Op-ed: In a multiracial democracy, we need to demand better from our leaders
Residents packed into the San Jose City Council chambers to speak for or against holding a special election to fill two vacancies on Dec. 5, 2022. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    San Jose councilmembers voted 7-4 on Dec. 5 to fill two vacancies through an appointment process by the end of January.

    We’re grateful to Councilmembers David Cohen, Sergio Jimenez, Dev Davis, Sylvia Arenas, Maya Esparza, Raul Peralez and Magdalena Carrasco for honoring their positions and doing what’s right for San Jose. Their decision ensures residents of District 8 and 10 have continuity of representation, and an advocate who continually represents their needs, especially through the city budget process in March.

    Like many San Joseans who attended or tuned in to the meeting, we were shocked to see members of our community silenced by loud boos, yelling and disorderly behavior from their fellow citizens. We were disappointed to observe certain councilmembers encourage this behavior, disrespecting and disregarding the voices of residents that held different views from them.

    This was an opportunity for us to come together as citizens of San Jose, regardless of our occupation, ZIP code or ethnicity, and support a process that would make immediate positive change for all of us, especially our most vulnerable residents. Instead, Mayor Sam Liccardo, Mayor-elect Matt Mahan and their allies continued to use the divisive tactics they employed during the midterms. They used this public forum to pit us against each other, all in an effort to intimidate councilmembers and further their own political goals.

    Between us, we have decades of experience working with communities of color and low-income communities in this city. We know from experience the people of San Jose listen to each other, stand side by side with their neighbors during times of crises and fight for each others’ right to safety, opportunity, care and voice. In fact, earlier this year, they voted together to pass Measure B because they understand democracy is best served when more people vote, not fewer.

    The right to vote is sacred: no one knows this better than the historically disenfranchised. Members of our Black, Indigneous, AAPI and Latino communities and immigrant communities have had to fight long, hard battles to have a voice in our elections. Still, the playing field is far from level. Historical evidence shows special elections have poor voter turnout, especially from communities of color and low-income communities. Liccardo and Mahan called for a special election knowing full well that a whiter and more wealthy electorate would vote in their favor. This is not what real democracy looks like.

    A transparent and community-centered appointment process is far more representative and fair to all of our residents. Appointments are not only standard practice in cities across our state, but also the right choice for our communities. Following this election cycle, our neighboring cities of San Mateo and Berkeley have already begun the process of filling vacant city council seats through appointments, with the support of their constituents.

    Yet, instead of respecting San Jose’s charter, concerns lifted up by the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters or the critical issues raised by his colleagues on the city council, our mayor made thinly veiled threats of impending recalls, should the council proceed with the appointment process.

    We need to demand better from our leaders. We need to elect representatives that put constituents first, and that respect the nuances of a multiracial democracy such as ours.

    For decades, community organizations like ours have worked side by side with our labor allies to make San Jose a city in which all people, regardless of their occupation, ethnicity or status can thrive. Together we have passed bonds to build affordable housing, rebuild Valley Medical Center and raise the minimum wage above an intolerable $7.50 an hour. Our work is powered not by corporate dollars and political interests, but by working families and their commitment to building a better future for their families and communities.

    There is a lot of work to be done and now is the time for working people, our business community and our public servants to come together around critical issues: the homelessness crisis, good jobs, equitable access to care and public safety.

    The Dec. 5 decision was about fair representation, accountable leadership and real democracy—let’s work toward a future where we can continue to practice these values.

    Mayra Pelagio is executive director of Latinos United for a New America. Richard Konda is executive director of the Asian Law Alliance. Carmen Brammer is a political strategist and community advocate.

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