The following is an interview San Jose Inside editor Josh Koehn had with Mayor-elect Sam Liccardo on Friday, Nov. 21, in his City Hall office. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Josh Koehn: In four years what are you going to point to as your accomplishments?
We will have launched a significant initiative to reach thousands of kids, engage them in after-school programs. Overwhelmingly kids in neighborhoods who have no access to—
Lower-performing school districts?
Yeah, East Side; Central San Jose. We will have made San Jose the safest big city in America again.
And what does that mean exactly, because despite what you and Dave Cortese were saying through the campaign, San Jose is still a pretty safe city? Can we acknowledge that now?
I wasn’t the one. Go through all my mail. Go through everything I said publicly. I was the guy telling everybody in the media, ‘Hey, please look at the data before you buy this stuff about somehow or another we’ve become Detroit.’ We had the lowest rate of violent crime of any major U.S. city last year. Now on the other hand, if there’s been a burglary on your street or worse on your own home, as far as you’re concerned crime is up 100 percent. So, I can assure you the fear mongering wasn’t coming from my campaign. What I was talking about was solutions. … I want to see a significant expansion of job opportunities for at-risk teens. In the book I talk about ways that we can do it that are within our budget, leveraging existing resources that we’re using today and essentially kill two birds. We can do things that are beneficial for the public, like restoring parks, and engage teens in doing some of that work and giving them the first three sentences of their résumé.
When you talk about restoring services, there’s also a restoring of relationships that has to occur. How does that work? Are they coming to you with demands, or are they coming to you hat in hand almost?
Nobody is coming hat in hand. Within 48 hours of Election Day, I reached out to several folks, including Ben Field and (police union president) Jim Unland and others, and said, ‘Let’s find a way to work together.’ We’ve got a lot to do. I do think that existing officers have done an incredible job. We’ve seen crime rates drop significantly in the last few years—
Despite the shortages in staff and the acrimony.
Despite what you may see in the mail from the police union. But we are perilously low-staffed right now as a department and it’s affecting everything from investigations to patrol. And so I’m hopeful with new leadership in the (police) union, we’re going to be able to find some small wins relatively quickly, that we can immediately utilize for retention and to attract new officers.
You should hear some of the things these guys have called you. I mean, you probably hear it through back channels. I doubt they say it to your face.
Well, I grew up in a family of five kids so they haven’t called me anything worse than I’ve already been called before. The best lesson I ever got in politics, believe it or not, it came from a Catholic priest. He said the beginning of all theology is recognizing that it’s not about you. I think it’s true in politics, too. If there’s success it’s not about me. And if people are angry and they’re burning me in effigy, it’s not about me, either. There are bigger issues here and we’ve got to work on them together. It’s a big city. I recognize not everyone is going to agree with me. That’s the way it goes. But I need to work with everyone.
This housing impact fee that was passed by the council—five years exemption I believe for downtown high-rises. How do you think that’s going to shake out not only in the short term, but also the long term?
So the exemption and reduction for high-rises started back in ’06 when Cindy Chavez proposed it. At the time, they couldn’t get any high-rises out of the ground. For all the reasons that I’m sure you’ve heard already—you’ve got an airport that prevents developers from making sufficient profit; you’ve got a high water table; and the market hadn’t been proved out. So, they cut the fees. We got the four towers out of the ground; two of them went through bankruptcy/receivership. That didn’t exactly prove the market. We’ve now got some more underway. If we get through this cycle and we say that three, four or five towers are up, and they’re all solvent, then I think it’s fair to say this whole things goes away and we move on and the market’s proved out. I guess I’m giving you an answer to a different question, which is why need it. I’ll tell you why we need it. This is the only way we can build housing in this city—the most fiscally sustainable way to build housing—because you don’t have to have fire and police and sewers in far-flung parts of the city. It’s the most environmentally sustainable way to build housing, certainly. You’re promoting alternative transportation by building on transit corridors and getting people close to work. And you’re significantly reducing the likelihood that folks who are living there are building freeways. All of those reasons—this is a critical, critical goal for us in our general plan. It’s all of those reasons, plus the revitalization of the downtown depends on it. So, there’s no question that people will continue to criticize me for saying we need more affordable housing. I’m advocating for a fee that should be on everything except for this kind of housing. But what’s important to recognize is I didn’t exempt all housing in the downtown. Most of the housing being built around here isn’t high-rise; it’s mid-rise. They have to pay full freight. We have a lot of mid-rise development underway right now and we’re going to keep having mid-rise.
Critics of yours would say that’s basically a handout to big developer buddies. What would you say to that?
I guess I would say there is no question I’ve always been an advocate for high-rise housing. And there’s no question that developers of high-rise housing have seen me as an advocate. No question about that. I think those same critics should take a hard look and see who has been taking the most bullets from the development community for pushing impact fees, inclusionary housing fees—and it’s consistently been me. The reason why I’m an advocate for high-rise is what I just described: the fiscal benefit, the environmental benefit, the incredible importance of high-rise housing and the revitalization of downtown; the fact that this is the only place where you can build 200 or 300 units to the acre and not have a neighborhood burning down City Hall; and critically recognizing the realty of the future of growth in this valley. We’re going to add 400,000 people in the next quarter-century. I don’t know where we’re going to put them if we’re not building incredible high-density in the core. It means we continue a pattern of sprawl, which has degraded our environment, filled our freeways with traffic and is eroding the fiscal position of the city. I don’t want to continue that pattern. That means you have to be for something if you’re against something else.
Do you support legalization of marijuana in California?
I want to look at the data and see what happens in Colorado and Washington and now Oregon and some other places where we’re seeing it pop up. … The most dangerous drug on the planet is alcohol. Do I think marijuana is as dangerous as alcohol? Of course not. Do I want a world in which we have more drugs that look like alcohol? No.
Alcohol makes you do funny things and act a little wild. Most people who smoke pot—
End up at Taco Bell.
If they even get off the couch. It’s more likely it’s a frozen pizza.
And I agree. For the great majority that’s the impact, it makes people more lethargic.
Or relaxed. Moving on. Where do you differ in your management style from Mayor Reed and how do you think it will be different over the next four years?
I have the benefit of having a lot more opportunities than Chuck ever had coming in. We had a about a year to get anything done and then we ran head-first into the worst recession of the last three-quarters of a century. The bottom fell out and then all of the conversations were about eliminating and reducing. As a Democrat those are hard conversations to have. Just by nature of the different circumstances that we have, I can talk about new initiatives like supporting after-school programs that Chuck could never talk about.
Rose Herrera. Is she going to be your vice mayor?
We’ll make a decision in mid- to late-December.
Lew Wolff. Baseball. How many more years are you going to give them until you give up (on the A’s coming to San Jose)?
The good news is we don’t have to give them anything.It’s not like we’re spending money. We’re making money on the option as we speak. We’re not paying for the lawyers to litigate this thing. So, it’s not like there’s a huge opportunity cost. It’s house money. Let’s let it ride. And by the way, they’re paying us some money for a piece of land that nobody else seems to be interested in currently. I don’t know many other cities that have a set of private investors ready to make a half-billion dollar investment in their city. It’s something that can produce an attraction for at least 30,000 people for at least (81) days a year. I know there are detractors, just like there were detractors of the arena. But I’m an unabashed supporter because 10 years from now, this thing gets over the goal line, everyone is going to look back and say, ‘Of course I was a supporter.’