San Jose is getting a new mayor. Incumbent Chuck Reed has served his limit of two terms. But Reed’s battles with city unions over pension reform are still shaping the mayoral campaigns of the top five candidates ahead of the June 3 primary.
Public safety, for instance, has become the top issue for many voters. “Crime is always top of my mind,” said Susan Carruthers recently at a mayoral debate near her home in the middle-class Willow Glen neighborhood. The debate was sponsored by a coalition of neighborhood groups.
“We’ve had a lot of burglaries in my neighborhood of Willow Glen.” Carruthers said, “So, yeah, I’d like to see the police walk the streets instead of staying in their cars.”
Carruthers seems almost embarrassed by her city’s rising crime rate. San Joseans have always taken pride in having one of the nation’s safest large cities. Emergency response times have worsened as well. And the problem is partly a legacy of pension reform.
San Jose’s police force has shrunk by more than a third, to about 900 officers, with many jumping to neighboring cities to escape the effects of Measure B, a voter-approved pension reform plan now tied up in the courts and spearheaded by Reed.
All five mayoral candidates at this debate said reducing the crime rate would be their top priority.
“First one would be public safety,” said City Councilwoman Madison Nguyen in her opening statement. “We right now have less than 1,000 sworn police officers patrolling our streets.”
Nguyen promised to bring back the burglary unit eliminated in 2012. And she said she’d crack down on police cadets if they quit after graduating from expensive city-run police academies. “They need to stay with us for at least five years. If they decide to leave, then they need to pay back that money.”
That line drew a round of applause.
San Jose’s large Asian-American community is split in its support of Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American whose family came to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon and worked in the strawberry fields of the San Joaquin Valley.
Nguyen faced down a recall attempt by Vietnamese-Americans after she resisted efforts to rename a commercial neighborhood “Little Saigon.”
She has been a close ally of Reed, the father of Measure B and another statewide pension reform measure. But so has the other leading candidate on the council, Sam Liccardo.
“For me the two most serious problems we’ll need to face are fiscal sustainability and public safety,” Liccardo said at the Willow Glen debate.
Liccardo is a South Bay native and former prosecutor who touts a crime reduction plan that involves networking video surveillance cameras at businesses around the city, and using data analytics to do smarter deployment of a reduced force.
“Very simple approaches, but basically a restoration of community policing is what’s going to enable us to be a safer city,” he said.
Liccardo boasts endorsements from major figures in San Jose’s business community and from two former mayors, and he’s the most out-front about continuing Reed’s program of fiscal reform.
“We now have a $3 billion unfunded liability in this city.” Liccardo said, “and we cannot simply accept the idea that our children and grandchildren will pay for our inability to solve that problem.”
Liccardo and Nguyen are the top two of four council members running for mayor — with Rose Herrera and Pierluigi Oliverio trailing behind in the most recent polls.
Herrera has based her campaign on the argument that San Jose needs more jobs to increase its tax base. “Downtown san Jose is the most empty downtown city in the country during the daytime,” she said at the debate.
To fill downtown, Herrera wants the city to speed up the permitting process, “That means changing how we do business down at City Hall,” she said, “taking on a revolutionary idea that Phoenix and other cities have done that I’m putting forward, and that is 24-hour permitting.”
Oliverio’s big idea is to “heal the divisions in the city.”
“The only way we can do that,”he said, “is to make union negotiations public. So, you can attend as a citizen. Right now it’s a closed-door process, and the only thing that comes out of that process is angst, brinkmanship and hurt feelings that leads to too much hostility.
“And if we’re being watched by the public,” Oliverio said, “everyone will be kind, everyone will be honest, and we’ll have a different day in this city.”
The other top contender is Santa Clara Supervisor and former Councilman Dave Cortese. He’s the favorite of labor groups, and he told the crowd at the Willow Glen debate that the city wouldn’t be in such a mess if his council opponents had any good ideas.
“The policies are not working. We need to restore the trust in this city. We have broken morale in this city. It’s time for a change.”
Cortese notes the city is losing not just police officers. Planning department staffing is down 30 percent, public works by 20 percent. And Cortese is the one candidate who says he would work with city unions to settle the legal battle over Measure B, rather than continue to fight for the measure in court.
“Tell me how you restore trust and morale when litigating with your own employees.” Cortese said, “It’s not going to happen. This war you’ve been hearing about needs to end. It’s time for reconstruction in this city.”
That version of “labor peace” has made Cortese, no surprise, the favorite of San Jose’s municipal unions. And their support could make all the difference in this race.
“We’re phone-banking every night,” said South Bay Labor Council Executive Director Ben Field in a recent interview.
Field said labor activists plan to call more than 100,000 likely voters urging them to vote for Cortese and pro-union candidates for the City Council.
“Cortese is really the only candidate who’s gonna turn the city in a better direction,” Field said. “There are five serious candidates, and four of them are all committed to a path that this current mayor has set, which has really been a disaster for the city.”
Labor wields a powerful tool in this campaign: a well-endowed independent expenditure fund to pay for phone banks and mailers on Cortese’s behalf. Contributors include labor groups, politicians like Rep. Anna Eshoo and a pair of local cardrooms that have just chipped in $25,000 each.
That independent spending has prompted a countereffort by Silicon Valley businesses.
“We don’t want Sam Liccardo’s candidacy to fall through because he was outspent two or three to one,” says Carl Guardino, the well-connected CEO of the nonpartisan Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which lobbies on behalf of high-tech and civic interests.
Guardino rarely makes endorsements. But he’s making a personal exception for Liccardo, in gratitude for the candidate’s early support for campaigns to bring BART to San Jose.
“He has been a champion on a lot of issues that are in his purview as a San Jose City Council member,” Guardino said, “but also on regional, state and federal issues standing shoulder to shoulder with the innovation economy and the tech community in Silicon Valley.”
Guardino and his wife are raising funds in $1,000, $10,000 and $25,000 chunks from tech executives like Steve Wyman of TIVO and high-powered lawyers like Joe Cotchett — with home addresses from San Francisco to Los Altos to San Jose. Guardino insists the fund won’t attack other candidates.
“It is pro-Sam Liccardo,” he said. “It is not anti-anyone else.”
Still, many voters in San Jose may be wary of a divisive campaign between unions and big business. Those I talked to said they’re yearning for a mayor who will bridge the divisions within city government.
“The core of the problem is the council is very divided right now.” said Erik Fong, a tech worker who I talked to at the Willow Glen debate. “So I would look to the next mayor to be collaborative and bring people together to solve problems.
San Jose voters are already mailing in their ballots for the June 3 primary. Unless one candidate wins a majority, the two top finishers will fight on until November.