San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo.
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo.

    Silicon Valley’s most powerful political circles saw major shifts in 2020 as three prominent men leading San Jose’s influential business and labor organizations were dethroned.

    The resignation of a trio of kingmakers could signal a sea change for local politics in 2021.

    In 2020, Ben Field resigned from the South Bay Labor Council after a failed ballot measure, Matt Mahood left the Silicon Valley Organization amid scandal and Carl Guardino quietly departed the Silicon Valley Leadership Group for a lower level position.

    Those in charge now told San José Spotlight they’re determined to make positive changes at their respective organizations.

    Silicon Valley Leadership Group

    Four months ago, Barclays Capital executive Ahmad Thomas became CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, taking the reins from Guardino, who led the trade organization after 25 years.

    Guardino’s name in Silicon Valley was synonymous with SVLG and his abrupt retirement announcement in January raised some eyebrows. Six months later, he said he was joining Bloom Energy as executive vice president of global government affairs and policy.

    Guardino was called “the mayor of Silicon Valley” by political expert Terry Christensen. While not the elected mayor, Guardino was known for calling shots behind the scenes and enjoying a close friendship with San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. He justified his departure by saying he believed in Bloom’s mission.

    Thomas told San José Spotlight his unique business expertise — in contrast with Guardino’s background in politics — will give him a fresh perspective to help the organization grow.

    Ahmad Thomas and Dr.  Anthony Fauci at SVLG’s annual forum.

    SVLG’s top priority in 2021 will be ensuring San Jose can compete in a changing business climate, Thomas said.

    “COVID-19 has highlighted the possibilities of remote working,” Thomas said. “In doing so it has shone a spotlight on the need for California to remain competitive because jobs and capital will flow elsewhere.”

    Thomas said the region’s businesses need to diversify to remain competitive. As SVLG’s first Black CEO, Thomas said he’s eager to prioritize diversity issues — or as he calls them “money issues.”

    In the next few weeks, SVLG will announce its “25 by 25” initiative which aims to increase diversity in the corporate world.

    “Reams of data demonstrate that more diverse leadership teams drive more market shares, generate more revenue and are more innovative than those teams that are not,” Thomas said. “That is the primary driver for me. Clearly, there’s a moral reckoning going on in the country … and I think all of that makes what we’re doing very timely.”

    Under Thomas’s leadership, SVLG endorsed AB 979, a law mandating racial diversity on corporate boards for public companies in California.

    But Guardino leaving SVLG doesn’t mean he’s done with politics.

    The longtime business leader in 2014 formed his own independent expenditure committees called “Innovation for Everyone” and “Innovation for All” to help elect business-friendly candidates. Innovation for Everyone supported San Jose councilmembers Dev Davis and Lan Diep in November.

    South Bay Labor Council 

    Four months before the November election, Field abruptly resigned as CEO following Liccardo’s failed push for a “strong mayor” system. The South Bay Labor Council is a powerful collective of unions that lobby for workers’ rights and support labor candidates.

    Though Field said his resignation was voluntary, it came on the heels of the organization’s failed attempt to place an initiative on the ballot to move mayoral elections to presidential years and limit special interest spending in local campaigns.

    Field tried to broker a deal to support Liccardo’s push for a strong mayor system if it included shifting mayoral elections. Field resigned as the debate heated up and Liccardo dropped his proposal after public scrutiny.

    Soon after Field’s departure, Jean Cohen, who served as interim CEO, was tapped to fill the role.

    Jean Cohen leads the South Bay Labor Council. Photo courtesy of Lam Nguyen.

    Cohen, a longtime political activist, said being a woman with an organizing background will set her apart from Field, but she shares his passion for workers’ rights and advancing a pro-labor agenda.

    “COVID exposed the vulnerability of our local workforce,” Cohen said, citing the immediate need for services that help families pay rent and keep food on the table. “Given the impact of COVID and the urgent need to make sure that people are safe, I think we’re going to see the timing and the effort in which policies are passed and implemented to be accelerated very quickly.”

    That agenda may be accelerated further now that the San Jose City Council includes labor-ally David Cohen, who unseated Lan Diep this past election. Cohen effectively shifted the council’s 6-5 business majority to a 6-5 labor majority.

    Jean Cohen called David Cohen’s election a success in the face of “enormous and unprecedented corporate campaigning and money.”

    Cohen said lifting up women in leadership positions in unions, on local boards and in elected offices will be a priority for the South Bay Labor Council, along with pay equity.

    “Women are still not paid fairly and equally to men,” she said. “Santa Clara County’s been a leading policy making community in terms of protecting those workers and I want to continue to do that.”

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    Silicon Valley Organization

    The SVO, Silicon Valley’s largest chamber of commerce, faced widespread scandal this year that ousted its CEO and sparked a public dialogue about racism and money in politics.

    Mahood resigned following a racist ad that targeted Jake Tonkel, a San Jose City Council candidate who lost to incumbent Dev Davis in November. The ad was commissioned by SVO’s deep-pocketed political action committee, which spent more than any other group to influence the November election. The PAC was dissolved following the ad debacle.

    Bob Linscheid, former president and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, was tapped to be SVO’s interim leader. He told San José Spotlight in a recent interview that he’s working around the clock to restore its reputation.

    Bob Linschied, Silicon Valley Organization’s new interim CEO, works from his home office in Danville. Photo courtesy of Bob Linschied.

    It’s unclear how the absence of a PAC will affect SVO’s influence in local politics but according to Linscheid, SVO can be a leader in 2021 by getting back to supporting businesses during the pandemic. He said SVO is brainstorming ways businesses and hospitals can partner to promote COVID-19 vaccinations.

    The SVO also formed a diversity and inclusion committee following the ad scandal. Linscheid wants to ensure SVO is “baking” equity into the fabric of the organization. Linscheid is white, a point of criticism from some community leaders, but said he has experience forming a diversity committee for San Francisco’s Chamber of Commerce.

    “Folks that have reached out to me want to help us build a path to reconciliation and so far, so good,” Linscheid said.

    Looking ahead

    Larry Gerston, San Jose State University professor emeritus, said the transitional period will be key for determining the success of all three new executives. But SVO may have a harder time evolving if the organization sticks with an interim leader.

    While it may seem the South Bay Labor Council has the upper hand because of a labor-aligned San Jose City Council majority, Gerston says that might not be the case.

    “The council has gone in most people’s eyes from 6-5 business to 6-5 labor,” Gerston said. “That makes it a bit more challenging for the mayor and it may make it a bit easier for the Labor Council. But a 6-5 majority, one way or the other, is delicate.”

    Gerston said Guardino, Field and Mahood have been instrumental in representing Silicon Valley’s business and labor interests over the years, but it’s too soon to tell whether their replacements will make a lasting impact.

    “In each case, you’re talking about new relationships that have to develop between the organizations and the leadership — and between the new leadership and public policymakers. These things are not automatic, and they take time to melt,” he said. “It’s much too early to be able to say to what extent any of the three will succeed.”

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

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