As the dust settles on the failed ‘strong mayor’ measure, there’s a new fight brewing in Silicon Valley’s labor camp: Who will replace Ben Field?
The executive officer of the South Bay Labor Council, a powerful coalition of more than 100 unions, abruptly resigned July 13, less than two weeks after a heated, 9-hour debate by the San Jose City Council over the measure to give Mayor Sam Liccardo two more years in office and boost his authority.
The issue pitted five Latino councilmembers — who opposed the measure — against Liccardo and his five allies. Two of the five councilmembers said Field stretched the truth by telling them labor unions supported the measure — when the city ones vehemently opposed it — a charge Field denies. The South Bay Labor Council voted weeks later to oppose the defeated measure.
Field quit the night before he would face those five councilmembers — Magdalena Carrasco, Sergio Jimenez, Raul Peralez, Maya Esparza and Sylvia Arenas — at his council’s executive board meeting. They were preparing to ask him tough questions about why he claimed unions supported the measure when many did not.
But now a deeply-divided labor community must choose its next leader, and the political battle lines are drawn. The two factions are propping up their picks to succeed Field in what is arguably the most prominent position in the labor movement.
Here are some of the frontrunners and names being floated, based on interviews with political sources and observers.
Field hinted in an interview with San José Spotlight that he hoped a woman of color would replace him. Carrasco, the East San Jose lawmaker who was elected to represent District 5 in 2014, might just be labor’s next leader.
“I have been approached by some of the unions to consider it,” Carrasco told San José Spotlight. “Considering the importance of the job, it’s an honor that some would have that kind of hope and believe that I could contribute in some way to the betterment of working families in San Jose.”
Choosing Carrasco would signal a shift in the labor leadership.
That’s because Field is a close ally of Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, a labor matriarch who lobbied councilmembers to support the strong mayor initiative and could potentially be eyeing a run for mayor in 2024. Carrasco is not.
Now both sides — Chavez’s allies and the five Latino councilmembers — are reportedly propping up their picks for the top job.
“I want to be crystal clear — whoever occupies the seat at the head of labor’s table has got to have the vision and the courage of their convictions. We need to raise the bar for whoever is going to be the next labor leader,” Carrasco said. “Extraordinary times call for an extraordinary leader. This person better be bold and have a vision that fits the times that we’re in.”
If Carrasco is selected, it would mean leaving her City Council seat. “It’s still too early to think about that,” she said. “I love my job, I love the eastside of San Jose and I have a lot of work to do here, but that’s a bridge I’d have to cross if it comes to that.”
Cohen, who did not return calls for comment, is viewed by many in the labor camp as a frontrunner to succeed Field. Cohen serves as the political and communications director for UA Local 393, which represents plumbers, steamfitters and HVAC professionals.
Cohen is also the 1st Vice President on the South Bay Labor Council and serves as the vice chair of the Santa Clara Democratic Party. Cohen is another strong pick because she has deep political ties, having previously worked for San Jose Councilmember Raul Peralez and state Sen. Jim Beall.
The former San Jose assemblymember and councilwoman also is being floated as a potential candidate for the top labor job.
Campos, who unsuccessfully ran for Senate twice, has largely remained out of public life since terming out of the California Assembly in 2016.
She confirmed being tapped to replace Field.
“A person did call me and they asked if I would be interested,” Campos said in a recent interview. “I could see why my name has come up because I have the ability to govern and I’m fair and I’m a strong individual.”
Campos said she’s weighing her options but would not rule it out. Some insiders, however, say her campaign for Senate against Beall — which got very ugly — placed her at odds with some of labor’s most influential leaders.
“The labor council needs a strong woman leader that will be inclusive and not divisive and will have the interest of the people they represent and serve,” Campos said, pointing to past South Bay Labor Council leaders such as Amy Dean and Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins as examples of strong women leaders.
Mehrens, the executive director of Working Partnerships USA was considered, sources said, as union bosses sought stability for the South Bay Labor Council.
But Mehrens shot down the idea immediately.
“Nope,” she said in a text message. “I am very focused on my current work and role, and have no plans for a job transition at this time.”
Similarly, the organization’s Deputy Executive Director Maria Noel Fernandez, who oversees organizing efforts, was being floated, but labor leaders have since strayed from the idea. Some said the models for Working Partnerships USA and the South Bay Labor Council are too different.
The South Bay Labor Council is using a two-pronged approach to replace Field, officials say. First, a search committee comprised of union leaders will seek and recommend an interim executive officer.
That announcement is expected no later than Aug. 17.
After naming an interim executive officer, the search committee will do a comprehensive search for a permanent replacement — possibly the same person. The council’s executive board and its delegates, which represent all the labor unions, would need to approve that decision.
Field is still on the job until Aug. 31 and he’s involved in hiring his successor.
“I have confidence in the executive board and I’m working with them to support the transition and make it as smooth as possible,” he said. “They want that process to be internal and not to have it broadcast. It is underway and as soon as the transition process reaches a point that the executive board is ready to make an announcement, we will.”
Contact Ramona Giwargis at [email protected] or follow @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter.
Editor’s Note: Derecka Mehrens, executive director of Working Partnerships USA, serves on San José Spotlight’s Board of Directors.