Major political changes coming to Santa Clara City Hall
Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Katie Lauer.

One incumbent councilmember is out. Three new faces are in. And Mayor Lisa Gillmor has lost her stronghold on the Santa Clara City Council.

“You’ve got a unique city because they have so much potential in Santa Clara and all of it is being squandered on personality,” said political consultant Rich Robinson. “This election is a huge win for those who want to move it forward and I think that’s what the electorate was looking for when they decided to go this route.”

On Tuesday, Santa Clara voters sent a resounding message to City Hall — they ousted Gillmor ally Teresa O’Neill and replaced her with Kevin Park. They voted for Suds Jain and Anthony Becker to a pair of open seats over two Gillmor-backed candidates.

One of those two seats belonged to termed-out Councilmember Debi Davis, who was also a reliable vote for the mayor.

That means Gillmor has lost her majority on the council and has one solid ally: Kathy Watanabe, who won re-election Tuesday over opponent Harbir K. Bhatia.

The sea change in Santa Clara could also bring dramatic change to the city’s contentious relationship with the San Francisco 49ers. Robinson said the three newcomers could reverse course from the council’s stalemates and infighting under Gillmor.

“Now that she has – I wouldn’t say a minority on the council – but a reasonable group of people who are willing to work with the Niners, hopefully the situation will change in a constructive manner,” Robinson said.

Park, Jain and Becker have advocated for making amends with the 49ers and maintaining Santa Clara’s six districts for elections. The city in 2017 was sued over its at-large voting system, which opponents said violated the California Voting Rights Act, diluted the minority vote and disenfranchised voters of color. The city was ordered by a judge to split into six districts as a result.

Gillmor and her allies have vehemently fought the changes, pushing an unsuccessful ballot measure in March to halve the number of districts from six to three and appealing the CVRA lawsuit the city lost.

City leaders and political observers credited the district system for expanding racial representation with the election of Park and Jain.

Only 45% of Santa Clara residents are white, according to the 2010 Census. However, Councilmember Raj Chahal was the only non-white councilmember before the 2020 election.

Park said he hopes to expand representation beyond the election by reversing the city’s appeal of the CVRA lawsuit.

“If you want minority representation, we could legislate minority representation, have put together ordinances, we could have put together ballot measures that are consistent with the CVRA guidelines, but we didn’t, we decided to fight for the CVRA lawsuit.”

Watanabe and Gillmor both advocated for the appeal of the California Voting Rights Act lawsuit and the reduction of districts in the city. Watanabe could not immediately be reached for comment.

Robinson, who was former Santa Clara Mayor Judy Nadler’s campaign manager, said the city’s course in decision-making and ethics has taken a downturn under Gillmor’s leadership.

Gillmor did not respond to requests for comment.

“It was considered one of the most ethical cities in the state of California, now it’s considered a joke,” Robinson said. “But I think the damage can be repaired.”

The squabbling with the 49ers stems from Gillmor’s refusal to reach consensus, he said.

“I know the Niners, based on what I’ve seen, they are tremendously interested in working with the city on a positive level,” he said. “To my understanding, it’s just their personalities. Lisa’s just throwing stones.”

Park called the stalemate with the NFL team “counterproductive” and said he’ll aim to find common ground.

“Right now, the reality is, the stadium is here. We can’t tear it down,” Park said. “So the reality is we have it and we can’t get our money back. How do we get money from the stadium so we can pay off the stadium loan. All the things that were promised in Measure J? We need to start reaping the benefits of those.”

The election in Santa Clara got heated and costly. The 49ers poured millions into a PAC supporting Park, Jain and Becker. Meanwhile, developer Related Companies funneled money through the city’s police union to elect Gillmor’s allies.

Still, Councilmember Karen Hardy said Park, Jain and Becker will bring a fresh perspective and new ideas to the council.

“There’s things that we agree on and there’s things we’ll fight about, but we fight about issues,” Hardy said. “It’s not personalities.”

Councilmember Raj Chahal said the newcomers will think independently and not as a faction.

“Every councilmember should think independently and not in a group. That’s what we got,” Chahal said. “We have very analytical people right now. They are experienced and will vote for the residents.”

Reporter Devin Collins contributed to this story.

Contact Mauricio La Plante at [email protected] or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.

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