For the first time in 25 years, a Democratic candidate will represent the rural and more conservative District 1 seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.
Sylvia Arenas, a progressive San Jose councilmember, has won the highly-contested race against fiscally-conservative candidate and former San Jose Councilmember Johnny Khamis. With approximately 90% of ballots counted one week after the election, Arenas takes the lead with 54.3% of the vote—roughly 9,000 votes over Khamis. She will replace incumbent Mike Wasserman, who terms out at the end of the year.
“I am deeply grateful for the trust that the voters of District 1 have placed in me,” Arenas told San José Spotlight. “South County families have very real needs that have gone unaddressed for too long. I’m looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and digging in.”
Arenas, who was backed by labor interests, ran on addressing homelessness, public safety, economic recovery for small businesses and preserving open space. She championed a myriad of social services and policies including San Jose’s Family Friendly Initiative during her six years on council.
Arenas’ win shifts the board of supervisors’ political tilt—solidifying a progressive bloc with Arenas likely voting in line with District 4’s Susan Ellenberg and District 2’s Cindy Chavez, who unsuccessfully ran for San Jose mayor. Though supervisors tend to vote in unison, Wasserman’s conservative vote has been able to swing moderate Supervisors Otto Lee and Joe Simitian.
The redrawn District 1 boundaries, adopted through a redistricting process last year, now include several San Jose neighborhoods like Evergreen and Silver Creek. In that process, the district lost the conservative stronghold areas of Almaden Valley and Los Gatos. Local politicos noted this was an opportunity for a progressive candidate to take control of the seat.
But it’s what made Khamis feel like he was “fighting with two arms tied behind his back.” The independent candidate ran on reining in the county’s excessive spending through its $11 billion budget. Khamis moved out of his Almaden home and into South San Jose a few months into his campaign because he was drawn out of the district. He conceded earlier this week.
“Honestly, I’m sad that deceptive practices, whether they be redistricting or unethical, misleading and fictitious campaign mailers, can win an election like this,” Khamis told San José Spotlight. “But I was so honored to meet so many people and learn so much about South County. And I intend to remain engaged civically.”
The race for supervisor turned ugly quickly. Khamis faced negative mailers in the June primary, and weeks before the Nov. 8 election misleading mailers sent out by Arenas’ campaign and the South Bay Labor Council likened Khamis to former President Donald Trump. Some local politicos lost the Santa Clara County Democratic Party’s endorsement for crossing the political line and endorsing Khamis, who left the Republican Party in 2018 in response to Trump.
Khamis said he was disappointed by the attacks, but worries more about the county’s future now that there is no conservative voice on the board of supervisors.
“My fear is it’s going to be business as usual which means a severe lack of accountability,” Khamis said. “Citizens will not have a counter perspective anywhere.”
Arenas said her historic win is representative of what District 1 residents want.
“I’m a Democrat because I’m passionate about improving the lives of working people,” Arenas said. “So I think it’s great that the working families of District 1 will have a representative who shares their life experiences and will fight for them.”
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.