San Jose mayor promised change but hired Liccardo insiders
San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan holds a news conference to advocate for special elections with dozens of residents in front of City Hall on Nov. 28, 2022. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan ran a campaign promising a “revolution” at City Hall. But with nearly half his office filled with senior officials from his predecessor, some are questioning whether he can keep that promise.

    Mahan, who said his staffing and policy priorities would differ from his predecessor, has hired 11 workers from former Mayor Sam Liccardo’s office to fill his staff of 22 people, according to a roster obtained by San José Spotlight.

    Returning workers are taking on various senior roles, including those overseeing policy and advising the mayor. Most notably, Jim Reed is keeping his position as the mayor’s chief of staff. Liccardo’s deputy chief of staff Mackenzie Mossing is returning as chief policy officer and Rachel Davis as chief communications and marketing officer. Mahan has also tapped several campaign workers and officials in his previous District 10 office, with plans to hire more people.

    For some, Mahan’s decision to retain workers from Liccardo’s office appears to fly in the face of his campaign promises to bring change to City Hall.

    “For the candidate of change, this isn’t much change,” political observer and San Jose State University political science professor emeritus Terry Christensen told San José Spotlight. “It’s ironic that the candidate who said San Jose city government was dysfunctional now hired (nearly) half of the former mayor’s staff.”

    Mahan defended his decision to keep a number of Liccardo’s staffers, saying he needs an experienced team to help him enact change.

    “You need to know the system to change the system,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “The individuals who are staying on have bought into my vision and are committed to my goal of making government more focused and accountable for results. Frankly, I wouldn’t hire anyone who wasn’t ready to shake things up.”

    Facing a time crunch

    Retaining workers from a predecessor’s office is not uncommon, other political observers and former city officials said —especially when they are politically aligned like Mahan and Liccardo. Liccardo endorsed Mahan and helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to elect him in 2022.

    “The mayor sets the agenda and the tone, and he needs good quality people (who) are reliable,” former Mayor Chuck Reed told San José Spotlight. “There are lots of impediments to change, but the mayor’s staff is not one of them.”

    San Jose State University political science professor Garrick Percival said Mahan could benefit by keeping workers with knowledge and experience from the previous administration.

    “Without that, you really are left with lots of people who are trying to learn the job all at once, and that can really slow you down,” Percival told San José Spotlight. “Because Mahan doesn’t have much time, he is going to be relying a lot on the people who were with Liccardo.”

    Mahan only has two years as mayor before he faces reelection in 2024. This is because San Jose voters approved Measure B in June, an initiative to move San Jose’s mayoral elections to presidential years. Mahan could potentially serve two more four-year terms, making him the first mayor to serve 10 years.

    Mahan is also pointing to his pick for vice mayor and the launch of five new transition committees, tasked with reforming the city’s work plans on several pressing issues, as efforts to bring change as mayor.

    The committees, comprised of community leaders and city officials, will tackle homelessness, community safety, blight and illegal dumping, downtown vibrancy and the planning and permitting process. Each committee will work to identify up to five success metrics to help the city track its performance, with plans to report back in February, city officials said.

    Councilmember Pam Foley, who won reelection last June, will chair the homelessness committee. Councilmember Rosemary Kamei, Mahan’s pick for vice mayor, will head the community safety committee, while Councilmember Dev Davis will tackle reform within the planning and permitting process. Gary Dillabough, a venture capitalist real estate developer, will sit on the downtown vibrancy committee. Gabrielle Antolovich, president of the Billy DeFrank Center, will sit on the community safety committee.

    Christensen said Mahan’s reelection depends on whether the mayor can deliver on his promise to bring change.

    “I don’t think the public or the voters pays much attention to who staffs (the offices of) the mayor or councilmembers,” he said. “They’ll pay attention to policy outcomes, and he really needs to produce some visible changes in the next 14 months or so.”

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter. Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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