‘No intent to do harm’ in San Jose business group’s racist political ad, officials say
Glenn Perkins, The Silicon Valley Organization's incoming board chair, speaks about the investigation on Nov. 10, 2020. Photo by Carly Wipf.

After an internal investigation, leaders of The Silicon Valley Organization said the posting of a racist political ad on its website was the result of a lack of communication, and held no one accountable.

In releasing some results of an investigation today, The SVO named Glenn Perkins as board chair and said it is launching a national search for a new CEO. Perkins is the president of Executive Forums Silicon Valley, a business consulting firm.

The full investigative report will be posted in two weeks, officials said.

“Something wrong was done but it’s time for us to go forward and fix it,” said Perkins, adding he will be reaching out to current and past members to see what SVO can do better.

Jeff Moore, president of Silicon Valley NAACP, said the point of the investigation was to explain what happened, hold The SVO accountable and have a conversation — not to sweep the matter under the rug.

“They’re thumbing their nose at us as though we don’t matter and therein lies the whole problem in the structure of the system that they have,” Moore said. “It’s time to disband that whole organization, and start looking at any group or any company that belongs to the organization as hostile to communities of color.”

The investigation found those responsible for posting the ad had “no racist intent,” according to SVO board member Kevin Surace. “There was an approval process that was not followed.”

In addition, the investigation concluded there was no evidence of intent to do harm and that the web post was not approved by SVO higher-ups, including former CEO Matt Mahood.

Officials said Mahood was not aware of the image and had it immediately taken down before resigning in the aftermath.

“There was a complete breakdown in communication and process,” said Surace. “It was truly a horrifying mistake. Mistakes happen — I know that — but it doesn’t make it better for the community.”

The ad appeared on The SVO’s website Oct. 27 with an image that depicted Black men in the streets of South Africa surrounded by tear gas, asking voters if they wanted to “sign on” to that.

The ad was in reference to San Jose City Council candidate Jake Tonkel’s stance on police reform. The group backed Tonkel’s opponent, Councilmember Dev Davis, who won the race.

“They know exactly what they were doing. They knew what their intent was: to bring fear,” Moore said. “I come from the South and it was the same type of ad I saw running during elections — misinformation propagating fear in communities that the darker-skinned people are going to do something to them or be a threat to them.”

Davis denounced the image, said she was “ashamed” of the group and donated $1,200 in campaign contributions from The SVO to the NAACP.

This image on the website of The Silicon Valley Organization created a controversy.

Surace said The SVO’s political action committee used third parties to create its website posts but added, “We’re not saying the third party created the message or not. We’re saying there was a complete breakdown in communication … Clearly someone must have had the ability to post it.  But in our organization, many people have that.”

Widespread fallout ensued after the post. Two days later, the group’s Mahood resigned and dozens of prominent businesses and nonprofits canceled their SVO memberships, resigned from its board and cut ties with the business lobby. The SVO also dissolved its political action committee a day before last week’s election.

Darlene Tenes, founder of CasaQ, a Hispanic lifestyle company, was a member of The SVO a few years ago. While she’s no longer a member, she recently stepped up to serve on the newly formed SVO community advisory board.

“I came in because the chamber needed to wake up,” Tenes said.

“It is fabulous they got rid of the PAC,” Tenes said. “We don’t need to be political right now in this time in history with the pandemic amongst us, with all the small- and medium-sized businesses hurting so much. We need to come together. We need to heal.”

Surace said this summer The SVO encouraged members to sign petitions for justice for George Floyd , Breonna Taylor and Ahmad Arbery and asked members to donate to Black nonprofits.

He also said the organization provided links to educational videos on systemic oppression and listed local peaceful protests that members could join. In addition, The SVO recently worked with Santa Clara County to help businesses and churches access SVO funds, he said.

“On many levels, the chamber, the foundation and The SVO’s reach across the community has been exemplary,” Surace said. “The PAC was not, and it distorted the views of the organization as a whole, it distorted the community’s perception of the organization as whole and it’s gone and that’s a first step.”

After the ad appeared, SVO officials quickly blamed a “web administrator” but declined to name the person or organization. The business group also blamed an outside consultant, Chariot Campaigns, for a racist image it posted in February that appeared to darken a Latina councilmember’s face.

A San José Spotlight report revealed The SVO continued to work with that consultant.

Officials hired a third-party investigator Oct. 29 to shed light on what happened and how the image was published. The organization also announced it will begin a series of diversity trainings.

“When there’s a crisis or controversy, the more you can get back to what your basic value proposition is, the better off you’ll be,” Perkins told San José Spotlight. “And our basic value proposition is networking and visibility, public advocacy, supporting businesses with resources and tools, and we just want to do that more and involve more minority and diverse companies.”

This isn’t the first time the business group has posted questionable or racist campaign images and ads.

In February, the group darkened the face of San Jose Councilmember Sylvia Arenas in a campaign ad that was called racist.

The group faced similar allegations in 2016 when it darkened an image of Councilmember Sergio Jimenez and doctored an image of council candidate Kalen Gallagher in 2018 to look like he’s flipping off the camera.

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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