San Jose vice mayor: A friend or a foe?
San Jose Councilmember Rosemary Kamei taking her oath of office on Jan. 10, 2023 standing next to her daughter Ellen, a Mountain View councilmember. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    In one of his first major decisions in office, San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan picked a newcomer as his vice mayor, a position that often signals an ally. But when he needed the votes, she went against him.

    During two crucial votes this week to fill the empty San Jose City Council seats in Districts 8 and 10, Vice Mayor Rosemary Kamei was clear about who should be appointed. And they weren’t Mahan’s candidates.

    The appointments in Districts 8 and 10 could have helped Mahan pick up two new allies on the dais—getting him closer to a coalition of six among an opposing majority. But Kamei was lockstep with labor-backed Councilmembers Peter Ortiz and Omar Torres in voting for Domingo Candelas to represent the Evergreen area and Wendi Mahaney-Gurahoo to represent Almaden and Blossom valleys. After his other picks were eliminated, Mahan voted for Salvador Alvarez to fill the District 8 seat and Arjun Batra for District 10, the latter being appointed. Newly-elected Councilmember Bien Doan was the only councilmember who consistently voted with Mahan throughout the appointments.

    “Good people can have different perspectives, especially on questions as subjective as candidate selection,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “Vice Mayor Kamei’s unique collaborative skills and our shared commitment to greater focus and accountability at City Hall will benefit our residents regardless of how often folks on the dais agree with each other on specific votes.”

    Kamei said it’s not uncommon for vice mayors to break from the mayor, and that her votes this week won’t impact her working relationship with the new mayor. Kamei positions herself an independent but enjoyed support from labor-aligned groups during the election.

    “I recognize, and I think he recognizes, that I have an independent lens, and while we may be together on many different issues, we will also have different opinions and thoughts on other issues,” Kamei told San José Spotlight. “I think he understands I will make my own decision (about) what is good for the community in San Jose.”

    Kamei’s decisions could spell trouble for Mahan, who starts his two-year term with a labor majority on the council who opposed his candidacy. The councilmembers also voted against his plan to hold a special election to fill the two vacant seats left by him and former Councilmember Sylvia Arenas—highlighting the challenges Mahan may face moving his ideas forward.

    Mahan is one vote on the 11-member council and needs at least five others to move his policies forward.

    While mostly a ceremonial role, the vice mayor appointment in San Jose has been historically used by mayors to build a coalition, reward a reliable ally or to move a political foe across the aisle.

    The vice mayor pick is a strategic political decision for San Jose mayors, said Terry Christensen, a retired San Jose State political science professor. Former Mayor Chuck Reed, who aligned with business interests, found success in naming labor-backed former Councilmember Madison Nguyen as his vice mayor. Despite initially being on opposite sides, Nguyen eventually began voting alongside Reed and helped bridge a divide on the dais.

    Mahan’s predecessor, Mayor Sam Liccardo, also attempted such strategies in 2017 by picking former Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco, a political rival. His plan failed after Carrasco voted against his policies a number of times as vice mayor. Two years later, Liccardo dropped Carrasco and named former Councilmember Chappie Jones, who served as vice mayor and often sided with him until Liccardo left office last year.

    Christensen said Mahan could see Kamei align with him — eventually.

    “Certainly he can hope for that, but it’ll be over time,” Christensen told San José Spotlight. “She’s a pretty strong, independent and experienced person. I would have expected her to vote independently, which she did (this week).”

    Rich Robinson, a political observer and San José Spotlight columnist, isn’t surprised to see Kamei break from Mahan. Kamei has a track record of being an independent politician, he said.

    “Mahan is in trouble anyway because he’s been on the losing end of all but one major vote so far in the city,” Robinson said. “If he’s going to lead the council, he’s got to be able to move it forward and bring people in. But I don’t think the vice mayor is an automatic vote for the mayor.”

    Mahan bypassed veteran councilmembers for vice mayor and chose Kamei, who was elected last June, as his right hand woman earlier this month. Mahan said he made the decision to unify the city council and end what he called “unproductive political divisions” between labor and business. San Jose politics are often split between labor-leaning progressives and more moderate, business focused officials.

    Robinson said it’s too early to say whether Mahan made a bad decision.

    “If the desire is to put her in a box, then Mahan made a wrong choice,” Robinson told San José Spotlight. “But if that decision is made in an effort to build a bridge, I think it’s a very smart choice. (Kamei) can bridge the council together when it needs to be.”

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter. 

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