Elsie Aranda has not decided which San Jose City Council candidate she will endorse. Stopwatch in hand, she sits in the front row of the second District 5 candidates forum at the Mayfair Community Center, acting as moderator.
Aranda makes sure that the four people currently battling to represent San Jose’s East Side don’t go beyond their allotted speech times. It is her job to holler at candidates Xavier Campos, Aaron Resendez, J. Manuel Herrera and Magdalena Carrasco if they take too long to make their points.
As chair of the East Valley/680 Neighborhood Action Coalition and a main organizer of the March 15 forum, Aranda’s support would be a great asset to any of them. But for now, as she runs around putting away chairs and yelling at the 70-some event attendees that they need to leave the building by 8pm, Aranda says she’s still weighing her options.
“What concerns me is getting people to come out and hear everybody speak, hear all their answers and then walk away and formulate their own opinions,” Aranda says. “I think they’ve all got their positives. There are some candidates that have caught my interest more than others. There are some candidates that I feel aren’t giving what I call a three-by-five response.”
One week later, Magdalena Carrasco is standing on a concrete slab at Capitol Park, talking in rapid-fire Spanish about her vision for the East Side community. While her competitors are at the National Hispanic University duking it out at another forum, Carrasco is speaking in front of about 20 residents and neighborhood leaders. They’ve gathered at the park to meet and chat with the District 5 candidate over sugar-dusted pan dulce and boxes of Starbucks coffee spread out on a picnic table. The voices of small children fill the air behind her, shouting as they play on new playground equipment and kick soccer balls around the well-maintained field.
Over the incessant jingling of paleteros, Carrasco talks about the history of Capitol Park. A decade ago it was a haven for gangs and public drunkeness, she says, but it has been revitalized into a family-friendly gathering place.
The community members voice concerns about their children. They ask what Carrasco can do to improve the district’s poor graduation rate. They express worries about police, violence and guns in school, and most importantly, how their community will be affected by the city’s imminent budget cuts.
“I want to make sure that the voice of the community is represented on the 18th floor,” Carrasco says. “I want to make sure that the community is sitting at the table making those decisions, and that the person that will be representing them is representing the best interests of District 5. “This is why we’re meeting in these kinds of forums. I want to have intimate conversations with people and hear what they’re thinking, and what their ideas for the future are.”
Since announcing her candidacy last January, Magdalena Carrasco has been working to overcome several obstacles. She lacks the street cred of Resendez, the financial backing of Campos or Herrera’s decades of civic experience.
In spite of this, she has managed to garner a significant amount of support, especially for a candidate most people had never heard of before the new year.
Since October 2008, Carrasco has worked as a community advocate for First 5 Santa Clara County, a nonprofit that sponsors programs and services for young children and families. There, she did one-on-one interventions with victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, as well as implementing anti-gang programs.
A relative outsider to the local political scene, 42-year-old Carrasco grew up on the East Side, where she attended Independence High School. Though she’s lived in San Jose for years, she moved back to District 5 itself just last year. She is fluently bilingual. She also knows politics: her ex-husband, Kevin de León, served as assemblyman for Los Angeles’ 45th Assembly District from 2006 to 2010. De León, who is now one of her campaign contributors, is currently making his own run for the state Senate.
Carrasco has made strides in the last campaign fundraising quarter. Since February she has raised $20,647, which is $3,925 more than her closest competitor, Xavier Campos, who raised $16,722 since February. All told, she still trails Campos, who has long been the clear frontrunner for the soon-to-be vacant seat on the council, which is currently occupied by his sister, Nora Campos.
Before joining the race last September, Campos had worked at the Mexican American Community Services Agency (MACSA) for more than 20 years. Having started his career there as a child-care worker after college, he was eventually promoted to chief operations officer. He has spent almost eight years on the San Jose Planning Commission, and is currently a policy aide for county Supervisor George Shirakawa Jr.
Campos was the second to officially announce his candidacy for the seat, after Herrera last April, but he had been hinting at his intention to run since last spring. In the opening fundraising period ending on Dec. 31, he reportedly raised $32,617. He’s still the most financially flush for the four, with $30,496.17 still in his campaign bank account.
He has picked up many endorsements, including Shirakawa, state Assemblymembers Joe Coto and Ira Ruskin, and three San Jose councilmembers: Nancy Pyle, Ash Kalra and Madison Nguyen. On top of that, the South Bay Labor Council has sanctioned him, as have local police and firefighter associations.
At the March 15 Mayfair Community Center forum, Campos talked of growing up on the East Side and mentioned his intention to continue the “renaissance” of the District 5 community, once regarded as the most blighted neighborhood in San Jose.
Between 1996 and 2007, the intersection of Story and King roads received an infusion of $101 million from the San Jose Redevelopment Agency. The three new shopping centers and park that now inhabit the area took 11 years to build and were officially completed in 2007, while Nora Campos was in office. The improved area now serves as an example of success on the part of City Hall in revitalizing the long-troubled East Side community.
“I have seen the transition of this area,” Xavier Campos says. “East of 101 has been neglected for decades. People have pride in their community now, so one of my jobs is to continue to work on our business district and how our streets are kept. People want basic city services here.”
Still, public safety continues to be the No. 1 concern of District 5 residents. The neighborhood is still plagued by crime and slumlords, and last Halloween’s gang-related shooting and stabbing of two boys is still fresh in many residents’ minds. Campos points to transportation and gang intervention efforts as top priorities.
MACSA, where Campos worked for two decades, is a service organization that works to help the local Latino community. MACSA is currently undergoing an investigation by the district attorney’s office for allegedly diverting money from its employees’ retirement funds. In August 2009, a review by state auditors found evidence of “apparent illegal fiscal practices and misappropriation of funds.” Over several years, the nonprofit neglected to put $400,000 into its charter school employees’ retirement accounts. Instead, it used the money to compensate for operational shortfalls, according to the report.
Campos, who is not charged personally with any wrongdoing in the report, refuses to even address the issue. “I’m proud of the work that I did at MACSA,” Campos says of his time at the nonprofit. “I’m proud of the work I did there.”
Whoever wins the opportunity to represent the East Side has a tough job ahead of them. At recent candidate forums, many East Side residents stressed a feeling of disconnect with City Hall.
Some of them and their neighbors still struggle with the basics: stable shelter, education, and access to healthy food and public transportation. The foundering economy has hit the community harder than any other area of San Jose. In addition to crime and gang violence, the district suffers high rates of home foreclosure, increasing school dropout rates and rampant childhood obesity.
These issues have worsened recently, since the East Side relied so heavily on city services that are fast disappearing under San Jose’s mammoth budget deficit.
“Historically, we see the perception that we’re looking at 30 to 40 years of neglect,” Aranda says. “Programs and services are going to be cut, and that affects the people who can afford it the least.
For their part, the other two District 5 candidates have been playing up their grassroots leadership.
J. Manuel Herrera, who grew up on the East Side, has a résumé of civic service that spans two decades. He’s been a longtime trustee for the East Side Union High School District as well as a county transportation commissioner and director of planning for United Way. He’s been on the boards of numerous nonprofits and political associations. His endorsements include the East Side Teachers Association, the San Jose Federation of Teachers and La Raza Roundtable.
Herrera ran for the District 4 seat twice in the past, losing first to now-Mayor Chuck Reed in 2000 and then to now-Councilmember Kansen Chu. In 2006, he threw his hat into the mayoral race, only to drop out before election day.
Aaron Resendez is a neighborhood activist who chaired the East Valley/680 Neighborhood Action Coalition for five years. Born in Mexico, he earned his citizenship and has lived and raised his family on the East Side for the last 16 years.
While working as a box-printing press operator, he’s found time to volunteer in the community. He coaches kids’ soccer and spends weekends walking neighborhoods erasing graffiti and picking up trash. He was also president of the Arbuckle Neighborhood Association from 2000 to 2005.
Resendez and Herrera have focused their campaigns’ attention on the man that they see as the frontrunner. “The Campos family, they think they are powerful, but they are not so powerful,” says Resendez. “I’m anticipating that he’ll be in last place. People are tired of the same. This is not like passing the crown. He might have all the money, he might have all the endorsements, but we’ll see what happens on June 8.”
Herrera also has some sharp things to say about Campos. “I think it’s just going to become a question of grassroots resources vs. special-interest firepower,” Herrera says. “District 5 is probably one of the most grassroots communities in San Jose. They are not as easily influenced by big-money and power-broker endorsements.
“I can only say that there are going be folks who believe that the legacy of Nora Campos is a basis for her brother to step in, and others who, at a gut level, find that not right.”
Local Gals Make Good
There are several parallels between Carrasco and one of her biggest endorsers—outgoing District 9 Councilmember Judy Chirco.
When Chirco first ran for City Council back in 2002, she was essentially an unknown in the local political infrastructure, having served 11 years on the Cambrian School Board.
The shoo-in for the seat had been a man named Chris Hemingway, an aide for the then termed-out District 9 Councilmember John Diquisto. The 33-year-old Hemingway had been well established around City Hall, and had acquired numerous power-playing endorsements.
But to the surprise of many, when election day rolled around, Chirco won big.
She had worked harder and gained more grassroots connections from her 40 years as a community volunteer and involved resident of the district. She also made clear in her campaign that she wasn’t being handed the seat by any political machine, and that she truly wanted to represent her district’s interests.
Some East Side residents think it’s time for history to repeat itself.
A week after the March 15 Mayfair Community Center forum, Elsie Aranda finally settled on the District 5 candidate she is endorsing: Magdalena Carrasco.
“I didn’t want to come up with my support until I heard all three of them in a forum that satisfied my curiosity, where it wasn’t hosted by any supporting group,” Aranda says. She came out to support Carrasco at her March 22 Capital Park event.
“She’s willing to bring people to the table, and that’s what impressed me,” Aranda says. “She’s invested. Her kids are in the district, they go to our district schools, so I know that what happens to this district is definitely of importance to her.
“She has a clear understanding what people are going through, and that it’s going to take more then just sitting in a council seat and doing business from there.”