Top labor leaders from the South Bay gathered in front of San Jose City Hall Wednesday morning to push support for a proposal they say will put a cap on money in local politics and boost voter turnout by shifting mayoral elections to presidential election years.
Leaders are racing to enact the sweeping reform called “the fair elections initiative” before next year’s election cycle. About 36,000 signatures are needed before the initiative can be brought to City Council, they said.
“Democracy means getting an equal voice. Our government should work for all of us,” said Ruth Silver-Taube, a labor rights attorney in Santa Clara County. “The fair elections initiative will stop ‘pay to play’ in politics by banning corrupting campaign contributions. Voters should have the confidence that our elected leaders aren’t being unduly swayed.”
Richard Konda, executive director of the Asian Law Alliance, said the initiative will “ban corrupt campaign contributions” by limiting the amount of money that special interests such as “city contractors, developers, landlords and their lobbyists” can donate to mayoral candidates.
But the reform’s biggest change that has other local politicians shaking their heads is proposing that the mayor be elected during presidential years, rather than in off years. Supporters said this reform will encourage more local turnout from women, younger voters and people of color.
“If our goal is to increase voter turnout—this measure does it,” said Garrick Percival, associate political science professor at San Jose State University.
According to Percival, moving the elections to a presidential year can increase voter turnout by about 30 to 35 percent, citing citywide turnout data from gubernatorial and presidential elections.
There are about 434,000 registered voters in the city, added Percival, who said that only 36 percent voted for mayor during the most recent mayoral election but 81 percent voted on local policy measures during the 2016 presidential election.
Some local politicians weighed in, adding that they endorse the measure as a vehicle to support more minorities and women who are running for office and encourage a wider pool of voting participants.
“Everyone up here at City Hall—all council members especially—should be doing everything possible to increase voter turnout,” said Sergio Jimenez, a councilmember from San Jose’s District 2. “Unfortunately, what we’ve been doing by holding the mayoral election during the off years, non-presidential years, we discouraged folks, and folks haven’t been turning out as much as they should.”
Jimenez said that during the last mayoral election “only 1 in 3” of San Jose’s eligible voters turned out.
“This initiative will mean more of San Jose having a say in our future mayor. This initiative is common sense,” added Jimenez. “For more than 240 years, only two women were elected mayor of this city. That is not something that we should take lightly. And we should do everything possible to change it.”
Mayor Sam Liccardo recently expressed criticism of such a measure, saying that the mayoral election should “focus on San Jose’s own local issues and challenges, without the distraction of the chronic dysfunction of national politics.”
South Bay business leaders agree with the mayor.
“Mayoral elections and local government issues would receive less attention during presidential election years, when national politics would dominate media coverage at every level,” said Eddie Truong, director of government and community relations at The SVO. “We need to be mindful of how this measure could potentially depress voter turnout in council districts 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 during gubernatorial election years, especially when mayoral elections are taken out of the picture.”
Matt Mahood, the group’s CEO and president, added that it’s “ironic” that a proposed ballot measure that seeks to remove special interest money out of local politics doesn’t hold labor unions to the same standard.
If the proposal receives enough signatures from the public, it will go to City Council, where the proposal can be immediately adopted, put on the ballot or be held off for 30 days if the council members request a staff report.
But according to labor leaders, if enough voters support putting the measure on the ballot, “the City Council members cannot stop it.”
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