Is Cindy Chavez shifting to the right in San Jose mayor’s race?
Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez speaks at a news conference about wildfire risks from illegal fireworks in this file photo.

A recent San Jose mayoral candidate forum left many politicos scratching their heads.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez—a household name for her work in local labor movements and roots in Working Partnerships USA and the South Bay Labor Council—took two positions that sounded inconsistent to fellow labor-leaning leaders and based on her past policies.

During a mayoral candidate forum hosted last week by the Willow Glen Neighborhood Association, Chavez said she won’t support Senate Bill 9 or a proposal to expand voting rights to noncitizens in San Jose.

The statewide housing bill SB 9 allows property owners to build additional units on an existing lot in single-family neighborhoods. Homeowners who have occupied their home for three years and have lots larger than 1,200 square feet could build up to four additional units. In an effort to densify suburban neighborhoods to expand the housing stock, the bill gives cities less say in turning down multi-unit residential building projects and makes the permit process easier.

San Jose Councilmember and mayoral candidate Raul Peralez is the only candidate to voice support. His council colleagues and opponents, Councilmembers Dev Davis and Matt Mahan, joined Chavez in opposing the bill.

“I certainly have heard the surprise from individuals in our community (when) she did not support SB 9,” Peralez told San José Spotlight. “I was honestly more surprised that she didn’t give an explanation or reason.”

In the highly-anticipated race this year to replace Mayor Sam Liccardo, Peralez and Chavez are the leading labor candidates, with Davis and Mahan aligning as pro-business. However, the mayoral forum may indicate that Chavez is moving to the right to position herself toward the center, San Jose State University political science professor Garrick Percival said.

It’s likely an attempt to “neutralize the Opportunity Housing issue” since both Davis and Mahan have both come out in opposition, although Mahan voted in favor of implementing SB 9 last month, Percival said. Opportunity Housing was a local measure to densify single-family neighborhoods that was shelved when SB 9 passed.

“It also provides her a bit of daylight between herself and Raul Peralez who are both competing for votes among more liberal and labor-oriented voters and interest groups,” Percival told San José Spotlight.

Not a good fit

Chavez, however, said her progressive positions have not changed. She just doesn’t see SB 9 as a good fit for San Jose.

“I believe it puts renters at risk of being displaced, will continue crowding and it can’t be effectively monitored,” Chavez told San José Spotlight. “I don’t think local governments were engaged enough in the process. Policies that are that broad make it very difficult for them to be responsive to regions or even cities.”

Chavez said she doesn’t support allowing noncitizens to vote in San Jose because it’s a right that should be reserved for citizens. She added she’s been a leader in expanding access to voting, noting that Santa Clara County became one of the first counties in the country to make mail-in ballots free while she was a county supervisor.

Earlier this month, San Jose councilmembers voted to explore the idea of allowing noncitizens to participate in local elections. They want to put the question to voters in the upcoming election. Davis was the lone dissenting vote at the City Council meeting.

“I have a long history of fighting for real paths to citizenship for those in our community who seek that goal,” Chavez said. “But that policy paper was very broad.”

Vying for endorsements

Major labor groups like the South Bay Labor Council have not yet endorsed candidates. They also haven’t provided a position on noncitizen voting rights or SB 9, but if history is any indicator, those are likely topics they would support, Peralez said.

Working Partnerships USA does not endorse candidates as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, but did endorse SB 9.

Representatives at South Bay Labor Council did not respond to requests for comment about Chavez’s opposition to the two progressive policies.

Some longtime labor leaders say these issues could very well define the mayor’s race.

Raj Jayadev, founder of Silicon Valley De-Bug, said positions on equity housing, systemic racism and the criminalization of poverty will be especially important for left-leaning voters.

“Those topics used to be thought of as kind of siloed or periphery issues. And now, I think they’re center stage as the defining political measuring sticks for candidates,” Jayadev told San José Spotlight. “There’s much more of a feeling of awareness and urgency that these are issues that have to be responded to by people trying to get votes.”

Divided support

Chavez has endorsements from pro-labor politicians including San Jose Councilmembers Magdalena Carrasco and David Cohen, as well as state Assemblymember Evan Low. She has also gotten support from former Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO and Bloom Energy executive Carl Guardino.

His support for Chavez raised eyebrows because he often backs pro-business candidates aligned with Liccardo. Guardino, who was just elected vice chair of the California Transportation Commission, said he supports Chavez because she has the skills to bring her “visionary goals to reality,” citing accomplishments such as the affordable housing bond Measure A and the children’s health care initiative.

Peralez, who also received Carrasco’s endorsement, has received solo endorsements from labor proponents Councilmembers Sylvia Arenas, Maya Esparza and Sergio Jimenez along with small business owners, educators and other local leaders. Those include Berryessa Flea Market Vendor Association President Roberto Gonzalez and Santa Clara Valley Water Board Director Gary Kremen.

“Chavez has been a very strong advocate for labor longer than I have and she headed up the Labor Council. So none of that is lost on me,” Peralez said. “But I can say definitively I have been one of the strongest labor allies on the council over the last seven years so I don’t know if that’s going to make (me) a stronger favorite candidate with labor.”

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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