Jake Tonkel is crossing his fingers that he can trade his biomedical engineering job making heart valves and surgical devices for one at San Jose City Hall.
The 29-year-old announced his run for office in July, challenging District 6 incumbent Dev Davis, who was elected in 2016 with nearly 54 percent of the vote.
Tonkel has been interested in politics from a young age, but he’s running now because he said certain people aren’t being heard and seen in the community. “You can push and push and push, but if you don’t have allies in politics, we’re doing a lot of work as volunteers that just gets put out like a cigarette butt,” he said.
Though Tonkel hasn’t served in an elected or appointed position, he was part of the push last year to bring public banking to Silicon Valley, an effort that led to a successful bill in the Legislature in 2019.
Tonkel’s campaign includes advocating for investments in community land and housing trusts and creating denser housing along major transportation corridors. He’s also pushing to increase public transit investment and encourage local hiring, in addition to advocating for worker-owned business cooperatives and requiring zero-energy buildings ahead of the state’s 2030 deadline.
But his top priority is addressing inequality.
“We’ve got a lot of wealth and then we’ve got a lot of families struggling to get by, and honestly, it affects everything from how many people are driving long distances on our roads to the time that they can spend with their kids … to how much funding we get for certain public schools,” he said. “It really just divides us as a community.”
That stance is what snagged the endorsement from the South Bay Labor Council, said Ben Field, the organization’s executive officer.
“It’s about good, quality jobs and affordable housing at the same time … and I think Jake sees the issue the same way,” he said. “I think he is very much in touch with the needs of this community and that is a breath of fresh air and is really something that District 6 needs.”
According to recent financial disclosures, Tonkel has raised more than $49,488 for his campaign.
Far apart from the incumbent
In addition to Davis, Tonkel is facing two others vying to unseat the Willow Glen lawmaker: Climate activist Marshall Woodmansee and tech sales worker Ruben Navarro.
The three contenders, both Tonkel and Field acknowledged, have more in common than they do differences.
“They are much closer aligned with each other than they are with Dev, who really stands apart,” Field said.
Tonkel says he prefers face-to-face interactions instead of the social media many millennials grew up using. He knocks on doors in the district most afternoons, though he often has to go back to work when he’s done.
“You’ve got to build the trust first,” he said. “It’s hard to do that online.”
One recent afternoon, he knocked on doors in Willow Glen and neighbors, at first skeptical, quickly warmed to the clean-cut council hopeful in a button-up shirt on their doorstep, often commenting on his past work with the Peace Corps and looking impressed when noting his work in biomedical engineering.
“So, you plan to leave your full-time job if you’re elected?” one resident asked, sizing up Tonkel.
“I would leave in January 2021 if — knock on wood — I win,” he said with a smile and a knock on the side of the house. “It’s something I’m excited about.”