San Jose councilmembers decry ‘racist’ politics
Councilmember Omar Torres speaks about a policy he is introducing with Councilmember Peter Ortiz on July 25, 2023. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    Two Latino leaders in San Jose want to strengthen free speech protections in the wake of recent political attacks against them.

    Councilmembers Omar Torres and Peter Ortiz are facing intense criticism from three local groups over comments they made related to city housing policy and unions. The groups include the Santa Clara County Association of Realtors, Premier Recycling, a private company that contracts with the city, and Opportunity Now, a local conservative blog.

    The realtors association expressed concern over a comment made by Ortiz on housing earlier this year. The recycling company and conservative blog are speaking out against a letter sent by councilmembers in support of union workers. The groups and other supporters have asked the city manager and San Jose City Council to take actions against the outspoken councilmembers.

    Torres and Ortiz say the pushback from these groups is rooted in racism — and not political discourse because it attempts to paint them as bullies or people who incite violence. They are introducing a resolution this week that aims to strengthen free speech protections of elected officials to speak in defense of disenfranchised communities. The resolution is not public yet.

    “It is a tactic that the defenders of the status quo love to use. They use racist dog whistle tactics against elected officials who do not think, speak or look like them,” Torres said at a Tuesday news conference at city hall. “They have marginalized our communities for far too long by silencing us and forcing us to fight for crumbs.”

    Rocky Hill, co-owner of Premier Recycling Company, and Christopher Escher, co-founder of Opportunity Now, declined to comment.

    Last month, the local association of realtors wrote a letter to the city manager to pressure Ortiz into rescinding a comment he made earlier this year on COPA—a failed policy proposal that would’ve given qualified nonprofits the first opportunity to purchase multi-family housing to keep rents affordable. Ortiz, a supporter of the policy, said that voting against the policy was an act of violence.

    Neil Collins, CEO of the Santa Clara County Association of Realtors, said Ortiz’s comment triggered a protest at the association’s office. He said the intent of the letter was not racist or an attempt to silence Ortiz. Rather, he said he wanted to highlight the unintended consequences of such statements. Collins is asking Ortiz to retract his comment and condemn the protest at the office.

    “You could feel the temperature in that council chamber change in the crowd after (Ortiz said that) and some of those same people then came and invaded our office,” Collins told San José Spotlight. “I don’t care whether it’s Councilmember Ortiz or anyone else up there. You cannot in a room that is so heated, do anything that is going to potentially incite violence or put people’s safety at risk. It is reckless.”

    Collins said Ortiz’s words could’ve been cause for censure in other cities. But Ortiz said the city manager and Mayor Matt Mahan dismissed the complaint in closed session, noting it was not a comment that incited violence.

    Ortiz thinks the criticism is political, especially as the city once again prepares to enter election season.

    “This is a common tactic with a long history of being weaponized to discredit the progressive movements of people of color,” Ortiz said.

    Opportunity Now, a group with 166 followers on Twitter, published two blog posts this month that criticized Ortiz, Torres and Councilmember Domingo Candelas’ use of city stationary as a “shake down” of private companies to support the unions that backed them during in the campaign.

    The councilmembers in May sent a letter to Premier Recycling Company, using the city’s logo and their official titles to ask management to negotiate with the union in good faith and follow the law. The councilmembers lended strong support to the union after drivers voiced concerns over safety and wage theft claims, among other unfair labor practices.

    The most recent post by Tim Rosenberger Jr., a Manhattan Institute legal policy fellow, argued the letter by councilmembers was, at best, a naive move that could result in legal ramifications and at worst, an intentional misuse of their power to unfairly support unions because they supported those councilmembers.

    “Once (Opportunity Now posted their blog post) it kind of popped it off,” Ortiz told San José Spotlight. “All these emails started coming through and they started mobilizing.”

    Over the last few weeks, executives from Premier Recycling Company and dozens of residents have been calling and emailing councilmembers and the city manager arguing that Ortiz and Torres are anti-business and are intimidating businesses.

    Representatives from the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP, the Asian Law Alliance, La Raza Roundtable de California and Teamsters Local 853—the union representing workers at Premier Recycling—all spoke in support of Ortiz and Torres.

    Michael K. Henneberry, Teamsters Local 853, thanks the councilmembers for their union support. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    “There’s no way we will allow a company bent on denying their workers a better life to get away with that and slander the workers political allies in the process,” Teamster Michael K. Henneberry said. “We will fight every attempt to silence the voices of elected officials who support workers.”

    The resolution will be released by the end of the week. It will not change any city policy, but rather codify protections to allow councilmembers to be more critical and speak freely without fear of retribution.

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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