Two longtime labor leaders are running against each other for San Jose’s top political job, and one of them told the other to stay out—twice.
San Jose Councilmember Raul Peralez claims Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez discouraged him from running for mayor—a position she announced she was seeking in September. Peralez was the first to publicly eye the highly-coveted job, telling San José Spotlight in May 2020 that he was weighing a run for mayor before making it official last April.
That was not welcome news for Chavez, who despite jumping into the race five months later has soaked up the major endorsements from the left—including the South Bay Labor Council, which she used to run, and the county’s Democratic Party. Peralez said when he told Chavez he was considering a run for mayor, she suggested he run for another office, such as sheriff.
“She told me she was being encouraged to run by labor advocates who felt as though she was a stronger ally and candidate for them than I was,” Peralez told San José Spotlight.
And according to Peralez, this is not the first time Chavez has tried to elbow him out of a political race.
He said Chavez urged him in 2012 not to run for San Jose City Council in District 3 and made an inappropriate remark about his appearance. He first shared the story during an interview on Valley Politics hosted by Terry Christensen, a retired San Jose State University political science professor.
Peralez said the incident happened when he first met Chavez. He had been introduced through his union, the San Jose Police Officers’ Association. Chavez was head of the South Bay Labor Council, and Peralez wanted to get her support.
Peralez said Chavez told him he wasn’t going to win the District 3 race, and that she didn’t think he could raise enough money to run a successful campaign. Peralez said the longtime lawmaker advised him to run for something else, such as school board, or move to District 1 and run for that seat. Chavez previously represented District 3 on the San Jose City Council.
When Peralez said he planned to run anyway, Chavez ended the conversation with a stinging remark.
“She said, ‘You have a couple things going for you: you’re handsome and you have a nice head of hair,’” Peralez said.
Despite the push to stay out, Peralez won the District 3 race with nearly 60% of the vote in November 2014.
While he thinks it may have been a joke, Peralez said the comment offended him.
“I was frustrated and disappointed in that conversation,” he said.
Chavez said she “didn’t recall” discouraging Peralez to run for council in 2012 and did not answer questions about doing so again in the mayor’s race. Chavez endorsed Peralez in both of his council races in 2014 and 2018.
“While I do not recall making comments in 2012, I was gratified to receive Raul’s endorsement, have him walk precincts with me, and have him view me as his mentor when I ran for county supervisor in 2013,” she said.
Splitting the progressive vote
As Chavez and Peralez prepare to face off on June 7, many progressives fear having them both on the ballot could split the vote and hand a win to business-friendly candidates such as Councilmembers Matt Mahan and Dev Davis, who are also vying for mayor.
Peralez told San José Spotlight some people are urging him to drop out of the race so that Chavez can secure the votes.
Many insiders are watching this matchup closely because it could be the local labor lobby’s first opportunity in 16 years to send a candidate to the mayor’s office. The last labor-friendly mayor in San Jose was Ron Gonzales who termed out in 2006.
“They’re competing for the same voters,” Christensen told San José Spotlight. “They’ve been labor friendly and they’re both Democrats.”
Peralez told San José Spotlight he understands some are worried he’ll pull votes from Chavez, but he’s not concerned.
“Ultimately I think that’s just the reality of any election where you have multiple candidates,” Peralez said. “We’re all going to be splitting votes across the board.”
Asked about the possible split, Chavez told San José Spotlight she’s running to be mayor for every person who calls the city home.
“Our campaign is about bringing people together to solve issues of housing, homelessness and public safety,” she said.
A fluid race
Political observers note that primary elections are usually low-turnout events. Voters who show up tend to be more conservative, wealthier and politically engaged. This doesn’t favor progressive candidates, and some think it could eliminate one—or both—from the pack.
“It’s unlikely, given the voting patterns we’ve seen in citywide politics in recent years, that both candidates will make it to the general (election),” San Jose State political science professor Garrick Percival told San José Spotlight. “They risk splitting the vote among more progressive voters.”
San Jose State political science professor emeritus Larry Gerston said the labor council’s support gives Chavez an edge in the primary election and puts pressure on Peralez to mobilize voters.
“He has to come with more of a fight than she does,” Gerston told San José Spotlight. “On the other hand, what we’ve learned in recent years is that labor is no longer the bloc it once was.”
Gerston also noted Chavez’s many years of experience in city and county politics may make her a target to people who want to sweep out incumbent politicians.
Christensen said Peralez has a compelling backstory—working as a teacher and a police officer—but to have a shot in the mayor’s race, he needs funding.
“He’s got a good story, but you’ve got to have money to get that story out,” he said. “What’s going to be most telling is the next round of fundraising—if anything causes any candidates to get out, it would be the inability to raise sufficient funds to stay competitive.”
As of Jan. 1, Chavez has raised $479,346. Peralez raised $267,544 for the same period.
Earlier this month, Peralez’s campaign released a poll that showed him with a slight edge over Chavez in the election.
Despite the calls to drop out, the downtown councilman says he is not going anywhere.
“I have a broad base of support amongst the voters here in this city,” Peralez said. “I’m not going to back out for her.”