Candidates running for mayor in San Jose set themselves apart on several key policy issues during San José Spotlight’s first election forum of 2022.
Five candidates joined Wednesday’s forum—Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, San Jose Councilmembers Dev Davis, Matt Mahan and Raul Peralez, and former San Jose Police Department officer Jim Spence.
Most candidates agreed that addressing homelessness, affordable housing and improving public safety are top priorities for America’s 10th largest city. But several topics exposed rifts between their views on public pensions, transportation, the role of the mayor and firearm polices. The candidates are vying to replace outgoing Mayor Sam Liccardo who leaves City Hall at the end of the year.
Councilmembers Davis and Mahan said they oppose pension obligation bonds, following a question about how they would address San Jose’s rising pension costs and the more than $3.5 billion in funded pension liabilities.
“Currently, 15 cents of every dollar we spend through our general fund goes to paying the unfunded liability we face each year, and that is projected out to be a significant burden,” Mahan said, adding the city must work with its labor unions to reduce that burden. “I wrote the first memo though opposing pension obligation bonds because I don’t think the answer is to gamble on Wall Street and hope that we can outperform our discount rate.”
With the exception of Spence, all of the candidates spoke in favor of investing in public transit, although several had pointed criticism for VTA. Spence complained that VTA buses are dirty and don’t go where people need them to go.
“Ever since the VTA was formed in 1995 the city of San Jose has suffered for that decision,” Spence said. “Look what happened when VTA closed down for four months—all those people that bought into the light rail, that lived in high rises next to a transit spot, they were stranded, they had no way to get around. And did VTA increase the buses? No they didn’t.”
Chavez, who sits on the VTA board along with Peralez, fired back that VTA closed after a mass shooting and people rely on the system.
“VTA, prior to COVID, was moving around 108,000 trips a day in our county. They closed down for a short time because of the shooting—they didn’t just decide to close down, Jim,” Chavez said. “We have people in our community who have opted to not buy cars because they want to be able to move around on transit, so we have an obligation to make these systems work.”
The candidates bounced ideas for revitalizing San Jose’s downtown, which has been afflicted by blight and vacancies for many years. When Spence argued that expanding BART to downtown will rip up streets, Peralez interjected that the use of single-bore tunneling technology will avoid creating a gaping hole and other construction impacts to downtown businesses and residents.
“We have a lot of buy in from our businesses and property owners downtown because they know we’re not going to have that impact,” said Peralez, who represents downtown San Jose. “We’re more likely to run into mammoth remains, right, than to hit sewer pipes or utilities.”
Asked whether San Jose should adopt a “strong mayor” system that allows the mayor to hire and fire department heads such as the police chief, Peralez said he favors the idea, but deferred to the will of the Charter Review Commission. The commission was established last year to recommend improvements to San Jose’s government.
Mahan argued most cities have this model and it helps keep bureaucracy aligned with the will of elected officials—he said San Jose’s next mayor should make a case for this model to the public. Davis opposes the strong mayor model because the current form of government works well. She noted voters have the ability to recall city managers.
Other than Peralez, all of the candidates had significant reservations about the gun control rules introduced by Liccardo last year in the wake of the mass shooting at VTA’s Guadalupe rail yard. The policies call for recording gun purchases, requiring gun owners carry liability insurance and pay an annual fee of $25 to offset the costs of gun violence.
Mahan said he voted against requiring gun owners to pay an annual fee to the city because of potential problems with implementation and constitutionality. Chavez said she appreciated the mayor’s goal, but said it would be better to focus on existing laws.
“I was the only councilmember to vote against both of the new gun owner mandates, the insurance and the fee,” said Davis, noting she is a gun owner herself. “What we need to do is we need more traffic enforcement that actually stops guns from coming into the city, as well as drugs. We need to use (red flag laws) more, but also make them more accessible to the public, and we need to get ghost guns off the street.”