Spending in contested San Jose City Council races hits $1.8 million
David Cohen is seen speaking with District 4 voters in this file photo. Photo courtesy of David Cohen.

    Some of San Jose’s most influential groups collectively have spent a whopping $1.8 million on two San Jose City Council races, pushing to keep the status quo and illustrating just how deep a rift is forming between business and labor groups in the city.

    Organizations such as the Silicon Valley Organization, South Bay Labor Council and the California Apartment Association spent $974,062 in the District 4 race where Councilmember Lan Diep faces challenger David Cohen. They shelled out $836,247 in the District 6 race where Councilmember Dev Davis is facing off with rival Jake Tonkel.

    In that race, more than half the spending went toward defeating Tonkel, the progressive candidate — making him the most expensive candidate to oppose between the two races.

    To date, the San Jose Police Officers Association spent $231,939 on anti-Tonkel ads with union leaders alleging he hates cops. Meanwhile, the South Bay Labor Council spent $77,722 to combat Davis.

    “It’s not about me individually, it’s not about my opponent individually. There’s clearly something bigger at work, otherwise there wouldn’t be this much interest,” Davis said, acknowledging the power struggle on the San Jose City Council where the more conservative, business-friendly faction, led by Mayor Sam Liccardo, could lose its majority. 


    While the split often rears its head in split 6-5 City Council votes, independent expenditure reports paint a clearer picture of who the stakeholders are behind the scenes.

    Campaign finance reports show Davis is backed by an army of business groups including Silicon Valley Organization, Business San Jose Chamber PAC, National Association of Realtors Fund and Innovation for Everyone, a PAC founded by former Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO Carl Guardino.

    San Jose City Council candidate Jake Tonkel is pictured in this file photo.

    Davis told San José Spotlight the reason she has such strong support is because her door “has always been open to anyone and everyone.”

    The South Bay Labor Council spent $67,483 to support Tonkel, a known ally of labor groups.

    “Workers rights are really important, and collective bargaining brings up everyone in the workforce (with better) wages and benefits, safer working conditions.” Tonkel said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do in the city of San Jose to make sure that our lower middle class families, our working class, are able to get by and then after that, they’ll hopefully be able to thrive in our city.”

    Special interests in the District 4 race spent close to $1 million on the race between Diep and Cohen.

    Campaign finance reports show The SVO, the California Apartment Association and the California Real Estate Independent Expenditure Committee, spent $253,849 to oppose Cohen.

    The money mainly paid for mailers and online ads, which Cohen said contained false information.

    “The frustrating part has been how deceitful their actual attacks have been,” Cohen said. “To see the lies repeated over and over again and that much money spent on spreading lies is frustrating.”

    Cohen said he created a page on his website called “TRUTH” specifically for debunking rumors and attacks against him.

    In addition to all the money spent against Cohen, The SVO, Business San Jose Chamber PAC, National Association of Realtors Fund and Innovation for Everyone collectively spent more than $426,00 to support Diep.

    Diep did not respond to requests for comment.

    The Innovation for Everyone PAC spent more than $244,300 to boost Diep’s campaign and $118,045 to support Davis. Guardino also helped raise half a million for Liccardo’s citywide mayoral election in 2014.

    “Innovation for Everyone’s efforts in District 4 and District 6 are 100% pro-Lan Diep and pro-Dev Davis. Not a dime is anti-David Cohen or Jake Tonkel,” Guardino told San José Spotlight. “I believe we can lift up leaders we support without tearing others down. It’s a better approach for our communities and for our country.”

    One of the SVO’s attacks on Cohen allege he voted on the Berryessa Union School District Board to raise school lunch prices to gave administrators a raise — which Cohen said is not accurate.

    “Anybody who knows anything about schools knows that low-income students get free meals and always have and always will,” Cohen said. “And the idea that an increase of 10 cents in food prices every five years because of the cost of inflation had anything to do with increasing salaries for any employees is a complete fabrication.”

    The SVO also criticized Cohen’s support of amending Prop. 13, which determines how much property tax an owner pays. Prop 15, on the November ballot, would require commercial property owners to pay taxes based on the current market value of their property, not on the original purchase price. The revenue would support schools, proponents say.

    “The SVO PAC campaigns hard to support candidates who understand the value of job creation, housing production and improving the quality of life for all San Joseans,” said Eddie Troung, SVO director of government and community relations. “All campaign messages are factually accurate. While some candidates may attempt to explain their record and would disagree with our position on the issues, none have debunked the specific messages that we distribute before the voters.”

    Cohen said the tax measures he advocated for secured funding for schools and were approved by voters.

    But Cohen is not alone in supporting some tax increases. Earlier this year, Diep voted to put Measure E, a real estate tax, on the ballot in March and Measure H, a proposed card room tax, on the ballot in November.

    Tonkel said the piles of money thrown into the Districts 4 and 6 races and attack ads on all sides is to be expected.

    “We’ve been talking about the influence of corporate and developer money and real estate money since this campaign started nearly a year and a half ago,” he said, adding San Jose’s biggest donors don’t have an interest in doing what’s best for the public. “They want to mislead people in order to win votes, and then use that to be able to make whatever policy makes them the most money without respect for how it impacts the community.”

    Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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