Editor’s Note: This article is part of a San José Spotlight series examining the newest San Jose councilmembers and their first six months in office.
Fresh off a contentious debate over housing funds that ended in his first big political compromise, San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan is still optimistic about achieving core campaign promises of increasing police staffing, eliminating blight and quickly housing more homeless people.
Six months into his first term as the leader of the Bay Area’s largest city, Mahan said he is happy to have passed a budget that largely supports his overarching goals for the city—despite having to swallow a watered down version of his controversial interim housing plan for homeless people.
With the budget process behind him, Mahan is shifting focus toward beefing up the city’s ability to track its own work on major issues and make it easier for residents to hold his office accountable.
“City Hall is like a giant ship that we’re trying to turn,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “It’s not enough to just say we’re going to do fewer things, we’re going to fund fewer things. Now we’ve got to set goals, we’ve got to measure progress, we’ve got to report out.”
With a quarter of his two-year term elapsed, Mahan’s close adherence to his “back to basics” campaign promises has pleased his backers, especially those in the business community, which buttressed him against a wave of labor union money supporting his opponent in the 2022 election.
However, some of his approaches, including an attempt to shift funding away from permanent affordable housing toward quick-fix, temporary aid for homeless people, have earned the ire of longstanding community leaders and influential groups.
And his focus on rapidly completing shorter term goals gives some the impression he is chiefly interested in stacking up political victories before the 2024 election.
“From our perspective so far, so good,” Derrick Seaver, CEO of the San Jose Chamber of Commerce, told San José Spotlight about Mahan’s work on the key issues to date.
He said Mahan not worrying about overly inventive policy ideas, and instead focusing on things like blight removal programs and community cleanups, has resonated with the small business members of the chamber.
“If there is a constant drumbeat and attention on things like cleanliness and public safety, that is going to entice people to come downtown, to come to neighborhoods around the city, spend money, to shop at retail and re-engage with the economy,” Seaver said.
Trial by fire
Mahan did not have the easiest transition into the leadership role—he stepped into the job with a city council that had largely supported his opponent in the campaign, Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez.
He has reiterated his goals for collaboration, downplaying any internal conflicts. But when looking back at his attempt to reallocate tens of millions of Measure E tax dollars toward interim housing, he faced consistent, significant pushback from his colleagues and housing advocates.
Affordable housing leaders who protested the proposed changes said shifting the money would derail critically needed housing projects in the pipeline that were more sustainable in the long run. Mahan and the council ultimately settled on a compromise, which Mahan views as a small victory, though he plans to keep pushing for more change.
“I just think we’ve turned the dial too much toward the solutions that are extremely slow and expensive when there is a humanitarian crisis on our streets and our community is demanding more immediate results and more immediate action,” Mahan said.
He has also called for an “ambitious” goal of creating 1,000 new placements for homeless people by the end of the year.
“I really want to push city staff to think about homelessness like a crisis or like an emergency,” Mahan said.
Jim Beall, a longtime Silicon Valley elected official and current Valley Water board member, said Mahan’s approach to the Measure E debate was awkward, and he’ll need to learn from his mistakes going forward.
He said Mahan, who as a high school student interned in Beall’s office, needs to have a longer lens when approaching complex issues like homelessness and affordable housing, even if he’s not sure whether he’ll get reelected.
“When you say, ‘I want to do 1,000 units by next year,’ you’re not looking at a big solution, you’re looking at a win for yourself in the political sense, which is not appropriate in my opinion from a mayor’s standpoint, it’s a bit self-serving,” Beall told San José Spotlight.
Victor Gómez, head of the Silicon Valley Biz PAC, which supported Mahan in the 2022 election, said the mayor’s urgent approach to some policies is motivated by his short initial term in office, though he views that time constraint as a plus.
“I think it really helped him to get a baptism by fire, and get things done as fast as possible,” Gómez told San José Spotlight.
Gómez said Mahan had to compress the strategy a newly elected mayor would bring to a typical four year term, to not only prove his worth to constituents, but to ward off competition for the 2024 election.
“It’s not really a two-year term, it’s like a nine month term, and in nine months you’ve got to show what you can do, because people are already thinking, ‘Should I run for mayor?’” Gómez said.
One area where Mahan has won broad support is in his backing for the San Jose Police Department and increasing officer staffing. The newly approved budget increases funding for more positions and more recruitment, including campus outreach and marketing aimed at young people. Consistently filling police jobs has been a challenge San Jose has grappled with for years, as have other police departments in the region. Mahan said the city will need to “experiment” to get better results.
And while Mahan is focused on increasing staffing, the city’s Independent Police Auditor Shivaun Nurre abruptly announced her retirement last month. Mahan and the council appointed an interim replacement—Karyn Sinunu-Towery, a 30-year former county prosecutor.
A key issue facing the city is whether the council will follow through on a long-held goal by some city leaders and advocates to expand the investigative powers of the IPA office to independently look into allegations of police misconduct, instead of only auditing internal investigations. About one in every three San Jose police officers faced a complaint in 2022, the third straight year complaints have increased.
Mahan isn’t yet saying whether he will support expanding IPA powers, but noted his current focus is beginning a national search for a permanent IPA, which could take roughly six months. He said he plans to give Sinunu-Towery time to get up to speed with the office’s work before addressing any major policy change issues.
“Safety issues, blight, homelessness. That’s really where we need to focus right now as a community so that we can unlock the next phase of San Jose’s growth,” Mahan said.
Editor’s Note: Victor Gómez sits on San José Spotlight’s board of directors.