In the final San José Spotlight reader panel of the 2022 election season, voters offered their views on what outcomes surprised them in local races, special interest spending and low voter turnout.
Six of the seven voters from the panel participated in a conversation on Nov. 16. One race that drew the most interest was the San Jose mayor’s contest, in which Councilmember Matt Mahan defeated Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez.
Mahan led in the race from the moment the polls closed. The outcome became official when Chavez conceded on Wednesday morning.
Vicente Lovelace, a Democrat and immigration law practitioner, said he was surprised Mahan defeated Chavez, and feels Mayor Sam Liccardo’s support of Mahan must have played a bigger role than he expected.
“When I saw that nine of 10 (San Jose councilmembers) endorsed Chavez instead of Mahan on the city council, I thought she was going to clean up,” Lovelace said. “That was shocking, I didn’t expect that at all.”
Ellen Middaugh, a San Jose State University associate professor, felt the race was going to be close from the beginning, but questioned whether Liccardo’s support actually benefited Mahan.
“I’m not sure that folks are feeling that the current city government structure is effective,” she said. “For me, the Liccardo endorsement worked against me being supportive of Mahan because I feel like the city has not been working well.”
Donald Gagliardi, a 58-year-old attorney and independent, said he didn’t vote for either Chavez or Mahan because of their support for COVID-19 vaccination mandates for public employees. He thinks the support for Mahan is “relatively superficial” and his short political record might work against him in 2024 when he’s up for reelection.
“Cindy Chavez has been around a long time, and I think this was a referendum on her, as opposed to Matt Mahan, who is sort of a sphinx to a lot of people,” Gagliardi said. “I think a lot of people held their nose and voted for Matt Mahan, because they wanted anybody but Cindy.”
Gagliardi, Middaugh and Alex Shoor, the executive director of housing advocacy group Catalyze SV, were all thrown by San Jose Councilmember Maya Esparza losing her bid for reelection in District 7.
“I would say more than even surprising, it would elevate to the level of shocking,” Shoor said. “This is a councilmember who’s been present and has been an advocate, and raised money, so it’s just really surprising.”
Low voter turnout in East San Jose could have spelled defeat for Esparza, and possibly Chavez, community advocates and political experts have said. The panel discussed ways to boost turnout and why some people may be turned off from voting with several propositions on the ballot.
Middaugh said in talking with her students, they said they sometimes feel overwhelmed when their ballot arrives in the mail.
“They talked about just how long the ballots are and how many things there are to consider, and how it was challenging to make sense of some of these things,” she said. “Some of the propositions that may be most relevant to their perspectives were not the ones getting the most funding and flyers out.”
Lisa Charpontier, a Democrat and landscape architect, said her family participates in discussions about political issues facilitated by a national organization called Braver Angels, that seeks to reduce polarization.
She said having more local conversations seeking common ground on divisive issues could encourage more people to vote.
“When you take out the negative advertising, when you take out the people who are angry and speak the loudest, you get down to people understanding that we really do want a lot of the same things,” Charpontier said.
All panelists are concerned about the massive waves of special interest spending in local elections, from the millions spent by the 49ers in Santa Clara’s races to the business interests in San Jose’s mayor’s race.
Lovelace said he thinks Councilmember Anthony Becker’s loss to Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor, despite Becker having major support from the 49ers, proves that outside expenditures are wasteful.
“It could have gone to schools, it could have gone to parks, it could have gone to libraries,” Lovelace said. “That money is all gone now. And for what?”
Carmen Brammer, a San Jose Democrat and member of the Black Leadership Kitchen Cabinet, said it makes no sense to her that so much money can be spent willingly on campaigns, but not on improving communities.
“Whenever you propose something, the first thing you’re going to hear is, ‘Where are we going to get the funding?’ Yet when campaigns are run, money comes out of the woodwork,” Brammer said. “It’s shocking and frightening and we’ve got to figure out how to stop this from going forward.”