Former Mayor Sam Liccardo, California State Assemblymember Evan Low and Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian are pictured in a collage photo
Former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and State Assemblymember Evan Low are headed to a November runoff, with a recount bumping Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian from the race for Congressional District 16.

Two men from different counties have pushed for a recount in a highly-scrutinized Silicon Valley congressional race — but Jonathan Padilla, a longtime supporter and ally of leading candidate and former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, has already put down the deposit. The recount is expected to begin Monday.

Dan Stegink, a former San Mateo County supervisor candidate, requested a recount for the Congressional District 16 contest one day before Padilla, which made Stegink responsible for the cost — but Padilla beat him to the punch. Both claim they are acting independently and bear no ties to any political campaigns, according to letters obtained by San José Spotlight.

The Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters received a $12,000 deposit from Padilla’s attorney on Friday afternoon, county officials confirmed.

In his letter to county officials, Padilla requested a recount on behalf of Assemblymember Evan Low — one of the two candidates headed to a November runoff election with Liccardo. Low tied for second place with Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, an extraordinary outcome that meant all three men would appear on the November ballot to replace retiring Rep. Anna Eshoo.

Padilla wrote that he is “not coordinating or communicating with any candidate or candidates’ agents.” He said he’s making the recount request himself. He also wrote that Sutton Law Firm, which worked for Liccardo-founded PAC Common Good, is authorized to act on his behalf and suggested he’s ready to pay.

Padilla initially requested a manual recount, which could cost up to $32,000 a day in Santa Clara County and is expected to last 10 days. At the last minute he switched his request to a machine recount, which is substantially lower at $12,000 a day for roughly five days.

Michael Borja, spokesperson for the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters, estimates the recount will cost $84,000 because Padilla is also asking to review vote by mail ballots or signatures that will incur a different processing fee.

Padilla may have switched to a machine recount because of a caveat in state law that may require the requester to pay regardless of the outcome in this instance.

Typically if a recount changes the results, the requester will be reimbursed for the cost. But in an election where there are two or more candidates, the requester only gets their money back if the election changes for someone “who would not have so appeared in the absence of the recount,” according to state election law. Because all three candidates are on the ballot now, Padilla may not be eligible for a refund.

When Low shared the caveat on social media and claimed that “issuing a refund could be an illegal gift of public funds”, Padilla responded with a GIF of the 1989 song “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty.

Congresswoman Eshoo told San José Spotlight exclusively that Padilla and his associates should disclose where the money is coming from.

Low said he’s disgusted Padilla is using his name to justify the recount and criticized his attempts to distance himself from Liccardo. The former mayor faced a wave of backlash for his potential involvement in the recount effort, with some saying he’s attempting to overturn the will of voters.

“There’s zero doubt that Sam Liccardo orchestrated this recount and Padilla’s declaration that the recount is on our campaign’s behalf is simply disingenuous,” Low campaign spokesperson Clay Volino said. “Clearly Sam Liccardo doesn’t think he can win a three-way race because he’s showing he will do anything to avoid one. Instead of filing for the recount himself, Sam is hiding behind a former staffer who’s mounting an extremely expensive and time-consuming recount for political gain. The apparent coordination raises more questions than it answers. Voters are sick of these cynical games and deserve a representative with integrity.”

Liccardo’s campaign said it did not coordinate with Padilla to make this request, though they understand why someone would ask for a recount.

“According to the Santa Clara County Registrar, more than 100 ballots were not included in the ‘final’ tally because voter signatures could not be verified before certification among a variety of other issues,” a Liccardo campaign spokesperson previously told San José Spotlight. “We understand why, under these extraordinary circumstances, there would be an effort to make sure these votes are fully considered.”

Who is Jonathan Padilla?

Padilla has a long history of political involvement in Silicon Valley. He worked as an intern in D.C. for former Congressman Mike Honda and was involved with the Young Democrats of America.

Padilla is a graduate of Harvard and University of Oxford, and spent a year working on Liccardo’s campaign for mayor in 2014. He boasted on social media that he raised more than $1.9 million for Liccardo and created “the largest donor network in San Jose electoral history.”

Ironically, one of his jobs for Liccardo’s campaign was creating a legal defense and “ballot protection team” that “eliminated risk of a recount.” He worked to avoid a recount in Liccardo’s 2014 mayoral election only to put his name on a recount 10 years later when Liccardo is running for Congress.

Padilla did not respond to a request for comment.

He posted a statement on social media rebuking comparisons to former President Donald Trump following his recount request in the congressional race — a recount some politicos believe will likely knock either Low or Simitian off the November ballot and benefit Liccardo.

“Donald Trump represents an existential threat to democracy and believes in not counting votes, as we saw on election night in 2020,” Padilla said on X, formerly Twitter. “Why other Democrats don’t believe in counting votes and ensuring that the will of the people is transparently reflected confuses me. It’s especially baffling that many of the folks criticizing the recount I’m proposing have themselves advocated for automatic recounts in the past.”

Not the first time

Despite scrambling to avoid a recount a decade ago, this isn’t the first time Padilla has been involved in one — or linked to politicians who question election results.

Padilla, who also worked as a policy director for the San Jose Chamber of Commerce, took a job in 2015 working for one-term Councilmember Manh Nguyen. Nguyen lost his seat to former Councilmember Lan Diep in 2016.

But Nguyen refused to concede the race. Two months after the June 2016 primary, he demanded multiple ballot recounts and threatened to sue the county’s election office, with Padilla leading the charge. Nguyen hired the Sutton Law Firm — the same group working with Padilla on the current congressional district recount.

Padilla and others in Nguyen’s office faced accusations of unethical behavior in 2016. Cole Niblett, a former city hall staffer, said Padilla ghost-wrote an ethics complaint against Nguyen’s political rival, Tim Orozco, a charge Padilla didn’t deny — and coaxed someone else to sign their name to it. Nguyen’s staff was also accused of mingling official and campaign resources by reaching out to voters on city time, an issue former Congressman Honda was investigated for.

Padilla was also suspected of leaking Diep’s confidential questionnaire to the chamber of commerce to Nguyen’s team.

Who is the other requester?

While Padilla’s request is seen as a political play, Stegink’s hasn’t.

In his letter to county officials, Stegink initially requested a recount on behalf of Low and Simitian — noting he did not support any of the three leading candidates in the primary election. Because of election laws, Stegink was forced to pick one candidate to do the recount on behalf of, and he picked Low.

Stegink said he has faith in the electoral system, but knows mistakes can happen. In almost every recount, even if the outcome didn’t change, the vote count did. He wants to make sure whoever is elected to represent his district is elected by a majority of voters, not 33%.

“I am not a rich man,” Stegink told San José Spotlight. “But you try to do as much as you can with the money that you have… and I consider this a public service.”

Contact Jana at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on X, formerly known as Twitter. Contact Ramona Giwargis at [email protected] or follow @RamonaGiwargis on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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