Meet the man looking to oust Santa Clara County’s district attorney
Public Defender Sajid Khan, center, announced his campaign for district attorney Sunday. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen has coasted to reelection in all of his races. But progressive public defender Sajid Khan—after months of speculation and criticizing Rosen’s approach to prosecution—will be Rosen’s first challenger.

Khan, 38, announced Sunday he’s running for district attorney, marking Rosen’s first opponent since elected in 2010.

“The time for transformation is now. Santa Clara County needs a true, real progressive DA, and I’m honored to be that person,” Khan said. “A living commitment to truth-telling about systemic racism. A living commitment to shrinking mass criminalization, to addressing root causes of crime and bringing our system to basic notions of justice and humanity.”

The official announcement came at a rally Sunday afternoon in downtown San Jose. Musicians performed, including Mary Jessie Celestin, founder of mutual aid group San Jose Strong.

“Everyone here has tangible memories of Sajid being with the community,” Celestin told San José Spotlight. “Name an event, he’s always there. He never makes it about himself. He’s always asking himself how he can use his talents to help residents of San Jose be their best selves.”

The rally’s speakers focused on issues they felt unjustly impacted the criminal justice system, including mass incarceration. Supporters called for a new approach to criminal justice, away from Rosen’s, who speakers say has sentenced young men of color at a higher rate for low-level crimes.

Rosen has traditionally been a tough-on-crime prosecutor. Rosen has garnered criticism for his handling of white-collar crime and domestic abuse cases. He pushed back against Senate Bill 1391, which bars the prosecution of 14- and 15-year-olds as adults.

“I have seen how this system fails to rehabilitate people, fails to create sustainable public safety, especially in marginalized communities and communities of color,” Khan told San José Spotlight. “We believe the reforms we will implement will hold people accountable while also honoring survivors and victims of crime.”

Khan says he’s committed to not prosecuting any teens as adults. Khan also said he will be tough on police officers who are accused of misconduct and promises to prosecute police officers who kill unarmed individuals or use excessive force. Khan criticized Rosen for dropping charges against San Jose police officers who allegedly made racist and sexist social media posts.

Khan’s endorsements include Raj Jayadev, the cofounder of Silicon Valley De-Bug, retired county judge LaDoris Cordell, Gilroy Councilmember Rebeca Armendariz, ReEvolution cofounder Paul Bocanegra and Jahmal Williams, co-chair of the Black Leadership Kitchen Cabinet of Silicon Valley.

Gilroy Councilmember Rebeca Armendariz endorses Khan Sunday. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

Armendariz recalled, through tears, how her cousin was killed by Gilroy police.

“We are here today because we don’t want to hashtag another one of our loved ones. … We don’t want to have to say more names,” Armendariz said. “We deserve leadership that recognizes our humanity and acts with respect and dignity and love. We deserve a leader who is dedicated to transforming this broken system.”

Khan, a 13-year public defender, is the latest in a wave of progressives either seeking or winning DA offices in cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco amid calls for reform after the police killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd and subsequent protests. These reformists promise to turn the practice of prosecution on its head: more lenient sentences for drug possession-related crimes, more oversight for law enforcement and fewer cops in places like schools.

The movement has garnered criticism for the lenient sentencing of alleged criminals.

San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin is fending off calls for his ousting amid a rise in hate crimes in the city. Los Angeles DA George Gascon faces a similar fate from residents who have criticized him for reexamining police shooting cases. The leader of Gascon’s recall effort, Desiree Andrade, is angry that Gascon declined to seek the death penalty or a life sentence without parole for her son’s killers.

Khan officially announces his candidacy Sunday afternoon. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

Rosen is seeking a fourth consecutive term as district attorney. He was first elected in 2010 when he unseated his boss, one-term incumbent Dolores Carr. He ran unopposed in 2014 and 2018.

Rosen in recent weeks has come under fire from some attorneys in his own office.

Just last week, San José Spotlight reported that Rosen’s office allegedly retaliated against deputy DA Daniel Chung by issuing “be on the lookout” notices—otherwise known as BOLOs—for Chung after he wrote unauthorized editorials critical of the office and was placed on indefinite leave on May 28.

The move is unprecedented and Chung’s union representatives told him they had never seen the office issue a BOLO for an attorney placed on leave.

Chung also criticized Rosen in a San José Spotlight op-ed, calling for an investigation of the DA over several violations, including using political campaign funds to reimburse Chung for a private non-campaign expenditure.

Rosen said in a statement that his efforts have decreased crime and increased public safety.

“I’m proud that over the last decade my team and I have crafted a national model that proves criminal justice reform walks shoulder-to-shoulder with public safety,” Rosen said in a statement. “There’s more to be done and we’re determined to do it. Together with our community, we are bending the arc toward justice.”

Khan and Rosen have sparred before: In June 2020, Khan, in a now-deleted blog post, blamed Rosen, along with police, for disproportionately arresting and prosecuting Black and Latino people at a far higher rate than other racial groups. In response, Rosen filed a whistleblower complaint, which he subsequently retracted, claiming that Khan’s blog post constituted a threat against him.

Supporters of Sajid Khan hold signs. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

The San Jose Police Officers Association is expected to pour significant resources to oppose Khan. The police union launched a website attacking Khan for his views on diverting police funding to community resources and accusing him of siding with the sentencing of convicted rapist Brock Turner. The judge in Turner’s case, Aaron Persky, was criticized for sentencing Turner to three months for rape.

Khan had said mass incarceration is a result of a criminal justice system he believes is broken.

Khan is a San Jose High School alum and a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

He is the only contender running for the District Attorney seat as of now. The election for the county post is June 2022.

“I come from a family devoted to justice and service and betterment of people around us. I don’t feel alone in this effort,” Khan said. “I’m merely a tip of the sword of this collective effort to effectuate the community and culture we want to see.”

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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