San Jose Councilmember Johnny Khamis reflects on his legacy, future plans
San Jose Councilmember Johnny Khamis is pictured in this file photo. Photo courtesy of Johnny Khamis.

While Johnny Khamis’ time on the San Jose City Council nears an end, the fiscally conservative politician already has his sights set on a higher office.

Following his failed state Senate bid, Khamis said he is “95 percent interested” in running for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to replace Mike Wasserman in District 1, who terms out in 2022. Until then, he plans to continue working as an employee benefits and risk management consultant for Benefit Experts.

Khamis, 52, is known for being transparent, approachable and driven.

“I’m proud of the way I voted,” Khamis said. “I try to listen to both sides of the issue. I’ve never closed my door to anyone. It doesn’t matter whether I politically align with them or if they believe that I don’t see things their way, they’re never excluded from the discussion.”

In light of California’s crippling housing crisis, Khamis prides himself on working to reduce building and planning costs and streamline the development process. He also advocated for requiring a two-thirds vote by the council to approve general obligation bonds, which often exceed $50 million, for things like city-owned golf courses and championed refinancing large city debts.

Khamis is a fierce backer of trimming wasteful government spending and focusing taxpayer dollars on core services, such as paving roads and hiring more police officers. But Khamis also brought the fun during his eight years on the City Council, starting a Fourth of July fireworks celebration at Almaden Lake Park and recently — while in quarantine — hosting an online cooking class to show off his Lebanese recipe for baba ganoush.

He’s also known for sharp style, including sporting hats from Diaz Menswear, and more recently, a Star Trek coronavirus mask his wife made.

San Jose Councilmember Johnny Khamis is pictured at his Almaden Valley home, donning his handmade Star Trek mask. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

The Almaden Valley councilman leaves behind a legacy that includes fighting for government transparency and environmental justice. Khamis preserved Sycamore Grove, a property along Guadalupe River Trail, from development, pushed to connect the trail around Almaden Lake and made strides to connect Los Alamitos Trail with Guadalupe River Trail and downtown.

Khamis regularly explains his voting record in a bi-weekly newsletter and YouTube Channel — Johnny Khamis on the Record — and hosts a webinar to help residents navigate the COVID-19 crisis and shelter-in-place orders.

“I think it’s my duty as a councilmember to make sure we have a well-informed electorate,” Khamis said during an interview at his Almaden Valley home. “People who are well informed always want better government, and that’s my whole goal.”

When he felt conflicted on controversial votes, Khamis said he turned to public opinion on issues. In addition to speaking at community meetings, Khamis held neighborhood chats at the library and coffee shops to meet with residents.

“I wanted people to know I was there to represent them…to fight for them,” he said.

And in an increasingly divisive political climate, Khamis wasn’t afraid of taking some unpopular positions. Still, he often found himself in Mayor Sam Liccardo’s majority, a reliable vote for business leaders.

“We live in a cynical age, when many doubt whether their elected leaders demonstrate a strong commitment to principle and a sincere dedication to serving their community,” Liccardo said. “Johnny consistently has done both, and does so with refreshing candor. I appreciate his willingness to stand up and express views that weren’t always embraced by his colleagues but gave voice to many residents.”

But that doesn’t mean he won’t break rank — when he thinks it’s right.

Khamis has cast some difficult votes, including supporting projects opposed by residents such as tiny homes for homeless residents. He also opposed the mayor on tax measures, such as the 2018 Measure V for low-income housing and the 2016 Measure B, a quarter-cent sales tax hike for public safety and street repairs.

“It’s tough to vote against the mayor,” Khamis said. “But if people are not allowed to say their opinions, what good is democracy? Why shouldn’t a conservative opinion be out there, especially when it comes to fiscal responsibility?”

Although he’s enjoyed his time on the council, Khamis said he’s missed out on father-son time, especially with his oldest son, Constantine. “It was tough,” he said. “I feel sad about missing some of my son’s musical events. Before I got this job, I went on bicycle rides every weekend with him.”

But this isn’t the end of the road for Khamis. He told San José Spotlight that he’s eyeing a run for the Board of Supervisors.

“The county can use fiscal leadership and better results for the tax dollars we spend,” Khamis said.

And as he hands the job over to tech entrepreneur Matt Mahan, who won the open seat in the March primary, Khamis advises his successor to serve constituents by staying connected and listening.

Both men don’t think every problem can be solved with a new tax. Neither will back taxes that go into the General Fund, rather than what they’re intended for. That’s why Mahan didn’t support this year’s Measure E, a voter-approved real property tax measure for affordable housing.

“You have to grow the economic pie, not keep raising taxes on a community that is affluent on paper, because their home values have gone up, but do not feel affluent day-to-day because their costs are incredibly high relative to their income,” he said.

Like Khamis, Mahan said residents have a lack of trust in government and don’t understand where their taxes go. He started a bi-weekly newsletter to rebuild trust through communication.

“The dialogue with the community and feeling like you can make a difference in people’s lives is the part I’m looking forward to,” he said.

For Khamis, saying goodbye to San Jose City Hall is bittersweet.

“If I’m no longer involved in public life,” Khamis said, “I will have really enjoyed the eight years the voters have given me.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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