Santa Clara, South Bay candidates debate redistricting, racial equity, housing
San Jose Spotlight Editor Ramona Giwargis and Michael Lane of SPUR (top row) moderate a political forum with Santa Clara City Council candidates Tony Becker and Gautam "Gary" Barve (bottom row).

Candidates for state and city government for Santa Clara debated police accountability, racial equity and voting rights on a San José Spotlight virtual forum co-moderated by Editor Ramona Giwargis and Michael Lane, the San Jose director for the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR).

Seven candidates for City Council districts 1, 4, 5 and 6 and two candidates for Assembly District 25 participated in the forum.

Santa Clara City Council District 5

The forum opened with the race for Santa Clara City Council District 5 with retired California Highway Patrol Lieutenant Bob O’Keefe and Santa Clara Planning Commissioner Sudhanshu Jain.

They discussed ongoing challenges the city has faced such as a California Voting Rights lawsuit, continued bickering with the San Francisco 49ers over Levi’s Stadium, reopening businesses amid COVID-19 and improving racial equity.

O’Keefe seemed to hold back on criticizing current leaders for the decision-making with the San Francisco 49ers, while Jain slammed leaders for failing to work out an agreement with the team, which has a 40-year lease with the city.

“It’s a 40-year relationship. We have to continue to have a dialogue with them,” Jain said. “Some councilmembers refuse to have a dialogue with them. I think it’s destructive.”

Meanwhile O’Keefe said he has had personal experience signing law enforcement contracts with the team and knows how to negotiate with them.

“I have worked with 49ers through the department and I’m the only one running for council and probably the only one on council that has actually signed contracts,” O’Keefe said.

The two differed on their attitude toward the city’s response to the California Voting Rights lawsuit that divided the city into six City Council districts.

Jain said he’s been in favor of the the council being divided into six districts and criticized current city leaders for spending money to appeal the California Voting Rights lawsuit and attempting to halve the districts with Measure C.

In contrast, O’Keefe said he supported a district system but thought three districts and six districts could both work in Santa Clara.

Santa Clara City Council District 6

The forum between Santa Clara Planning Commissioner Anthony Becker and  Gautam “Gary” Barve took a heated turn when moderators asked the candidates what they would do to improve racial equity and Barve said he does not believe racism is real.

“I’m going to be honest with you, I personally do not think that systematic racial injustice exists in our country,” Barve said. “I’ve lived in Santa Clara since 2013. I have never faced any racial inequality. I’ve lived in the U.S. for many, many years, and I have not faced any racial inequality.”

Barve added he’s the only candidate of color in the District 6 election.

Becker retorted, “I don’t know if he’s been turning on the television or (seeing) any of the news on what’s been going on this summer about racial justice, but just because you didn’t experience it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”

To improve racial equity, Becker said he would diversify city staff and advocate for a woman of color to replace him as planning commission chair if he won.

On housing, Becker said the district is unique because of its proximity to Valley Fair and the push to develop projects that would dwarf single-family homes and exacerbate traffic on Stevens Creek Boulevard.

Barve said he supports high-density housing, but wants to preserve residential areas.

Candidate Robert Mezzetti did not participate in the forum.

Santa Clara City Council District 1

Council candidate Harbir Bhatia, who is Santa Clara Cultural Commissioner, answered questions alone because Councilmember Kathy Watanabe declined to participate.

Bhatia said the city needed to ease tensions with the San Francisco 49ers and reassess how they spend their budget.

City Manager Deanna Santana earns $709,445 in total compensation and is one of the highest-paid city managers in California. Bhatia was asked if those wages are reasonable given the city’s financial shortfalls.

“This is not rocket science. I mean I’ve worked at Lockheed Martin, that’s rocket science,” she said. “Seventy-six percent of our budget is for salaries and benefits, and 24 (percent) is left for the city. We automatically know there’s a problem here.”

On racial equity, Bhatia said she was against the city’s appeal of the California Voting Rights Act lawsuit and supported the six district system.

“Our city is constantly changing. Instead of me just saying that we had a bad system in the past, let’s recognize the bad system is not relevant anymore,” she said. “We need to ensure that greater representation is provided from the various parts of our city and the best way to do that is to ensure that we have districts.”

She added police should be conducting more outreach around the community and have better training for de-escalation.

Santa Clara City Council District 4

During their panel, Councilmember Teresa O’Neill and challenger Kevin Park debated on redistricting and budgeting.

Park took a hardline stance toward the city’s generous compensation for staffers and response toward redistricting.

“If you look at the city manager, she also has assistant managers, I think there’s four of them and when you look at their salaries in total, that’s millions of dollars,” Park said. “That’s millions of dollars in advice and staff direction that I don’t think has really benefitted the city in the last couple of years.”

O’Neill defended the salaries and said Santana, in particular, is at the “top of her profession.”

Additionally, the city pays such costly salaries to get the best staffers to live in an area with a high cost of living, O’Neill said.

Assembly District 25

With an open seat left by Kansen Chu in Assembly District 25, candidates Alex Lee and Bob Brunton debated on state policy for police accountability, education and affordable housing.

When addressing systemic racism, Brunton said his goal was to increase opportunities for higher education and resolve urban blight.

Lee said there needed to be dynamic reforms to law enforcement and dismantling the prison system in California.

“In California, we can be an example by really reforming our criminal justice system,” Lee said. “Right now, our police forces operate as an occupying military force and that’s because we’ve allowed them to buy surplus weapons from the Department of Defense.”

Lee said he aims to demilitarize police and ensure fair representation within the judicial system.

Meanwhile, Brunton said he would look for ways to decrease the police’s role in responding to mental health issues.

On housing, Brunton said he would attempt to depoliticize housing and look for ways to push for home ownership.

“I’m just laser focused on trying to fix the problem,” said Brunton, adding he is in favor of helping renters improve credit, providing loan programs and non-recourse loans and other ways to encourage homeownership.

Lee said he would aim to work less with for-profit housing developers and increase the margin of affordable housing required for projects in California.

If you missed our first candidate forum covering San Jose City Council and state Senate races, catch up here.

Contact Mauricio La Plante at [email protected] or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.

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