A crowd fills the seats at a San Jose City Council meeting
The labor majority on the San Jose City Council is at risk of losing seats to business-backed interests. File photo.

Progressive and labor-friendly politicians have enjoyed a majority on the San Jose City Council for the past two years, but the November elections may flip the balance.

Formidable business-backed candidates advanced in every council race during the March 5 primaries, which could spell trouble for the South Bay Labor Council — the main cultivator of labor-leaning candidates. Labor leaders skipped challenging Mayor Matt Mahan to focus on growing the labor majority, but appear poised for a fight to keep current seats.

“It’s very possible the council flips (from labor to business),” political observer Terry Christensen told San José Spotlight. “It’s also possible for a labor-friendly, progressive majority to hold on… (but) it’s going to be hard work.”

Political interests on the council are split between progressive, union-friendly labor councilmembers who advocate for working families, and more moderate officials who prioritize making the city an easy place to do business. Typically, these two sides of the political pendulum agree on most issues, but there are debates that highlight the ideological divide — which is where a majority comes in handy.

The minority pro-business council lost the debate over how to fill two vacant seats shortly after Mahan won the 2022 mayoral election. Mahan and his allies wanted to hold special elections, but the labor-majority voted in favor of appointments. Another setback came during budget discussions, when Mahan wanted to shift dollars from affordable housing development toward short-term solutions for homelessness. His plan failed. The council also approved large pay raises for city employees — a move Mahan disapproved of.

Seats look to switch

Christensen, a retired San Jose State political science professor and former host of the Valley Politics public access show, said the council majority will likely be determined by who wins the District 2 seat in South San Jose and Evergreen’s District 8 spot. Both seats are currently held by progressive councilmembers.

Voters in District 2, a more progressive district, elected Councilmember Sergio Jimenez in 2016 after Ash Kalra served for eight years and moved on to the state Legislature. Jimenez terms out this year, leaving an open seat. Joe Lopez, a moderate candidate who previously worked in the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, took the lead in the March 5 primary. He will face off against Pamela Campos, a policy and program officer for a nonprofit that invests funds into low-income developments. She received an open endorsement from the South Bay Labor Council.

South Bay Labor Council Executive Director Jean Cohen said Campos is in a favorable position. Campos beat out Babu Prasad, the labor council’s pick, by a handful of votes. Now she has labor’s support. Lopez and Campos also ran against two other labor-backed candidates, which means those voters will likely support Campos in the general election, Cohen said.

“The electorate in November will be much more favorable to union-endorsed candidates,” Cohen told San José Spotlight. “Not only in terms of higher turnout, but a more progressive diverse turnout of renters and women and people of color, and that will benefit all of our candidates.”

In District 8, incumbent Domingo Candelas, who is backed by labor, is heading to a run-off with business-backed police sergeant Tam Truong. While political observers expected Candelas to win in the primaries, Truong secured the sizable Vietnamese vote in the district.

“The majority of that district is Asian,” Christensen said. “Even if (Candelas) gets all the white and Latino votes, it would be about 40%. So he’s got to really reach out.”

Truong’s path to victory also isn’t clear because the Asian vote is made up different communities, including Chinese, Indian and Vietnamese voters. Christensen said he will also need to reach outside of his community.

Money will flow

Special interest spending flooded the March primaries, and is anticipated to continue in November as both labor and business interests jockey to get their candidates on the council. South Bay special interests include CA Association of Realtors PAC and South Bay Labor Council as well as the police union’s PAC, Common Good and the Silicon Valley Biz PAC. Fast-food franchises have also entered local politics.

Victor Gomez, who heads the Silicon Valley Biz PAC, said organized labor has already lost the fight, with races in Districts 4, 6 and 10 appearing to favor business interests.

District 4 Councilmember David Cohen, who initially won his seat in 2020 with labor’s support, decisively won his recent bid for reelection to represent North San Jose with financial support from business interests. In the last four years, Cohen positioned himself as a more independent voice on the council, similar to that of Vice Mayor Rosemary Kamei. The two have cast votes in favor and against business and labor interests.

In Willow Glen, business-backed candidate Michael Mulcahy secured a sizable lead over union organizer Olivia Navarro. Both will advance to the November election to compete for the District 6 seat, but Mulcahy’s popularity and fundraising prowess give him an edge. Two business-backed candidates in District 10, incumbent Arjun Batra and Planning Commissioner George Casey, are running to represent Almaden.

“I think the council at the end of this cycle can be very, very moderate,” Gomez told San José Spotlight. “It’s definitely an opportunity for business in this cycle to flip a couple of seats and I certainly think we’re in a better position than organized labor.”

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

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