San Jose politicians are increasingly breaking from endorsing incumbents
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Nadia Lopez.

For years, it was uncommon for San Jose lawmakers to not endorse their respective colleagues on the City Council when an incumbent faced re-election, despite differences in voting patterns or belonging to opposing political camps.

But now, and increasingly in recent years, many councilmembers are backing a challenger, instead of their own council colleague — a distinct shift from the political etiquette of a few years prior.

As local lawmakers brace for a riveting election year ahead, many have announced endorsements for challengers running for a seat on the council — instead of the incumbents. Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco, for example, is supporting Huy Tran in the District 4 race, against current Councilmember Lan Diep. Other councilmembers have publicly supported Tran’s campaign, including Sylvia Arenas, who spoke at his kickoff event in September.

Another lawmaker, Councilmember Johnny Khamis — who’s running for state Senate — endorsed mechanical engineer Jonathan Fleming in the District 2 race, rather than Councilmember Sergio Jimenez.

“I haven’t been around this world a long time so I don’t have memory on how things have been done in the past,” said Jimenez. “But I support folks who have similar values as me or that I think are open to things that I find important. Politics is a contact sport and I take no issue with, say, Khamis supporting Fleming. We all get along generally, but I think most folks know to separate the politics from the daily interaction.”

Similarly, Khamis said he supports candidates who share his vision on policy — he’s tired of increasing taxes and fees — but that it has nothing to do with the “likability” factor of any of his colleagues.

“I don’t share the same vision for the city, I don’t share the vision on on taxation. I think we’re already tax-burdened, and the people who I have supported in this race are opposed to raising new taxes,” said Khamis. “I have a vision on fiscal responsibility, on public safety, that some of my colleagues don’t share. It’s about policy.

But some political experts say San Jose lawmakers siding with outside candidates over their own colleagues is another sign of the increasing division in politics — both nationally, and now, locally.

“It’s a growing nationalization of our politics in that national political levels of polarization are filtering down to affect state and local politics,” said San Jose State University political science professor Garrick Percival. “This is one indicator of that — politics is in a lot of ways about different visions, ideological beliefs and the role of government.”

However, the trickle-down effect of the national political climate is only one factor. Percival said the growing crises in the region are becoming more politicized by lawmakers who share a vision on how to address them. That’s one of the primary reasons some politicians embrace challengers over incumbents.

But San Jose leaders say the divide in local politics can be attributed to local leadership — specifically the mayor. Former Councilmember Don Rocha, who was heavily invested in local politics for the last 25 years, said a mayor significantly influences how colleagues work together and choose sides.

“How is the mayor’s office and council majority interacting with the council minority on any given issue? It’s like anything in life — if you feel your opinion is valued, if you feel engaged, if you feel heard — there is less acrimony,” said Rocha. “But if current councilmembers feel that that is not the case, it should come as no surprise to anyone that they are actively working for, or hoping for, change.”

Khamis couldn’t recall previously endorsing a candidate who was not an incumbent. He supported former councilmembers Rocha and Madison Nguyen, but said their views were closer to his than their opponents.

“I don’t endorse people based on whether I work with them or not,” he added, “I endorse them based on decisions and their objectives.”

Breaking with council colleagues has been an emerging trend in San Jose politics for the last few election cycles. Last year, Jimenez endorsed Councilmember Maya Esparza in the race against District 7 incumbent Tam Nguyen, a move he said was “uncommon.”

Nguyen lost his seat after one term to Esparza by 1,713 votes that year.

“Most recently, I supported Maya against Tam, which is uncommon, but I just didn’t feel I could work with him or that he was driven by deep-seated values,” added Jimenez. “There are many people up there carrying the water for businesses’ interest. There’s nothing wrong with business per say, but I feel large corporations have had an outsized influence… I feel that the city’s old guard senses changes and is scrambling to figure out what it means.”

As a first-time candidate, Tran said he’s “proud” to receive the support of Carrasco, who’s worked on many of the same issues he’s now campaigning on, which include the city’s wage theft ordinance and standing up for organizations like Planned Parenthood after the Trump administration made significant cuts to its budget.

Tran said it makes sense to endorse candidates who hold the same values, especially as San Jose tackles its ongoing housing and homeless crises.

“Magdalena’s endorsement means a lot to me,” said Tran. “We’ve worked closely together on the wage theft ordinance that she championed. I’m really happy she endorsed me because we’ve worked together and she sees what we can do together in partnership.”

Still, Tran said the the biggest divergence among the lawmakers contributing to the divide on the City Council is addressing the region’s housing crisis.

“When we talk about how we structure, or how we manage the growth in the city, how we develop, or how we move toward solutions that get us more housing — that’s where the biggest separation is,” Tran added. “We can’t wait and hope for the trickle down benefits — we have to find solutions.”

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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