Sam Liccardo endorses Jim Zito over his colleague Sylvia Arenas
Mayor Sam Liccardo joined Jim Zito to kick off his campaign to unseat Councilmember Sylvia Arenas. Photo courtesy of Jim Zito.

Self-described fiscal conservative Jim Zito is eyeing San Jose Councilmember Sylvia Arenas’ seat and a powerful coalition of endorsements — including from Mayor Sam Liccardo — might help him score a spot on the 11-member council.

The mayor joined Zito to officially kick off his campaign to unseat Arenas last week at the Curry Pizza House inside the Evergreen Village Square. Other prominent officials crowded the pizzeria to support him, including former District 8 council candidate Denise Belisle and former councilmembers Nancy Pyle and Pat Saucedo.

But Liccardo’s enthusiastic endorsement of Zito — over his current council colleague Arenas — raised a few eyebrows. It might be the first time the mayor has endorsed a challenger over a colleague, but it’s not the first time the mayor has publicly backed Arenas’ opponent.

He previously endorsed Belisle when she went head-to-head with Arenas for an open District 8 council seat after former Vice Mayor Rose Herrera termed out in 2016.

Arenas, a labor-friendly lawmaker, said she isn’t surprised Liccardo is going against her — again — and that he’s endorsed a challenger she claims was hand-picked by the mayor’s business ties to run against her.

“Jim was specifically recruited to run against me — not by Evergreen families — but by special interest groups pursuing a political agenda,” Arenas told San José Spotlight. “In 2016, I was elected by Evergreen families to be their advocate at City Hall. Residents chose me over special interest candidates because they knew I would always fight for them — that’s the record that I’m proud to run on and that has earned me widespread support in District 8. My focus has been and will continue to be reaching out to residents so I can continue to serve children and families.”

But Liccardo said that’s not the case and he’s supporting Zito because of his many years of experience as a planning commissioner and an Evergreen School Board trustee.

“I can honestly say in my experience working with Jim through a lot of very contentious hearings and meetings that he was always there prepared, he always demonstrated that he was going to think independently about each and every issue,” Liccardo said during the kickoff last week. “Nobody was going to tell him how to vote and that his passion was about doing the right thing, even if that meant it wasn’t popular, even if he was the only one in the room who was going to say what needed to be said. So that’s why I am thrilled to be able to support Jim Zito as our next councilmember here in District 8.”

Zito originally entered multiple races, including vying for Assemblymember Ash Kalra’s seat in California’s District 27, but he said his real ambitions are grounded in San Jose’s Evergreen district, where he’s lived for more than 30 years.

As a former planning commissioner, Zito said he’s worked closely with Liccardo and other lawmakers, making him a strong contender for the job. He added that now is the time for the city to focus its efforts on maintaining a strong economy, a perspective he and the mayor share. His experience dabbling in biotech, he added, has also helped him achieve that realization.

“I’ve known and worked with Mayor Liccardo for well over a decade. I would collaborate and share ideas and give a different, sometimes out-of-the-box perspective on things,” Zito said in an interview. “Now we have to have a strong economy, we have to have a strong foundation of businesses, both small and large in San Jose, so that we can support the services that are needed. If businesses are strong, they do their part and if if they’re not, then you have to depend on them.”

Next year’s election could significantly change the current council’s political faction, which is divided between business and labor interests. Five City Council seats are up for grabs in the March 2020 primary — districts 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 — and a lot can change for the mayor’s 6-5 majority in that short amount of time. Incumbents are seeking re-election in all the races, except in District 10 where Councilmember Johnny Khamis is termed out.

So far Liccardo has been in full swing during the election season, endorsing Councilmembers Dev Davis and Lan Diep at their campaign kickoffs, as well as first-time candidate Matt Mahan, a tech entrepreneur running to replace the District 10 seat against progressive Jenny Higgins Bradanini. The mayor will likely stay out of the District 2 race where Councilmember Sergio Jimenez is facing Jonathan Fleming,

But a surprising number of city councilmembers this year are endorsing challengers over their own colleagues, as San José Spotlight previously reported, including Councilmember Raul Peralez and Khamis. Arenas herself was seen at District 4 contender Huy Tran’s kickoff event in September.

Zito, who is Republican, will face off with Arenas, a Democrat, in the March 3 primary election.

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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