Silicon Valley lawyer jumps into San Jose council race
Elizabeth Chien-Hale is running for the District 3 seat on the San Jose City Council. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Chien-Hale.

Elizabeth Chien-Hale is a lawyer, educator and president of one of the largest neighborhood associations in downtown San Jose. Now, she wants to add elected official to her resume.

Chien-Hale is running for the coveted San Jose City Council District 3 seat to replace Councilmember Raul Peralez, who terms out next year and is running for mayor. She wants to use her lived experience as a downtown resident to do more as a city leader. District 3 encompasses downtown and the Japantown neighborhood.

“As a resident, I’ve seen our neighborhoods blossom, but I’ve also seen the challenges impacting our families,” she told San José Spotlight. “I don’t want to just be an advocate, I want to solve the critical problems that our residents face on a daily basis.”

Top priorities

Chien-Hale, 60, serves on the city’s appeals hearing board, a position that gives her a glimpse into issues and complaints happening across the city. She also teaches intellectual property law at Lincoln Law School of San Jose.

Her biggest priorities include solving the homelessness crisis, increasing public safety against crimes such as car theft and burglary, bringing more public transportation to San Jose and restoring trust in law enforcement.

“The police are trying to do the best they can,” she said. “But I really do think we need to have more training for the police to deal with a variety of issues that will come up from the residents such as mental health crisis intervention and criminal justice reform.”

She believes San Jose could make an impact on homelessness with many solutions that already exist, but says strategies should be tailored to fit each district’s needs and challenges.

Downtown perspective  

Chien-Hale immigrated to the U.S. when she was 13 and grew up in Long Beach. She started putting down roots in San Jose several years ago through her work with the San Jose Downtown Residents Association, which currently has more than 700 members.

“San Jose was a very welcoming place,” Chien-Hale said. “In San Jose, you do feel like everybody has an equal voice… It’s been a very eye-opening experience in that way.”

Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association, said he’s worked closely with Chien-Hale over the years as her organization’s business counterpart. If elected, he said she’ll help reflect the diversity in San Jose’s population.

“(Elizabeth) is well-versed in strategies for the city’s center,” Knies said. “But it’s a big district with many issues that she’ll have to learn.”

Chien-Hale took on a leadership role with the resident association board in 2018. Now president, she’s working to reshape the association into an information hub that will also advocate for downtown residents.

Under her leadership, the group has offered recommendations to the city on issues such as homelessness, bike lanes, public transportation and the proposed Google campus. Chien-Hale says the role gives her an intimate understanding of area issues.

Kathy Sakamoto, president of San Jose-Okayama Sister Cities, said Chien-Hale is what the city needs.

“She’s very warm and welcoming and her ego doesn’t get in the way of whatever job there is in front of her,” Sakamoto said. “She herself doesn’t get swayed… and she will not be influenced by power.”

‘Toughest race’

Chien-Hale will face off with former congressional candidate Ivan Torres for the District 3 seat, with more candidates likely to emerge. Torres appears to be more progressive in his policies, and he also has more experience in the political world than Chien-Hale.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Chien-Hale has a disadvantage, said political analyst and retired San Jose State University professor Terry Christensen. Many candidates who successfully ran for the seat in the past didn’t have much political experience either, including Peralez, Mayor Sam Liccardo and Supervisor Cindy Chavez.

“But it’s probably going to be the toughest (council) race,” Christensen told San José Spotlight, adding that the seat is a jumping off point for political careers.

Both labor and business camps also take great interest in the seat, he said.

In addition, Chien-Hale’s chances might also depend on changes in the district’s demographics—as well as how the city redraws district lines, Christensen said. The Asian population, now the largest ethnic group in Santa Clara County according to the 2020 Census, has recently turned out to support progressive candidates.

The council primary election is set for June 2022.

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

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