For the first time in San Jose’s history, the city will align its mayoral race with the presidential election — a move championed by labor leaders to boost turnout and elect a progressive mayor. Yet Silicon Valley’s powerful labor lobby has no one to run for the seat.
And time is running out. Candidates have a month left to file papers to run for political office. As of this week, no one from organized labor has emerged to challenge Mayor Matt Mahan — a business-backed moderate Democrat who pulled off a decisive win last year against labor’s most recognizable fixture: Supervisor Cindy Chavez.
In many ways, Silicon Valley labor leaders pinned all their hopes — and coveted endorsements and campaign cash — on Chavez. They abandoned other progressive policymakers in the mayor’s race like former Councilmember Raul Peralez to go all in on Chavez. But they got it wrong. Voters chose fresh-faced Mahan who swept the city with a message of change and disruption instead of an entrenched veteran politician.
With Chavez out of the running, labor now has no formidable candidates on its bench. It’s an extraordinary position considering labor’s victory moving the election to benefit progressives and securing a majority on the San Jose City Council.
Political observer and SJSU professor Garrick Percival said labor was likely banking on a win from Chavez. Without her, there are few options. Plus, labor has to find a candidate on a shorter timeline with the mayoral term lasting two years instead of four.
“You don’t have a situation where there’s a clear front runner (in labor),” Percival told San José Spotlight. “You need a high quality candidate — well networked within the community, who has already fairly high name recognition, who has the ability to raise funds… that’s not easy.”
A major donor, who backed Chavez heavily last year, said it’s an incredibly short amount of time to pull together the financial resources to take on a mayoral incumbent. But they also said the labor council hasn’t seriously challenged any mayoral incumbent because of failed political strategy.
“This isn’t unprecedented. It’s been a flaw of not having a strong bench that’s harmed labor for some time,” the donor said. “I don’t see a path for anyone and I certainly don’t see a path for donors or independent expenditures. We’re not going to engage in a suicide mission and spend all our dollars (on a candidate who won’t win).”
Jean Cohen, executive director of the South Bay Labor Council, which solely endorsed Chavez last year, hinted that some viable labor-backed candidates will file to run for mayor before the Dec. 13 deadline. She declined to say who.
Sources have told San José Spotlight that labor leaders polled several names to decide who might have enough political capital and name recognition to run. The names included Councilmember Sergio Jimenez and former Councilmember Don Rocha — who both confirmed they are not running.
“Accountability and democracy go hand-in-hand and San Jose voters are eager to see leadership that addresses our most pressing issues,” Cohen told San José Spotlight. “I believe that means we are likely to see candidates from across sectors who believe we deserve better in San Jose.”
Victor Gomez, a lobbyist and former chief of staff at city hall, formed a political action committee in 2018 to help elect business leaders. His group, the Silicon Valley Business PAC, filled a critical void in the city’s political landscape after the San Jose Chamber of Commerce dissolved its PAC amid backlash for racist ads. Gomez’s group spent more than $60,000 last year to oppose Chavez and secure Mahan’s victory.
Looking to next year, Gomez predicts progressives and labor leaders don’t have anyone strong enough to rival Mahan.
And running for mayor in a city as large as San Jose is not cheap. Last year’s matchup between Mahan and Chavez was the most expensive in city history with special interests spending more than $4 million to support their candidates. Despite being outspent roughly two-to-one, Mahan pulled off a stunning victory.
Gomez believes labor will sit out the mayor’s race and instead focus on winning council seats to expand its majority on the city council. The mayor, after all, has essentially the same voting power as the other 10 councilmembers in San Jose’s weak-mayor system.
“At the end of the day, Matt (Mahan) really is only one vote on the council,” Gomez said. “So do you want to get one vote and spend $1 million (to beat him), or do you want to get one vote and spend $100,000 in independent expenditures (to win a council race)?”
Even if a labor candidate jumps into the mayor’s race now — as Cohen hinted — they would be severely behind. Candidates in Silicon Valley have announced their runs for office as early as August — especially in light of the early primary election in March. Mahan, for example, has been campaigning since August 4, when he filed papers.
“Time is definitely running out if there’s going to be any sort of competitive race,” Percival told San José Spotlight. “To run a competitive citywide race, you need to be able to identify candidates early.”
Mahan can also point to his voting record — even if it’s short. He’s launched measures to clean up blight, reduce homelessness and boost public safety. But he’s also faced some challenges in his first year as mayor: The city’s largest unions almost walked off the job in a historic strike earlier this year and his biggest idea — a plan to reallocate revenue from a voter-approved measure to long-term housing instead of homeless shelters — was blocked by the council’s labor majority.
Additional names being floated for mayor from the labor camps include Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, Assemblymember Ash Kalra and even Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren. Chavez is not running again, she told the Mercury News.
But there are still rumblings that some labor candidates will hop into the race at the 11th hour.
“Yes, it late (for a candidate to join) at this point and win,” Rocha told San José Spotlight. “But it still is another opportunity for folks to raise issues that might not be discussed right now with the current administration.”
Contact Jana at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Editor’s Note: Victor Gomez sits on San José Spotlight’s board of directors.