He joined the Peace Corps, learned Arabic in Morocco, made life-changing prosthetics, took a stand against Wall Street banks — and he hasn’t even hit 30.
Now Jake Tonkel, 29, is topping off his 20s by running for San Jose City Council District 6 against incumbent Dev Davis to bring what he learned about caring for communities abroad home to San Jose.
“I worked with Engineers Without Borders on water access for families, road access so kids could get to school and I loved that,” Tonkel said. “It was about building relationships, one-on-one conversation, getting to know people and their stories and then doing everything I could to connect to them.”
Back in California, he began work at a biomedical company, designing equipment for hospitals and in his spare time, the Green Party member became an advocate for public banking and the environment.
Pre-pandemic, he could also be found biking and playing soccer around the city, but post pandemic, Tonkel is focused on engaging as many residents as possible to help him address the swath of issues facing San Jose — especially those related to housing and social justice.
Tonkel said the city’s current inclusionary housing policy poses a threat to solving the citywide housing crisis. He opposes the idea that housing developers can pay a fee to avoid building low-income units.
“I am very frustrated at the fact that we still have an opt-out fee in the city of San Jose, that is 20 cents on the dollar,” Tonkel said. “So that when developers come in and want to build housing, it ends up being market rate. We just are not building what we need for the diversity of our community.”
In addition to advocating for more affordable housing, Tonkel supports rent relief programs for tenants impacted by COVID-19. He also supports rent control and building community land trusts, making him the candidate of choice for local nonprofit leaders such as Sandy Perry, president of the Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County.
“Jake has shown a real interest in housing issues,” Perry said. “He resists some of this rampant downtown development, which is leading to gentrification and displacement. Just from every point of view around housing and other issues as well, I’ve been a supporter of Jake.”
Community engagement and social justice
Tonkel said he wants to “revamp” the city’s community engagement process to ensure people of color and low-income communities are equally represented. His strategy involves gathering data to see where San Jose can fill the gaps in communication and services.
“We need to have metrics about who we’re giving projects to,” Tonkel said. “Are they disproportionately white male owned businesses in the city of San Jose? Are we making sure that our grants and our contracts go to women-owned businesses and POC, owned businesses? If we take that data, and use it to make better decisions, we’re going to be in a good spot.”
Tonkel said solving problems related to crime and public safety will require talking with residents about their needs. He acknowledged some residents want more police presence, while others want less. Tonkel’s goal is to fund mental health and social services in an effort to tackle the root cause of crime: inequality and lack of resources.
“There are communities that are really struggling and instead of giving them a helping hand, we send in police,” Tonkel said. “At the end of the day, that doesn’t solve the root causes of crime.”
Local activist Monica Mallon praised Tonkel for sticking to his values, despite critics saying he would be better off aligning with another political party.
“I think the fact that he has stayed in the Green Party despite all the pressure shows that he is someone who will stick to his values,” Mallon said. “A lot of people on the council right now are there because they want to be politicians, but Jake is doing this, because he actually wants to improve things for the community.”
Councilmember Sergio Jimenez said many of Tonkel’s “progressive” views align with his own.
“He’s hardworking. He’s smart. He exemplifies the future of politics: the younger folks that are getting more engaged, that care about the environment, care about public banking,” Jimenez said.
Tonkel is endorsed by other councilmembers including Magdalena Carrasco and Raul Peralez.
Other endorsers include, South Bay Labor Council, San José Teachers Association, California Nurses Association, San Jose Firefighters Local 230, Bay Area Rising Action, South Bay YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard), Silicon Valley Democratic Socialists of America, Santa Clara County Single Payer Health Care Coalition and Green Party of Santa Clara County.
According to campaign finance reports, Tonkel has raised $127,091 this year and spent $58,719 until Sept. 19.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
“What’s the most important lesson you learned in 2020 and how has it prepared you for this role?”
AT A GLANCE
Name: Jake Tonkel
Family: Mom – Jackie, Dad – Jeff, Twin Brother – Marc, Younger Sister – Katie, Step Mom – Jewell, Step Brother Hunter, Step Sister – Heather.
Political affiliation: Green Party
Education: B.S. Mechanical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Minor in Environmental Politics and Sociology.
Profession: Senior Biomedical Engineer at Relign Corporation, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer
Current or previous elected or appointed positions: None
Top 3 priorities: Addressing Runaway Inequality (Racial and Economic), Affordable Housing, Homelessness
Top 3 endorsements: San Jose Firefighters, San Jose Teachers Association and Senator Jim Beall
Special talent: I Speak Moroccan Arabic
In one sentence, why vote for you?: “We need leadership with the diversity of experience required to tackle our inequality, homelessness and community safety issues at their root causes and I am not interested in band-aiding or hiding problems in order to climb a political ladder.”
Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.