After raising more than $420,000 in three months, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo is stepping away from a political action committee he formed less than six months ago.
Liccardo announced on Twitter this week he’s resigning his officer role in Common Good Silicon Valley—a PAC he created in late 2021 to support business-friendly candidates in the wake of the the local chamber of commerce dissolving its PAC amid a racist ad scandal. Liccardo said he will have no involvement in the PAC’s operations or decision-making.
“CGSV should endure beyond my involvement, & have an independent identity,” Liccardo wrote on Twitter. “My future involvement will remain limited to occasional fundraising, as long as the organization remains focused upon supporting the election of pragmatic, independent, pro-jobs, and pro-housing candidates to local office throughout our region.”
Jim Reed, Liccardo’s chief of staff, said the PAC is about more than just one person—including Liccardo—and declined to say who his replacement would be.
It appears the mayor helped established Common Good Silicon Valley just weeks after the influential Silicon Valley Organization’s PAC dissolved, according to an email to Vic Giacalone, who served on the SVO board for many years. San José Spotlight obtained the email through its public records request for Liccardo’s emails from his private account.
“Would like to call you over the break to talk about what we’re working on in light of SVO stepping out of political activity,” Liccardo wrote.
Reed previously boasted to San José Spotlight that the group raised roughly $400,000 in a day—mostly from wealthy landowners and developers with projects coming before the 11-member City Council—which includes a vote from Liccardo.
“From a very quick glance, it seems that developers comprise approximately 70% of the donors,” Reed told San José Spotlight. “Which isn’t surprising given that our first event had a singular focus (land use and development).”
At the mayor’s request
According to city records obtained by San José Spotlight, more than 15 developers gave at least $10,000 a pop from October to December 2021 at the behest of Liccardo to support the outgoing mayor’s favored candidates.
The PAC has not yet spent any money except $21,105 to secure a location for the PAC’s initial fundraiser, according to its campaign finance reports.
Among those prolific developers Liccardo hit up for cash were Matt Lituchy and Sylvia Tam from San Francisco developers Jay Paul Co., who donated $25,000. They are developing the 3.8 million-square-foot office park CityView Plaza, among other projects, that total a $5 billion investment in San Jose.
Dennis Randall, president of Acquity Realty Inc, personally donated $10,000 at Liccardo’s request. He is the developer behind the 21-story mixed use high-rise called The Carlyle that was granted construction fee waivers earlier this year. Liccardo voted in favor of the fee breaks.
Josh Burroughs, co-founder of Urban Catalyst, has at least six projects pending in downtown. He personally gave $10,000 to the PAC after the mayor asked him to.
And perhaps the city’s most high-profile developer at the moment, Gary Dillabough, also wrote a check for $10,000. Dillabough’s firm, Urban Community, purchased at least 21 buildings in the downtown core for roughly $300 million—the equivalent of Google’s Downtown West project.
“It looks horrible,” Sean McMorris from Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization advocating for accountability in government, told San José Spotlight. “But it’s legal under current Supreme Court rulings (Citizens United) and it’s not uncommon. A lot of prominent politicians do it.”
In 2010, the United States Supreme Court ruled that corporations are considered individuals and can spend limitlessly through PACs and other campaign-related expenditures. Some cities have adopted sunshine laws to allow the public to see where contributions come from—which helps reveal a lot of “dark money” that is funneled through PACs, McMorris said.
“No politician will ever tell you money affects how they vote, but it can, and the public is not so naïve,” McMorris said.
A common goal
But Silicon Valley’s biggest developers say the donations are an example of the public and private sector working together for a common goal.
Burroughs said he understands how the public could see it as a conflict of interest, but adding his donation to Liccardo’s PAC was part of an effort to help the city meet its housing goals. Many of his group’s projects did not need council approval, he added.
“As long as you’re not planning anything crazy, I would say 99% of the projects conform with the general plan and zoning in downtown,” Burroughs said. “Which means City Council is not even involved at all. So there’s really no conflict there.”
Dillabough, a venture capitalist-turned-developer, said he also donated when the mayor reached out because he believed it would help improve the city.
“Our belief is that to help the city get to the next level, it’s going to take a collaboration of a lot of different people,” Dillabough told San José Spotlight. “So when we see groups that we think actually help do that because they have experience and they understand how to get things done, that is where we want to be investing our time and efforts.”
Dillabough said he understands how some could see it as a conflict of interest, but also disagreed.
Reed echoed similar sentiments.
“There are lots of local candidates this year, both labor-aligned and independent, who have received significant contributions from developers,” Reed said. “Common Good believes, as do the courts, that contributions to groups like ours are inherently less prone to appearances of conflict of interest because such groups are required to act independently of elected officials who make public decisions.”
However, McMorris said special interest money in PACs can create an unlevel playing field.
“Getting $100 donations from a hundred residents is different than getting five $20,000 donations from special interests,” McMorris said. “In politics, unfortunately, all too often when people give large sums of money, it is not always for the benefit of a majority of people, but for the benefit of the person giving them money or the particular industry, that they are associated with.”
Reporter Tran Nguyen contributed to this report.
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.