While dozens of local candidates battled it out in November, Matt Mahan quietly prepared to move into his council office and take the reins from termed-out Councilmember Johnny Khamis.
The new Almaden Valley councilmember handily won his election in March and has since sat in on District 10 meetings to pick up where Khamis left off. He’s also fleshed out his own goals for addressing the COVID-19 crisis, homelessness and public safety in San Jose.
“I am very grateful to Johnny and his team for immediately including me in their staff meetings and making themselves available to help,” Mahan said. “It’s going to help us have a really smooth transition.”
Khamis said he wanted Mahan to hit the ground running with projects such as the trail connection between north and south San Jose, which Khamis has been working on for years. The councilmember is also preparing him for contentious discussion on housing and zoning.
“He’s a very thoughtful person,” Khamis said. “I’m glad he stepped up to the plate and I think he’s going to represent District 10 very well.”
Mahan is determined to address concerns heard on the campaign trail. After talking to thousands of District 10 residents, he heard calls for increased police presence, anxieties about theft and homelessness, gripes with illegal dumping and general lack of safety in neighborhoods.
To address homelessness, Mahan said the city should provide social services to unhoused residents to improve their quality of life in the short term while building more affordable housing to get everyone sheltered in the long term. He added the city will need to work closely with the county to make housing goals a reality.
“We have to acknowledge that our current approach isn’t good enough and we’re going to have to be more aggressive,” Mahan said.
To combat crime, Mahan plans to strengthen neighborhood watch groups and discuss ways to carefully increase police presence in neighborhoods. He said the city should consider sending social workers out with police to manage problems that may arise from mental health crises.
Mahan’s other top priority for his first term in office, aside from providing COVID-19 relief, is to increase trust in local government by making it more accountable and effective.
“With an economic downturn and unemployment on the rise, there’s only so much that the government can do to increase the resource base,” Mahan said. “Instead, we have to figure out how to be much more effective at delivering the core services that people expect from our city.”
As a former school teacher and an “ardent environmentalist,” Mahan believes the city has a role to play in bolstering educational opportunities and address environmental concerns. Before the November election, Mahan worked on the Measure T campaign. Measure T, which was overwhelmingly passed by voters in November, extends a tax to help the city buy and manage more open space.
“I’m really interested in ensuring San Jose is a city that is full of opportunity and upward mobility for everyone,” Mahan said.
A city of opportunity
Mahan attended Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose on a low-income scholarship. He took a bus for two hours each morning from his hometown of Watsonville — a working-class agricultural town with only one high school with a high dropout rate. He read the newspaper during his commute, getting lost in the day’s political saga and preparing for dinner table debates.
“Growing up, we talked about politics, religion, and all the stuff you’re not supposed to talk about at the table every night,” he said.
His senior year, he interned with the county, working alongside Sen. Jim Beall and former county counsel Ann Ravel. Mahan fell in love with the inner workings of San Jose’s local government, residents and the weather.
Mahan returned to San Jose after attending college to teach at Joseph George Middle School in Alum Rock and co-founded Brigade — an app startup which allows users to have civic debate and raise concerns to lawmakers — before running for City Council. The experiences fueled his council run and gave him a personal stake in keeping local government effective and transparent.
A changing City Council
Khamis said he and Mahan often see eye to eye, especially on the housing front. Khamis has long advocated for the city to buy property in lieu of increasing taxes to produce low-income and middle-class housing. In a recent newsletter, Khamis suggested San Jose join the California Community Housing Agency, or CalCHA, which provides tax-exempt bonds to cities for affordable housing projects.
Mahan called the idea “extremely promising.”
“People have told me he’s more liberal than I am and that’s possible,” Khamis said, adding that Mahan may be more pro-tax than himself. “But I haven’t seen anything that would make me feel that way. I haven’t seen any evidence.”
He said he hopes Mahan brings an independent voice to the council and stands up for the residents of District 10.
With two new faces on the 11-member San Jose City Council, many political observers say changes are on the horizon. The election of District 4 Councilmember-elect David Cohen is expected to shift the political winds, breaking Mayor Sam Liccardo’s 6-5 majority favoring business interests.
But what will Mahan’s election mean for the future of the council? Many say it won’t lead to any major shifts and Mahan will likely vote the same as Khamis.
Mahan was endorsed by Liccardo and Carl Guardino, the former CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, and is also a member of the SVLG’s board.
Retired San Jose State political science professor Terry Christensen predicted the new councilmember would align with Liccardo on split decisions.
“He’s definitely a liberal Democrat like the mayor, but he may be a little more cautious on some issues than the Latinx progressive faction,” Christensen said.
Mahan represents a wealthier district and will likely prioritize different issues than the councilmembers who represent lower-income neighborhoods, such as east side and downtown, Christensen said. Mahan’s biggest challenge could lie in his support of increasing housing density in San Jose, he said, a proposal called Opportunity Housing.
Mahan said San Jose will have to build more housing as the area grows.
“People may be saying they want to see more housing, but they probably won’t want to see it in his district,” Christensen said. “That’s part of the equity issue on the council.”
Christensen said his downtown San Jose neighbors are concerned about bearing too much of the affordable housing burden while other neighborhoods maintain spacious single-family homes.
Christensen said he hopes Mahan and Cohen will help bridge the divide on the City Council, which has fallen along ideological business versus labor lines. Both have promised to rise above the current business vs. labor divide.
Mahan said he wants to take a data-driven — rather than ideological— approach to policy making.
“I did not run to join a political team or faction on the council,” Mahan said. “I ran to invest in our neighborhoods and solve local problems.”
Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.