San Jose councilmember denounces ‘racist’ message from backer targeting her opponent
San Jose City Council candidate Jake Tonkel is pictured in this file photo.

    The fight over a San Jose City Council seat has taken an ugly turn, the latest controversy involving the Silicon Valley Organization as it fights to defeat progressive candidate Jake Tonkel.

    On its website, the business organization posted — then later deleted — a black-and-white image of Black people in what appears to be a riot in South Africa. A caption reads, “Do you really want to sign on to this?” alleging Tonkel supports defunding the police, which they claim could lead to riots.

    A screenshot of the SVO’s website before the image was removed.

    Tonkel is challenging District 6 Councilmember Dev Davis who immediately denounced the messaging and said she’s “ashamed” of the support she’s received from the business lobby. The SVO has spent nearly $200,000 opposing Tonkel and more than $36,000 supporting Davis in what’s become one of the local election season’s most expensive races.

    “Just became aware of horrific web page posted by SVO showing rioters in streets,” Davis tweeted. “I’m angry & shocked by the horrible graphic & truly disappointed by the very poor judgment & racist picture the SVO posted. I denounce this in strongest terms I’m ashamed of the support I received.”


    In a statement, SVO officials blamed someone else. They also blamed a website consultant earlier this year when San Jose Councilmember Sylvia Arenas’ face was darkened in a controversial campaign mailer, which was also called racist.

    “A web administrator posted a picture to our website that was insensitive and racist,” said Matt Mahood, president and CEO of the SVO, in a statement. “We apologize sincerely for the error and the pain we know the image may have caused those who saw it. The person who posted the picture was attempting to demonstrate the consequences of cutting the police budget by 80%, but the image chosen was offensive and should not have been posted. We are reviewing all of our internal procedures to make sure something like this does not happen again.”

    Tonkel told San José Spotlight he’s glad Davis “understands the problematic language and imagery” and has denounced the support from SVO.

    “Obviously I’m frustrated SVO’s apology still uses the same lie they’ve been perpetuating to voters that I’m somehow in support of taking away 80% of funds from SJPD,” he added. “At this point I think the leadership of SVO needs to think long and hard about stepping aside because it’s becoming an embarrassment to our community. They’re trying to stoke fear in our community and it’s the worst kind of political manipulation.”

    Civil rights leaders agree the apology doesn’t go far enough and called on Davis to return the money from SVO.

    “She needs to immediately give back the money, or better yet give the money to social justice organizations that are doing the work in Santa Clara County,” said Rev. Jeff Moore, president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP.

    “It’s stoking the flames or Trumpism, it’s stoking the flames of those who support Trump,” he added. “And I wonder if they are Trump supporters, whether they’re trying to sow division in this community and it will not be tolerated. Those are supposed to be our business leaders, if that’s what businesses are telling the community, they have no respect for anything we’ve been through as people of color this whole time. They don’t understand it.”

    This isn’t the first offensive mailer or campaign communication from the SVO against Tonkel.

    The organization also produced several mailers accusing Tonkel of wanting to end single-family home zoning, which raised the ire of a prominent list of housing advocates and nonprofit leaders.

    The mailers claimed Tonkel would allow large apartment complexes to be built alongside single-family homes, referring to Tonkel’s support of the city’s opportunity housing proposal.

    The policy would not allow for high-rise apartment complexes or towers to rise in single-family neighborhoods. It would only allow up to four units to be built per parcel, and they must maintain the character of the neighborhood.

    The mailer that claims Jake Tonkel supports eliminating single-family neighborhoods.

    “When Councilmember Davis says, ‘My opponent supports building fourplexes next to your single-family home with no mitigation for traffic or parking impact’, of course that’s an outright lie,” Tonkel told San José Spotlight.

    Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Shiloh Ballard sent a letter to leaders from the SVO, Santa Clara County Association of Realtors and California Apartment Association asking they retract the “blatantly deceptive” mailer and issue a public apology.

    “Your blatantly deceptive mailer fans the flames of anti-density rhetoric, fear of lower-income families, and hinders our collective ability to advance sensible, much-needed housing and climate solutions,” stated the letter.

    Nearly 50 prominent local leaders signed the letter, representing organizations such as Sacred Heart Community Service, City Year, NAACP and Bill Wilson Center.

    “Post-George Floyd, more nonprofit leaders have banded together to figure out how to be more actively anti-racist,” Ballard told San José Spotlight. “We’ve been meeting regularly for months and are committed to calling out racist ideas and systems when they surface.”

    The letter also demands the three organizations make public statements “acknowledging the history of housing policy, zoning and racism.”

    Santa Clara County Association of Realtors President Sandy Jamison said her organization’s contribution to the SVO PAC does not represent a policy statement, “but rather support for a candidate that has a proven track record of supporting housing for people of all income levels.”

    Tonkel said he does not see opportunity housing as infringing upon single-family home zoning.

    “The duplexes are already there,” he said. “For me this is an opportunity to make affordable units that create socioeconomic diversity to our community.”

    Letter to CAA, SVO, CAR v2


    Contact Vicente Vera at [email protected] or follow him @vicentejvera on Twitter.

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