Lobbyists contribute to San Jose City Council campaigns
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo.

The top lobbyists donating to San Jose’s mayoral race are also ranking high when it comes to City Council campaign contributions.

A look at lobbyist donations during the first filing period of the 2022 election season revealed $13,550 of the $196,000 raised for council candidates came from registered lobbyists.

Although it only comprises 7% of the total, Terry Christensen, political observer and political science professor emeritus at San Jose State University, said these donations help indicate who are serious contenders in the race—or at the very least who political insiders think are the leading candidates.

Individual lobbyists, like all contributors, are capped at $700 donations per City Council candidate and $1,400 for mayoral candidates, but it’s not necessarily about the dollars. It also helps lobbyists build up their relationships with candidates.

“You can’t assume (campaign contributions) buy you a vote, and I know lobbyists wouldn’t assume that,” Christensen told San José Spotlight. “I think what it does buy you is access. Candidates are going to know who you are and they’re going to hear you out.”

Where is the money going?

More than 50% of lobbyist donations—about $7,450—went toward the District 5 race.

Planning Commissioner Rolando Bonilla received nearly half of those donations, raking in $3,750 —the most lobbyist donations not only in his race, but among all City Council candidates.

Alum Rock Union School District trustee Andres Quintero and former state Assemblymember Nora Campos received $1,400 each, and Santa Clara County Board of Education Trustee Peter Ortiz brought in $900.

Christensen said the District 5 race received the most money because those candidates are familiar names, especially in the political sphere.

“You got four people who have serious credentials and experience,” Christensen said. “Whereas in some of the other races the candidates are kind of still lower profile and probably aren’t drawing that kind of lobbyist money.”

The District 9 race brought in the next highest amount of lobbyist dollars, where incumbent Councilmember Pam Foley is currently running unopposed. This means lobbyists are likely not donating to help with her campaign, but rather to maintain or build a relationship with someone guaranteed a seat on the council.

“When they’re giving the money ideally, they get a friend,” Christensen said. “Minimally, they get somebody who’s not hostile, who will listen.”

District 7 ranked third, and will also be a highly contested race as incumbent Councilmember Maya Esparza fights for her seat against two newcomers: East Side Union High School District board member Van Le and San Jose fire Capt. Bien Doan.

Esparza received $1,900 in lobbyist donations, while Le and Doan’s filings show none.

“Lobbyists are looking at who might win, and most people are assuming Esparza is the lead candidate in that district at this point,” Christensen said, adding Le’s ability to raise more than the incumbent indicates a challenge there.

Who spent the most?

The top lobbyists contributing to the City Council races are the same donating to the mayoral race.

Erik Schoennauer’s firm, The Schoennauer Company, contributed $4,200 between six candidates and four districts. He maxed out and gave $700 for Bonilla, Campos, Esparza, Foley, Quintero and District 3 candidate Irene Smith.

He told San José Spotlight his donations do not indicate how he will vote, rather it’s based on who asks for his help.

The prolific land-use lobbyist noted what would get his support: the mayoral and District 3 candidates with the best plan to address homelessness.

“I will vote for the candidate who proves they will be the most effective at getting the mentally ill and addicted homeless people off our streets and out of our parks and creeks,” Schoennauer said. “This is by far the most important issue facing our city.”

Jerry Strangis, another active land-use consultant and lobbyist, donated $2,100—all to District 5 candidates Bonilla, Campos and Quinteros. Well known lobbyist Eddie Truong tied with Strangis in amount, but one of his donations went to Foley. The remainder went to District 5 candidates Bonilla and Ortiz. Truong leads his own lobbying firm DT Strategies and represents Westgate Church, HCA Healthcare and the Silicon Valley Restaurant Association.

Strangis said it was by chance that all his campaign contributions in December went to candidates running for the District 5 seat.

“It just happened relationship-wise that I know and like them,” Strangis told San José Spotlight. “They had reached out and asked for help, so I had no problem giving a donation.”

Armando Gomez, a San Jose employee for 16 years turned community relations lobbyist, gave to two candidates: a personal donation of $700 to Esparza and $700 to Bonilla through his lobbying firm Armando Gomez Consulting. He told San José Spotlight there was no reason he did the donations differently.

“I probably didn’t have my company credit card on me when I donated to Esparza,” Gomez said.

Canyon Snow Consulting, a lobbyist firm led by Leslee Guardino, spouse of Carl Guardino, donated $1,000 split between incumbents Foley and Esparza. Carl Guardino is a longtime politico, close friend of Mayor Sam Liccardo, former Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO and current Bloom Energy executive.

Sean Kali-rai, the second-leading lobbyist in terms of mayoral donations, only put $950 toward the council races: $250 to Bonilla and $700 to Foley.

It’s likely that much more money will flow into the races over the next few months, Christensen said. But with many lobbyists maxing out, especially in the mayoral race, it’s likely lobbyists will turn to political action committees.

“I think we’ve seen a lot of money already,” Christensen said. “The next round will probably be kind of the last one until after the primary. ”

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

Editor’s Note: Perla Rodriguez, spouse of District 5 candidate Rolando Bonilla, is on San José Spotlight’s board of directors.

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