Interior of a room with a panel of people sitting at a table before an audience
Candidates for Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors District 2 at an election forum on Jan. 17, 2024. From left to right: Jennifer Celaya, Betty Duong, Corina Herrera-Loera, Nelson McElmurry and Madison Nguyen. Photo by Brandon Pho.

A historic race for the District 2 seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors may shape how residents in East San Jose vote in the March primary, with two local Vietnamese leaders vying for the job.

Most candidates agreed on the key issues at a community forum held Wednesday at the Franklin-McKinley Elementary School District office. Candidates Corina Herrera-Loera, Jennifer Celaya, Madison Nguyen, Betty Duong and Nelson McElmurry listed affordable housing, mental health supportive services and homelessness as their top priorities. On top of spanning East San Jose, District 2 encompasses parts of downtown.

The League of Women Voters organized the event with the newly formed “D7 Leadership Group,” a community coalition composed of leaders from neighborhoods such as Seven Trees, Dahl, Tropicana-Lanai and Lone Bluff-Senter.

Nguyen, who was the first Vietnamese American member and vice mayor on the San Jose City Council, and Duong, chief of staff for District 2 Supervisor Cindy Chavez, are vying to be the first Vietnamese Americans to sit on the board, which oversees one of the wealthiest counties in the country with close to 2 million people.

Duong said one of her top priorities is to address the county’s budget deficit, which is expected to be $158 million by next fiscal year. The county spends about half its $11.3 billion budget on health care — funding multiple medical centers and emergency and behavioral health services, among other health expenditures.

“The county is going to face its first budget deficit in the next fiscal year after a decade of growth — exponential growth,” she said. “Now we have to stabilize our county operation. How do we do that?”

Although the county cut 600 jobs last year to balance the budget, Duong said it’s still struggling with a 15% job vacancy rate, causing  mandatory overtime. She suggested a novel approach.

“We fill those vacant positions … and we look to innovation to redraw that revenue,” she said. “For example, if we hire our own CalWorks clients, the state pays for half of their salary. Who better than those who have gone through our system to serve others?”

Celaya, the Native American founder of the nonprofit New Beginnings, had a different idea about how to resolve the budget deficit. She suggested cutting the budget for county executives.

“I know I’d make enemies, that’s OK, but that money needs to go into a fund for programs … we need to realign that budget. I’m cutting everyone’s budget at the executive level … we’re going to realign all that,” she said. “We’re Silicon Valley, we’re the tech gurus. We have money, where is it? I’m going to find it.”

Housing and homelessness as well as mental health took center stage, with Nguyen calling for greater county and city collaboration on all fronts.

“It doesn’t take $1 million to build this type of housing … but building housing is not enough — the county needs to step up and provide treatment for people with mental health illnesses and substance abuse,” Nguyen said. “This is where I see the county playing a key role.”

Herrera-Loera, a trustee with the Alum Rock Union School District, hailed the upcoming implementation of the CARE Act, to help those with a severe mental illness.

“Unfortunately not everyone is seeking the support they need and we need additional health services and support for our neighbors … I look forward to helping that (program ) grow as well as assisted outpatient treatment for substance abuse,” she said.

One of the lengthiest discussions of the night was the fate of the county fairgrounds as candidates responded to whether they would support building housing there to combat the shortage of homes.

Celaya opposed the idea of housing at the fairgrounds for different reasons. She said the county has lost some of its most endearing recreation spots — Great America and Raging Waters — and the fairgrounds should be utilized for recreational needs.

“The fairgrounds is a very iconic place,” Celaya said. “If you grew up in San Jose you remember that big (fairgrounds) arch. Replace that with housing, what do we have left here?”

Herrera-Loera said the fairgrounds may have multiple uses.

“I’m not going to pretend to give you what you want, but I will look into it because it’s underused,” said Herrera-Loera.

Asked about the sprawling county’s congested roadways, most candidates called for an expansion of public transit to combat traffic.

“You have to focus on public transit (including expansion of BART) — we live in a sprawling community,” McElmurry said. “We have to live with this.”

Nguyen called for BART to “hurry up and come to San Jose,” adding that more reliable public transit options would not just be good for the community, but “for the environment.”

“(It would) show future generations that we don’t have to rely on cars all the time,” she said.

McElmurry, a practicing attorney, said the county needs to increase the number of officers in the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, recalling an incident last year where his son was stabbed repeatedly.

“I don’t know if residents remember a few years back, there were budget cuts and you couldn’t get an officer out,” he said. “You have to fund your law enforcement and public services. You have to fund your district attorney office.”

The primary election is set for March 5.

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected]m or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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