First, congratulations to Matt Mahan for winning the San Jose mayor’s race. He wasn’t my choice, but I wish him the best of success.
Mahan won the race for mayor, but his opponent Cindy Chavez did not lose. Electorally, San Jose is a tale of two cities. One, a voting majority made up of neighborhoods like West Valley, Berryessa, Evergreen, Almaden, South San Jose and Willow Glen. The second city is the downtown core, north and east. The latter is less affluent and culturally more self-identified with San Jose as a major city. The former could care less.
In the last major campaigns for mayor, this divide has determined the outcome of elections. All the money, campaigning, messaging and ground troops have not changed this electoral dynamic. Former Mayor Chuck Reed, Mayor Sam Liccardo and now Mayor-elect Mahan benefit from this cultural divide, as the neighborhoods are where the votes reside.
As I grew up in West Valley, it is in my empirical experience the neighborhoods see city governance as a formality in their lives, but not as an integral part of their community. There is no civic pride in being part of San Jose in the West Valley. Many would prefer to be part of Cupertino, Campbell or Saratoga.
Other neighborhoods such as Almaden, Berryessa and South San Jose have a similar mentality, especially regarding downtown. Willow Glen, an anomaly, sees itself as a small village of its own—with only the concern that downtown is expanding into the little hamlet, which is evident by the increasing smell of urine on Lincoln Ave.
However, those who live in downtown, the east and expanding north have a civic pride for San Jose, deserved or not.
West Valley and other suburban neighborhoods are the creation of former City Manager Dutch Hamann, who led the city during its suburban growth period with the slogan, “build baby, build.” The single-family home being the defining characteristic of these areas and neighborhood pride is defined by quiet, clean and safe living conditions.
These neighborhoods are also aggrieved, as they get little attention—at least since Mayor Susan Hammer, despite the administrations of Mayor Ron Gonzales, Reed and Liccardo. Downtown San Jose has BART, the arena, a downtown association, a university and there are efforts to get major employers such as Google, Adobe and other Silicon Valley companies.
City planners envision a ballpark and a Grand Central Diridon Station surrounded by high density, if not affordable housing. A worthy downtown modeled after that less populous, but more famous city 50 miles to our north.
The residents of these neighborhoods could care less and they don’t want a downtown San Francisco. They want police officers, clean streets, maintained parks and what happens downtown to stay downtown.
They prefer Santana Row, Los Gatos and Campbell to San Pedro Square. The arena brings some from the neighborhoods into the core, but when the Sharks don’t play it can be a ghost town—and don’t even begin to get them started on the cost of parking.
Which brings us back to the reason Chavez isn’t mayor. She had a first-rate campaign, the experience, the endorsements, the personality and the messages as defined by the polls. But in the final analysis, she embodies the idea of a great city of San Jose.
That’s not what the majority of voters in the neighborhoods aspire to. To them, the city is San Francisco and they are happy not to live there.
Suburban neighborhood residents want clean streets, no homeless and police to come to their door when called. They really don’t want affordable housing, at least not in their neighborhood. In fact, they don’t want any other growth in their immediate vicinity that would cause traffic.
Such passions of the masses are not realistic from a governing or policy point of view. Problems that go unaddressed, cities that don’t grow and local populations that don’t evolve eventually die. Detroit was once the envy of the nation, but stubborn stagnation to the way things once were destroyed its future.
Mahan has his work cut out for him. He has little, if any, council support. That said, no rational person wants San Jose to fail. It may surprise him, but Chavez will work with him because she actually loves the city and the community she serves.
Unlike our current national government, San Jose has people who can shake hands after a political contest. Given the narrowness of the mayoral election, that dynamic is key to the future success of both cities of San Jose.
San José Spotlight columnist Rich Robinson is a political consultant, attorney and author of “The Shadow Candidate.” His columns appear every fourth Wednesday of the month.
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