San Jose: Jim Zito faces Sylvia Arenas in heated forum after losing support
San Jose Councilmember Sylvia Arenas faced off with challenger Jim Zito during a forum hosted by NAACP. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Hours after San Jose City Council candidate Jim Zito lost a slew of powerful endorsements amid widespread criticism over his public divorce records, Zito debated with Councilmember Sylvia Arenas, whom he hopes to replace this year.

Both candidates running for the District 8 council seat, which covers Evergreen and East San Jose, focused on public safety, investing in the community and housing during a candidate debate. The forum, held Wednesday at Matsumoto Elementary School in Evergreen, was hosted by the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP and moderated by Rick Callender, vice president of the NAACP California/Hawaii region.

Arenas said during the forum that she’s worked on public policy and community issues for 22 years, having served on the Evergreen School District Board and led efforts to improve public safety. Zito, who teaches 8th grade math at an East San Jose school, said he jumped into the race because of his commitment to community service. He sits on the Evergreen School District Board and founded the District 8 Community Round Table.

Zito came under fire last week after details from his divorce case wound up on campaign mailers funded by the San Jose Police Officers’ Association and were detailed in a San José Spotlight report. Zito’s ex-wife claimed in court documents that he controlled every aspect of her life, from chores to finances and even how much toilet paper she could use. Zito also got into a public altercation with his daughter and was ordered to take classes to manage domestic violence issues and emotions.

Zito denied the claims during the forum and said he would not “back down from bullies.”

“There was a hit ad put out on public media and it was a complete… hatchet job,” Zito said. “It is misrepresentation, falsification of what really happened in my life. It was a low blow and I think the POA should be ashamed of itself to go attack me personally and hurt my family.”

Callender asked if Zito would drop out of the race since losing so many endorsements. Zito said he plans to stay in the race.

“I am here for the community and whether major endorsers flee the ship, that’s fine,” he said. “That’s not who I’m here for. I’m here for you.”

Arenas told Zito that he is unfit to serve on the City Council given the recent allegations from his ex-wife.

“I’m really offended as a person that has been advocating for domestic violence survivors,” Arenas said. “Your ex-wife is retelling her account… and who am I to invalidate that? When we talk about survivors, we want to make sure that we believe them when they actually speak up.”

Housing and homelessness

Both candidates cited deep concerns about the city’s housing and homeless crises. Zito said he works with school administrators to ensure homeless students have the services they need, including food and uniforms.

Arenas said people are rapidly fleeing the area because their wages aren’t catching up to the cost-of-living here.

“It’s really is a crisis of wages and affordability,” Arenas said, “and homelessness is a result of all of that. We also have to build community willingness to accept affordable housing units throughout San Jose.”

Arenas said the city needs to do a better job of focusing on homeless prevention.

Zito, on the other hand, said that the region’s largest companies need to step up to help alleviate the housing crisis.

“We need to make sure money is spent to build the kinds of housing necessary,” Zito said. “Corporations recognize that they have to build housing. They don’t want their workers to be two-hours out.”

Support in the community

Zito said he was encouraged to run by community and business leaders. Arenas said she’s backed by elected officials, union members representing teachers and neighborhood associations.

Although business interests helped fund his campaign, Zito said he’s refused endorsements or contributions from groups in which he is responsible for deciding their contracts, including the Evergreen Teachers Association. If elected to the San Jose City Council, he vowed to refuse contributions from unions representing police officers and firefighters because he’d have to vote on their contracts.

“Whether it’s $600 or $6,000, it doesn’t make a difference,” Zito said. “I have no problem with individuals giving you or me a contribution because that’s an individual voice. I’m talking about the big movers and shakers  — the people who strong-arm a voice in the community.”

Arenas maintained that campaign contributions would never influence her decision-making.

“If you think that a contribution is going to sway a person, then this is the wrong line of work for you,” the councilmember said. “We’re not here to be bought. If I’ve received a contribution from a developer, it wasn’t upon my request. I’m very insulted you would think a $600 check is going to sway me or change my vote because I’m not for sale.”

The two candidates will face off during the March 3 primary election.

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at mgabbert@comcast.net.

Editor’s Note: Rick Callender serves on San José Spotlight’s Board of Directors.

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