Supporters of San Jose Councilmember Sylvia Arenas are crying foul after an image of the Latina lawmaker surfaced on a new opposition website that appears to have darkened her skin.
The image, which cropped up this week on a website funded by the Silicon Valley Organization’s PAC, first appeared in a Mercury News article four years ago. The newspaper published the photo again two weeks ago when it endorsed Arenas’ opponent, Jim Zito.
The same photo was used on the SVO-funded website with a visibly darkened hue, while Zito’s image was bright and clear. After San José Spotlight reached out SVO officials on Friday, the business lobby quickly removed the controversial image, calling it a “technical mistake” on behalf of its website consultant, Chariot Campaigns.
“We directed our consultant to use all photos of Sylvia Arenas in their normal format and without any alteration. Unfortunately, this was done for all photos except for one, which is the microsite,” said Eddie Truong, director of government relations at the SVO, who oversees the PAC. “Once this issue was brought to our attention, we immediately corrected it.”
While it is not uncommon for special interest groups to alter campaign photos to make opponents appear unflattering while their candidate looks vivid or colorful, Arenas’ campaign said darkening a photo of a person of color is racist.
“We are shocked to learn that the SVO is again making ads that darken the skin tone of a Latino candidate, like they did against Sergio Jimenez in 2016,” said Patrick McGarrity, a spokesman for Arenas. “This kind of insidious racism is designed to seep in and have its rhetorical effect, while protecting its practitioners from backlash. The SVO’s racist attacks must end now – they must stop running ads with this photo today and fire those involved with the decision to darken this photo.”
The business group faced similar allegations in 2016 when it darkened an image of Councilmember Sergio Jimenez, and it faced scrutiny for doctoring an image of council candidate Kalen Gallagher in 2018 to look like he’s flipping off the camera. That debacle led to trustees from the PAC resigning their position.
“In 2016, the Chamber PAC sent out thousands of slanderous mailers that darkened my skin color in a cynical attempt to use racism to defeat a candidate who is a person of color,” Jimenez said Friday. “Today they’re doing the same thing against Sylvia Arenas. The SVO must be held accountable for darkening the photos of people of color – it must stop today. They need to fire whoever is making the decision to run ads with these altered photos.”
On the national stage, campaigns and special interest groups have also used the scrutinized tactic. Researchers in a study from 2015 found that former U.S. Sen. John McCain’s campaign in 2008 used darkened images of his competitor, President Barack Obama, in attack ads, a move the researchers said was used to “prime negative stereotypes” about people of color.
“There is strong evidence linking skin complexion to negative stereotypes and adverse real-world outcomes. We extend these findings to political ad campaigns, in which skin complexion can be easily manipulated in ways that are difficult to detect,” authors Solomon Messing, Maria Jabon and Ethan Plaut wrote. “Findings show that darker images were more frequent in negative ads — especially those linking Obama to crime — which aired more frequently as Election Day approached.”
Truong said he didn’t see the final image of Arenas on the website before it was published and assumed it was corrected like the other ads. It’s unclear if SVO will cut ties with the consultant, Chariot Campaigns, which issued its own statement Friday.
“A newsprint effect was applied to a page which contained a graphic of the Mercury News endorsement of Jim Zito,” the consultant said in a statement. “So that there’s no distraction, both candidate photos have been replaced with a link to the editorial which has the original photo.”
According to campaign finance records filed Friday, the SVO PAC has spent more than $52,000 opposing Arenas with digital advertising, mailers and polling. Zito, Arenas’ opponent an Evergreen School Board trustee, has been endorsed by the SVO PAC, Mayor Sam Liccardo, the Santa Clara County Association of Realtors, and most recently, the Mercury News.
Arenas has secured endorsements from Jimenez, San Jose Vice Mayor Chappie Jones and Councilmembers Raul Peralez, Maya Esparza and Magdalena Carrasco, along with California Sen. Jim Beall, Assemblyman Ash Kalra and Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese.
Arenas, a Democrat, will face off with Zito, a Republican, in the March 3 primary election.