San Jose mayoral candidates spar over policies
San Jose Councilmember Matt Mahan and Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez at a candidate forum hosted by San José Spotlight on Sept. 15, 2022. Photo by Jana Kadah.

The debate between the San Jose mayoral candidates is more than just business versus labor. Voters in November will decide if they want a freshman councilmember looking to shake things up or a longtime politician with institutional knowledge.

San Jose Councilmember Matt Mahan and Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez are battling it out for the top seat at City Hall. Mahan, with one and a half years of experience as a councilmember, is looking to use his tech executive experience to restructure City Hall and foster greater accountability. Chavez is a longtime politico who knows how the underpinnings of intergovernmental agencies work to address complex projects.

At the Thursday mayoral debate hosted by San José Spotlight, both pointed the finger at their rival’s respective backgrounds as reasons for why they are the right choice, and their opponent is not. The biggest issues were homelessness and housing.

Mahan said while the county’s budget has risen in the past few years, supervisors like Chavez failed to utilize the money properly to address the mental health crises and build more housing, exacerbating the region’s homeless problem which has increased in San Jose by 11% since 2019.

“I haven’t seen that kind of urgency and focus on scaling up solutions that get to the root causes and give us a shot at the history of homelessness in our lifetimes,” Mahan said. “We have people walking down the street in downtown, scaring our residents and you’ve been sitting with the county for 10 years now basically making excuses for why we can’t solve it.”

Mahan clarified after the forum that he was referring to a small population of homeless people with untreated mental illness.

Chavez responded that the councilmember’s accusations were “disingenuous” and uninformed.

“Part of the reason you haven’t known what’s happened in the last 10 years is because you have been in office a year and a half,” Chavez said in response. “You keep acting like the county’s budget just ballooned on accident. Part of the reason our budget has grown so dramatically is we saved O’Connor and St. Louise hospitals—141 beds and two emergency rooms. And yes, I did that.”

San Jose Councilmember and mayoral candidate Matt Mahan wants to tie pay raises for elected officials and department heads to performance-tracked goals. Photo by Jana Kadah.

Restructuring City Hall

Mahan wants to set measurable goals and use data to ensure the city is meeting those targets. One of his main initiatives is to tie pay raises of elected officials and city department heads to reaching those goals, and hold them accountable if the work isn’t completed as expected. Changing the pay of city employees is a difficult, if not impossible task because salaries are decided by union-negotiated contracts and council salaries by an independent salary-setting commission. The city also has its own salary-based tier system.

He said housing and commercial construction are moving painstakingly slow, in part because there is a 26% vacancy in the city’s planning department. To solve the housing shortage he wants to reform the planning and building department. Mahan also said the city should be building all types of homes and not focusing only on the number of affordable housing options.

“We should be significantly overbuilding market rate and medium income because low income housing (which) we desperately need (has) limited public funds to subsidize,” Mahan said. “The reality is most of the more affordable housing stock was market rate housing built a long time ago that got old.”

Chavez said she has the know-how to get the county and city to work together to solve the city’s biggest woes. During her time on the city council the city permitted 7,000 homes  in downtown through state tax funds and rezone lands to encourage development where there was none. As a county supervisor, she worked with VTA to get 200 acres of transit agency land to be used for housing or safe parking sites.

“We need to look at the funding we have available and be as strategic as we can now,” Chavez said. “We need a public-private partnership to get the backlog filled for the (planning and building) department.”

Chavez’s campaign has also focused on public safety and staffing up the San Jose Police Department which has suffered from vacancies in recent years. She said the city needs to look at SJPD overtime and allocate that money toward recruiting officers who represent the community—particularly more women officers.

Mahan said the problem with SJPD is retaining officers and ensuring the city has enough money to be competitive with pay.

Santa Clara County Supervisor and mayoral candidate Cindy Chavez said she’d commit to not using a private email to do public business, or at least copying her government account if she did. Photo by Jana Kadah.

Transparency and accountability 

The debate also focused on political action committee (PAC) spending on candidates and how they will not be beholden to special interests; and if they will be transparent and public with media. During the primaries, this news organization asked mayoral candidates if they would commit to not deleting emails for at least two years, not using a private email to conduct public business and if they do, to copy a government server.

Before the debate, Chavez was the only one who had not made the commitment, but when asked on Thursday, she said yes.

San José Spotlight and the First Amendment Coalition are suing the city and Mayor Sam Liccardo for improperly withholding emails, in an effort to change how government conducts public business.

During the primaries, Chavez received more than $1 million in PAC spending from groups like the South Bay Labor Council, the San Francisco 49ers and the San Jose Police Officers’ Association. In comparison, Mahan received nearly $300,000 from the Common Good Silicon Valley PAC that was supported by Mayor Sam Liccardo—who personally helped fundraise for him.

Chavez said she has a proven track record of “doing the right thing,” regardless of who helps fund her campaign, and PAC funding won’t sway her.

Mahan said the PAC money to Chavez doesn’t bode well, and that he would much rather have the support of an outgoing mayor, who will not have much power after this year, rather than special interest groups with deep pockets.

Residents will have the opportunity to make their voices heard on November 8.

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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