Mayor Sam Liccardo led San Jose through some of the most tumultuous times the city has seen in recent history—and with that came incredible highs and deep lows.
In an exclusive one-hour interview with San José Spotlight, Liccardo, 52, candidly reflected on his biggest regret, toughest moments and legacy as he looks back on eight years as mayor of the 10th largest city in the nation.
Liccardo served eight years as the city’s District 3 councilmember before voters elected him as San Jose’s 65th mayor in 2014 and again in 2018 for a second term. He entered office as the city was coming back from the Great Recession and pension reform troubles. He dealt with massive flooding and wildfires and skyrocketing homelessness. He found himself dealing with a crisis of epic proportions in the VTA mass shooting and an unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.
With just a few weeks left in his final term, Liccardo shared his thoughts on his successes and failures at City Hall. His answers have been edited for clarity and length.
SAN JOSÉ SPOTLIGHT: You have been working on the 18th floor of San Jose City Hall for 16 years, starting as a downtown councilmember followed by two terms as mayor. What has been your proudest accomplishment during that time?
LICCARDO: When I came into office as mayor, we were embroiled in a lot of battles over pension reform. We’d lost more than 1,000 of our employees at the city and more than 500 police officers and still licking our wounds from the Great Recession. There were a lot of really challenging moments and you didn’t hear people talking much about the future. We were still fighting a lot of battles from the past. Since then, I’d like to believe we’ve done to a lot of different initiatives that refocus on the city’s the future and hopefully the community as well.
That means we’re talking about how to preserve thousands of acres in Coyote Valley for future generations. How we’re going to help thousands of first generation students get into college through the San Jose Aspires program. How we’re going to build an incredible downtown with Google’s investment. How we are going to add other investments downtown to revitalize and help bring a new streetscape to a city that’s traditionally been built around an automobile. So we can have a vibrant downtown with housing and shops and restaurants and all the things we want to have in the future.
I’d like to think with all the different initiatives (in motion), we are refocusing the city on the future. We know there’s gonna be lots of new crises, new challenges. But we’re only gonna get through this together if we have a common focus, and it’s got to be a future focus. So whether it’s addressing climate change by decarbonizing our grid—(which) we’ve almost done — so we’re about 95% (greenhouse gas) free. Or we’re going to help support young people by creating thousands of jobs for teenagers in the summertime.
Whatever it is, it’s got to be about the next generation. It’s got to be about the future. I think we’re doing that.
SAN JOSÉ SPOTLIGHT: You led San Jose through a major flood, global pandemic, mass shooting, civil unrest—just to name a few defining moments. What was the most difficult for you?
LICCARDO: There have been several, but the mass shooting at the rail yard was the most awful. You have those moments as mayor and you just think you’ll somehow or another be ready for them. But you can’t possibly be, it’s an incredibly challenging role. Though I’ve loved my time as mayor, there are moments that tests your character in ways that you just never could anticipate.
As you’re sitting there with families who have just lost their loved ones after a mass shooting, you’d like to believe as mayor there’s some magic wand you can wave, there’s something you can do to address the intense pain they feel. In that moment, frankly, there were families who just hadn’t even heard what had happened to their loved ones. And you knew that they must have lost a loved one because this was hours after the shooting. It was so apparent that they had lost their loved ones, but you couldn’t say it because the coroner hadn’t released that.
It’s those moments of just intense powerlessness, there’s really nothing you can do at that moment, other than just trying to be there with somebody who’s hurting.
SAN JOSÉ SPOTLIGHT: What vote or decision did you make in office that you now regret? What would you have done differently?
LICCARDO: I’ve made plenty of mistakes. I think the most pointed moment where I felt like I really would like to have that decision back wasn’t actually on the dais. It was in the moments after it was apparent that the flood was dragging people out of their homes.
I can remember well, about two days before the flood, as we were getting data about the rising stream levels, I had some conversations with folks who had seen flooding happen 20 years before but the (valley water) district said it wasn’t going to flood.
I said, “Why don’t we just tell people anyway?” What we were hearing was I couldn’t declare an evacuation order. It was not a decision I could make. That decision needed to be made by the Emergency Operations Center. Part of the reason an evacuation order was not declared was we needed somewhere for all those families to go. We didn’t have it, and nobody really had a sense of how we could possibly care for thousands and thousands of families.
I remember thinking at the time, “What if we’re wrong? What if the engineers are wrong and what we’re hearing from the water district (is wrong)? What if we don’t have good data?”
What I did do is post something on Facebook where I actually warned about particular neighborhoods and said, “Hey if you’re in these neighborhoods, consider where you might stay, where else you can stay tonight.” I remember getting a call from water district saying, “Hey, we don’t want to scare people. We’re okay.” So I actually changed the posting.
I regret that I didn’t trust what I was hearing from people who had the experience. We were sort of trusting the experts. I realized that was a leadership failure on my part that I certainly could have done a better job. Although I didn’t have the authority to declare the emergency order, I certainly could have just gone out there with volunteers and knocked on doors, right? We certainly had the ability to do that. So I regret that I didn’t trust my gut and I didn’t trust those who had that experience, and we deferred to experts.
Two days later, obviously, the worst was happening and we’re evacuating 14,000 people and we had to find ways to accommodate that evacuation anyway. It’s a bit of a 20/20 hindsight, but I think about that decision as one I would love to have back, that’s a big one.
SAN JOSÉ SPOTLIGHT: You’ve hinted at a run for Congress. Which seat would you seek, and why does that appeal to you?
LICCARDO: I’ve considered different options, but right now that’s not an option because San Jose’s got four districts and we’ve got four members of Congress there. If one of those folks suddenly decides they’re not there, well then that’s a conversation.
I would consider (Congress) just as I would consider other options. Right now I’m genuinely trying to suspend the tendency to have a plan and jump into the next thing. The reason why I’m doing that, frankly, is I don’t feel like I’ve really had a chance to explore a lot of options. I know I want to do something that’s aligned with my passions — a lot of the things I’ve been working on whether it’s affordable housing and homelessness or sustainability. Whatever I do won’t be a great surprise to anybody. It’s going to be in one of those areas where I’ve been working.
SAN JOSÉ SPOTLIGHT: What is your legacy as San Jose’s 64th mayor?
LICCARDO: I think our real legacies aren’t really the ones that make the headlines or get in the history books. I’d like to believe and I hope the legacy I’ll be leaving will be in all the work we’ve done focusing on youth and children who are growing up, overcoming the challenges of poverty and the other many barriers that we know exist for our young people.
The programs that I’m often the most passionate about are things that we’ve started, like San Jose Aspires, which is helping wonderfully bright students at San Jose High and Overfelt High School get on a college path with things like micro scholarships, and tools that can help them understand their choices better; programs like the Coding 5K which is helping expose a lot of young people who otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to computer science and coding.
I’d like to think that we’re investing in the next generation in a new way and maybe better than we were before.
SAN JOSÉ SPOTLIGHT: You played a major role in selecting your predecessor in the November election—from endorsing mayor-elect Matt Mahan to launching a PAC that financially supported him. What will your role or influence be in Mahan’s administration moving forward?
LICCARDO: Probably not a lot. I have a great relationship with Matt and I certainly talked to him about issues. I’m happy to talk to him anytime he gives me a call, but he doesn’t need more advice. He’s gonna do fine. So I think it’s important for Matt to set his own path to leadership. He’s going to have different sets of challenges. He’s going to have different approaches. That’s the nature of turnover in leadership and that’s a good thing for the city. That is why term limits exist.
SAN JOSÉ SPOTLIGHT: You’ve said homelessness is your biggest failure. The homeless count in San Jose continues to rise. Why were you unable to meet your housing production goals or make a considerable dent in the homelessness crisis?
LICCARDO: I think we went into this believing that we had a certain set of tools in the toolbox, and if we could just build enough housing and build it fast enough, maybe pass measures to get more funding to build more, we could eventually put a dent in this. So there were a lot of variations of that.
For the most part, we are working hard on just building more extremely low income housing, but construction costs have escalated quickly. We all know how long it takes to get these projects built. It became increasingly apparent in my first term that we were not going to solve this crisis if we are waiting five or six years for an apartment building that costs around $800,000 unit to get built.
We started looking at motel conversions, for example, which we started doing in 2015-16. We’ve done a couple. We looked at tiny homes, which was interesting, but probably won’t be one that sustains itself. But I’m glad we tried it because we need to try a lot of things. What I think we’ve landed on is this very successful quick-build housing, prefabricated housing communities. We’ve got three up and running and just finished a fourth.
The actual number of people living on the streets has dropped for the first time in a really long time. We have finally actually started turning the corner on what we think is the most severe problem — which is people out in the street.
SAN JOSÉ SPOTLIGHT: One of the challenges you’ve faced as mayor has been a lawsuit brought by San José Spotlight and the First Amendment Coalition over private email use and the California Public Records Act. I know you cannot comment on that, but what would you like the public to know about your efforts to ensure transparency and accountability at City Hall—both for your council colleagues and yourself?
LICCARDO: I think accountability and transparency are critical. It’s not apparent to most folks every conversation between elected officials and every other human being is a matter of public disclosure and public interest.
On the other hand, we know there are matters that absolutely should be exposed. Matters, for example, that involve the expenditure of public dollars or where there are life or safety implications. It seems to me we’d all be well off if we focused most on those issues and matters where we know the public interest is most at stake.
Recently, we’ve been looking at police accountability like many big cities since the murder of George Floyd. So we recently launched a portal where the public and the media can look through the massive files that are out there around police uses of force and various extreme forms of police misconduct. Lots of cities just sort of dump the files on a website or an open data portal and say, “Okay, you guys go figure it out.”
Well, it shouldn’t look like a trip to the city dump. It should look like a trip to the city library. So we created a portal.
SAN JOSÉ SPOTLIGHT: How will you continue to shape public policies and support political candidates in San Jose after you leave office?
LICCARDO: I don’t know. I’m not saying that to be coy. A lot is going to depend on what I decide in terms of my next steps. There’s certainly a school of thought that former mayors are better not seen or heard. So yeah, there may be something to that.
We got two more weeks and believe it or not, there’s still things that we’re trying to get resolved before I wrap up as I’m packing up my boxes. I will have a much clearer mind in January and February, and start to think a little bit more about how I can be part of the community in a different way. Whether I’m part of politics or not, I’ll be pretty deeply engaged in this community. There are other nonprofits I’m talking to that I am very passionate about and I want to continue to support them, schools, things like that. So I’ll be involved. Whether it’s political or not — to be determined.
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.