Mayoral candidates in San Jose will soon be able to raise more money for their campaigns—if just slightly.
The San Jose City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a $100 increase to campaign contribution limits for the mayoral race. Come March 2024, individuals will be able to donate up to $1,500 per mayoral candidate.
This small change comes as the city adjusts for inflation, which is calculated about 280 days before the next election cycle. The city adjusts the contribution limit every two years. Since 2010, the contribution amount for mayoral candidates has increased by $500 and council candidates by $200. Campaign contribution limits for council races are still capped at $700 per candidate because the change is not significant enough when adjusted for inflation, according to city calculations.
Hundreds of San Jose residents, business leaders, investors and lobbyists donate to mayoral candidates to show their support, and sometimes, to try and influence local leaders. But Sean Kali-rai, a local lobbyist who represents industries from cannabis to restaurants, says the $100 increase won’t make that big of a difference.
“One, campaign spending is not and should not be immune to the inflationary cycle,” Kali-rai told San José Spotlight. “And two, I don’t think that money is particularly going to be the key for the mayor’s race. It wasn’t this last time, and I don’t think it will be in the future.”
Kali-rai pointed to last year’s mayoral election, where then-councilmember Matt Mahan beat Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, even though Chavez had a greater war chest.
The duo broke campaign records in 2022 by exceeding $8 million in total raised for both races. But that was not due to just individual donations. Mahan may have outpaced Chavez in small donor campaign contributions, but Chavez was heavily backed by political action committees (PACs) and saw about $2.8 million funneled into her campaign, as opposed to Mahan’s $1.17 million.
“The election last year set a new precedent—that it really comes down to grassroots campaigning,” Kali-rai said. “Who is the best campaigner, who has the best messaging and who is going to neighborhoods more often.”
Jean Cohen, executive officer of the South Bay Labor Council, which donated considerably to Chavez, said Mahan was not a rookie candidate to be underestimated—especially with his education ties to both Bellarmine High School and Harvard University. Still, she agrees that $100 more per donation is not the be-all-end-all for winning a race.
“Money drives politics, but there are other dynamics that also move the needle and all are important to the political environment,” Cohen told San José Spotlight.
San Jose recently changed local laws to prevent city employees and their staff from working on local PACs, triggered by Mayor Sam Liccardo and his chief of staff Jim Reed creating a PAC that helped get Mahan elected. Reed went on to work for Mahan and still volunteers for that same PAC—though he said he will step away when election season starts to avoid breaking the law.
Another law that went into effect in January, SB 1439, will inevitably alter San Jose’s election cycles in the coming years. The law prevents local elected officials from voting on a project or permit for one year if they accepted more than $250 from the developer or their lobbyist in the past 12 months. Elected officials can return the money in certain cases if they want to vote on a project, but they can’t accept any additional contributions from the developer for another year.
In San Jose, developers and other business leaders have historically been entwined with elected officials. Liccardo single-handedly raised six figures from wealthy developers for his PAC after shepherding various city projects through the political pipeline.
Cohen and Kali-rai said while the bill is well intentioned, it will likely push more special interest money into dark corners such as PACs, which are not beholden to those same limits when supporting or opposing a candidate’s run for office.
“It definitely creates more layers of opaqueness than it does transparency,” Cohen said. “Money coming from individuals compared to corporations aren’t similar.”
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.