which businesses could stay open prevented many of them from taking advantage of the program. By early December, with the pandemic resurging, restaurants were again barred from serving customers outdoors or indoors and many were buckling under the pressure.

    Lawmakers freeze rent for tenants, leave out landlords

    With the pandemic forcing numerous business closures and job cuts, many residents were left struggling to make rent. Area leaders offered some help. The City Council in April approved a moratorium on rent increases. Meanwhile, officials at both the state and local level put in place measures that barred landlords from evicting tenants if they weren’t paying rent due to coronavirus-related reasons. The county in November extended its eviction moratoriums into 2021.

    But the measures only offered limited protections. The City Council abandoned a proposal that would have completely suspended rent after the city attorney warned it would violate the U.S. Constitution. Meanwhile, city leaders did little to help landlords who faced the prospect of seeing their rental income slashed by the measures. 

    City secures more housing amid shortage

    With the coronavirus crisis threatening to worsen the city’s already dire housing situation, city leaders prioritized affordable housing.

    Residents take part in a rally to demand affordable housing. Photo courtesy of Athena Chow.

    In February, the city opened 40 “tiny homes” to house homeless people. In September, the City Council voted to charge commercial developers more fees to fund affordable housing projects. One month later, the city approved three emergency interim shelters and purchased the Sure Stay Best Western San Jose Airport hotel to use as additional housing.

    But those efforts weren’t enough to fully address the housing crisis. And the situation could get worse early next year when the eviction moratorium expires. Renters are required to pay half of their outstanding rent by the end of February, a requirement many may not be able to meet given the ongoing pandemic-related business slump and continuing unemployment. Meanwhile, despite not having available housing for many homeless residents, the city continued to clear out encampments.

    ‘Strong mayor’ push loses power

    Amid the pandemic and the Floyd protests, Liccardo proposed his office be given more authority and accountability over the city’s governance. His push to create a “strong mayor” system ended up being one of the year’s most controversial proposals. The council in July voted to put the measure on the November ballot, but the 6-5 vote was an indication of the widespread opposition to it. Critics called the move a power grab. Liccardo eventually dropped the plan after receiving backlash from residents and the so-called Latino Caucus — the progressive, labor-aligned faction on the council. Instead of putting the issue before voters, the council decided to put the issue in the hands of an independent charter review commission.

    But that wasn’t the end of the controversy. In December, Liccardo appointed ally Lan Diep, who lost his bid for reelection to the council, to the charter review commission, a move that raised eyebrows.

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    Power balance shifts from business to labor

    After years of being dominated by pro-business members, San Jose’s City Council got a shakeup. Two of the pro-business faction — Diep and Johnny Khamis — were replaced in November’s election. During Liccardo’s mayoralty, the council’s business faction — which included the mayor, Diep, Khamis, Vice Mayor Chappie Jones and councilmembers Pam Foley and Dev Davis — had typically prevailed in close votes. Some observers expect Matt Mahan, who is replacing Khamis, to ally himself with the mayor. But the election of David Cohen, who defeated Diep, could give the pro-labor faction the upper hand.

    Political flubs of the year

    As much as local lawmakers tried to maintain an appearance of sober statesmanship amid the pandemic and the election season, many fell short of the mark.

    Take the mayor. With the Floyd protests raging, the city put in place a curfew to try to calm things down and arrested people who violated it — people other than the mayor, that is. All he faced for riding his bike after the curfew was public scorn.

    But his misstep wasn’t the only one by a city leader. Foley used the term “race wars” in relation to the unrest during Floyd protests, then later apologized for her choice of words. She wasn’t the only one making apologies. Khamis made one in June. He joked in poor taste about having a bad Wi-Fi connection even though he doesn’t live in a “low-income neighborhood.” And Liccardo made another one after he set a bad example — and ignored state health guidelines for the pandemic — when he celebrated Thanksgiving.

    But the biggest apology of the year didn’t come from a lawmaker at all.

    Racist ad dismantles the Silicon Valley Organization

    The race for San Jose City Council District 6 had unintended consequences for one of the city’s most powerful business groups, the Silicon Valley Organization. The SVO’s political action committee spent more than half a million dollars to influence the election, orchestrating an attack campaign against Jake Tonkel, who was trying to unseat Davis. Davis ended up winning, but the campaign had consequences for The SVO due to a racist ad that sparked citywide outrage. The fallout: Former CEO Matt Mahood resigned, The SVO dissolved its PAC and the organization hired a new interim CEO to clean up the mess.

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

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