San Jose council’s Latino Caucus celebrates a win after ‘strong mayor’ defeat
Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Katie Lauer.

Those following Mayor Sam Liccardo’s push for — and subsequent dropping of — a strong mayor ballot measure are likely to feel whiplash after Tuesday’s City Council meeting. A fiery debate culminated in a unanimous vote that left some councilmembers wondering why they had to fight so hard in the first place.

Prior to Tuesday’s resolution, the mayor and some San Jose elected leaders tried to fast track multiple proposals for the 2020 ballot: a strong mayor measure allowing Liccardo to hire and fire staff and possibly extended his term, moving mayoral elections to match the federal cycle and a slew of campaign finance reforms.

So how did the council go from a bitterly divided 6-5 split vote earlier this month in favor of giving the mayor more powers to a unanimous compromise to form a commission allowing San Jose residents to decide how to restructure city government?

The answer lies somewhere between community activism and pressure from members of the Latino Caucus, a faction of the council including Councilmembers Raul Peralez, Magdalena Carrasco, Sylvia Arenas, Maya Esparza and Sergio Jimenez — all of whom opposed putting a strong mayor measure on the ballot.

They celebrated a win Thursday and explained how it happened.

“A number of groups were starting to come on board to say that this was not a good thing, that we shouldn’t be rushing it,” Peralez said. “And, ultimately, I think the mayor listened.”

Peralez initially advocated for a Charter Review Commission made up of San Jose residents appointed by the council. Lawmakers on Tuesday unanimously approved a commission that would review the proposals and recommend measures for the 2022 ballot. The downtown councilman was surprised by Liccardo’s decision to back down from his initial strong mayor proposal, but was happy with the council’s choice to redirect important decisions to the public.

“I said we shouldn’t be rushing anything to the ballot this November. We’re going to be affecting the future of our city for decades to come,” Councilmember Raul Peralez told San José Spotlight a day after the big vote. “The implications were so big that what I asked for was that we just slow down,” said Peralez.

Carrasco criticized Liccardo for not taking the Latino Caucus and community voices into consideration three weeks ago when he first pressed to get the strong mayor measure on the November 2020 ballot.

Attention: San José residents!Don't believe the hype!Do not vote on the strong mayor initiative. It's a power grab…

Posted by Magdalena Carrasco on Monday, July 27, 2020

The “backroom deal,” as Carrasco called it, prompted backlash from other groups including the League of Women Voters, La Raza Roundtable de California, Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, the South Bay Labor Council and Democratic Activists for Women Now. Many others also spoke out against the issue at Tuesday’s meeting.

“I’m really proud of our community and how they came to answer the call and participate in our local government,” Arenas said. “And once they knew what was happening, they educated themselves about the issues.”

Jimenez was also pleased with the idea of a commission: “It really puts the community input first and forces us to go through this very public vetting process as it relates to some of the additional powers … So I think generally, it’s good.”

Jimenez and Arenas expressed lingering concerns about the lack of cohesion on moving mayoral elections to the federal cycle. Both councilmembers championed aligning the elections, citing the potential for increasing diversity in leadership as well as voter turnout in San Jose.

“Moving mayoral elections can have long-term positive implications for the city, and that will make it more likely to get a woman elected as mayor, a person of color elected as mayor, a younger person elected as mayor,” Jimenez said. “So moving the mayoral election to the presidential election (cycle) is super important.”

Jimenez worries that the commission will overlook the issue. Others worry about the appointment process and it being stacked with people who are allies of the mayor and who will make recommendations based on politics — not what’s best for the city.

“This commission has the potential of reflecting some of the 6-5 votes that we have going on now. It was a perception that the mayor has that one additional vote and so that person — or the mayor’s appointed commissioners — might be the deciding factor,” Arenas said.

Every council member will get two appointees and Liccardo can appoint 3 at-large commission members.

Arenas said the council is back at square one and looks forward to the commission providing clarity. She worries however, that the council hasn’t set clear enough objectives for the future appointees to follow.

“From the last month’s council meeting, my question has been, ‘What is the problem that we’re trying to fix?’ And I have yet to hear a real answer to that question in terms of the campaign contribution piece of the discussion, or the strong mayor, the government, structural changes,” Arenas said.

Peralez said he’ll take diversity into consideration when selecting members to serve on the commission. It is also important to Peralez that potential appointees are invested in city government. Jimenez said he would consider professors of political science who have a unique thought process to contribute.

“It’s a pretty nuanced topic,” Peralez said. “When you ask most people what is their depth of knowledge on the city government today, a strong city manager versus a council form of government, versus a strong mayor, most people are not going to be able to give you a real detailed answer.”

Peralez said commission members should have some basic knowledge of the topics up for review and should be “really interested in getting to know what options are out there.”

The first charter review commission in San Jose was created in 1916. This is the first one to be created under the current City Council.

“It’s really fitting to put this back on the charter commission at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has grown so much, and people are interested in being part of the solution to some of the problems that they’ve identified and that they are marching for every day,” Arenas said. “I think this is an absolute win for our community so that they have an opportunity to actually voice and participate in the future governance of the city.”

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

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