The fight to represent downtown San Jose has taken an ugly turn, with a candidate in hot water over a mailer some are calling racist.
Irene Smith, a white woman, sent out a campaign mailer this week showing a photo of her standing next to two white female councilmembers, with another photo of her opponent Omar Torres, a person of color, standing next to a former district attorney candidate who’s also a person of color.
On top of her photo, the mailer reads, “Leading, moderate women officeholders endorse Irene Smith.” On top of Torres’ photo, it reads, “Defund the police candidate gets Omar Torres’ endorsement.” At the bottom, the ad quotes a story from this news organization, saying “the two candidates running for District 3 couldn’t be more different.”
The mailer also calls Smith “smart, independent change” while describes Torres as “dangerous partisanship.”
Smith and Torres are facing off to represent District 3, as incumbent Councilmember Raul Peralez terms out this year. The pair beat out three other candidates in the June primary election.
The mailer has prompted a wave of reactions among residents and on social media. This week, a group of Silicon Valley leaders—a majority of whom are white women—co-authored an open letter condemning Smith’s campaign and the mailer as racist. San José Spotlight reviewed and shared the letter with Smith, who hadn’t seen it. The group also demanded Smith apologize to Torres and renounce the mailer.
The letter has signatures from nine initial signatories, including Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Shiloh Ballard, former Executive Director of [email protected] Leslye Corsiglia and Silicon Valley Council of Nonprofits CEO Kyra Kazantzis.
The letter, titled “An Open Letter From White Women Regarding San Jose Campaign Race-Baiting Piece: Not In My Name,” said the message in Smith’s campaign mailer is “classic old school race baiting.” It points to studies showing how racist stereotypes often portray white women as innocent and virtuous and men of color as dangerous and predatory.
“When a mailer depicts a group of classily-dressed white women on one side and a pair of men of color on the other (one of them in a t-shirt), it literally and metaphorically pits these groups against one another based on apparent race and ethnicity,” the letter reads. “And, when on the opposite side of the mailer the word ‘smart’ is used to refer to a white woman and the word ‘dangerous’ to a man of color, it engages in racist dog whistling that draws on those centuries of racist imagery suggesting that white women need to be protected from men of color.”
By Friday night, the letter had garnered more than 100 signatures including county Supervisor Susan Ellenberg who tweeted that it’s “straight up racist” and “deplorable.”
Not In My Name: an Open Letter from White Women Regarding San Jose Campaign Race-Baiting Mailer—in the last 24 hrs, more than 100 community members have united to denounce a recent mailer sent by the campaign for Irene Smith, candidate for the downtown San Jose City Council seat. pic.twitter.com/2dbmmP3QCA
— Kyra Kazantzis (@kyrakaz) October 15, 2022
Smith told San José Spotlight her mailer is not racist, adding the letter falsely interpreted her message. She said the word “dangerous” was used to describe the policies Torres supports, such as defunding the police—not Torres himself. She added the mailer did not alter any images or attack Torres’ personal life.
“I’m heartsick because I’m clearly not racist,” Smith said. “When you pull out a certain word, and you associate it with both history and the racial inequities, then of course, you’re going to get the result that you want, but it’s not what I wrote.”
Torres declined to comment on the mailer and its message.
“Our campaign is focused on the issues that matter to District 3 voters—public safety, reducing homelessness, support for small business, cleaner neighborhoods,” Torres told San José Spotlight. “I am looking and moving forward.”
Elections in Silicon Valley have seen a number of racist campaign mailers and ads in recent years. In 2020, the now-defunct Silicon Valley Organization political action committee (PAC) faced criticism for darkening a photo of a Latina candidate. The PAC ended up dissolving later that year after it faced an avalanche of backlash for posting a digital ad of Black people in what appears to be a riot in South Africa with a caption, “Do you really want to sign on to this?”
A local school board member recently faced condemnation from the Santa Clara County Democratic Party for making “racially-charged” comments against mayoral candidate Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez during appearances on Vietnamese language media outlets last month.
Smith said she hasn’t heard any other complaints about her mailer, but welcomes a conversation with the authors of the letter.
“I would love to talk to them face to face,” Smith said.
The general election is Nov. 8.