This past year got off to a disorienting start with the inauguration of a toxic regime in the White House and, closer to home, a devastating flood that displaced thousands of people in San Jose. The series of unfortunate events continued apace to the brink of 2018 with mass shootings, a sharp uptick in immigration arrests and the #MeToo movement exposing the prevalence of sexual harassment.
In many ways, 2017 taught us to prepare for the worst. But it also inspired some bright spots in Silicon Valley, where people stood up for undocumented immigrants in the face of President Trump’s draconian enforcement crackdown and where women continued their fight against sexism in the tech industry despite being outgunned by powerful men. Statewide, we also saw a decades-long push for pot legalization result in a sanctioned recreational sales and the formation of a public agency tasked with regulating the newly expanded industry.
The productive activism that rose from the chaos of 2017 seems destined to change the political landscape during the impending midterm elections on a national scale. But in the South Bay, which already leans decidedly left, the surge in liberal activism could also bring more progressive candidates out of the woodwork as several council seats come up for grabs. And as #MeToo continues to rock the media and tech world, it will probably ripple out to local government as well.
There’s no telling the future, but here we give you some cursory predictions about a handful of local issues.
High and Drive
“Drive High, Get a DUI.” The California Highway Patrol began broadcasting that warning on freeway signs and social media months ahead of Jan. 1, when recreational cannabis became legal in the state. Driving under the influence of any mind-altering substance was already illegal, but the growing acceptance of marijuana has authorities worried that people won’t exercise the same kind of caution in the new regulatory environment. To err on the safe side, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill by state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) that bans smoking or otherwise consuming cannabis while driving or even riding in a vehicle. Violations are punishable with a $70 fine. Enforcement remains a sticky issue, however, since measuring pot intoxication isn’t as clear-cut as it is for alcohol. Because the psychoactive ingredient in weed isn’t water-soluble like booze, it gets stored in fat cells, making it hard to tell how stoned someone is based on THC levels alone. It will be interesting to see how police enforce driving-while-stoned laws and whether their reliance on imperfect sobriety tests will result in an uptick in DUI arrests.
Mayor May Not?
Sam Liccardo managed to heal some old wounds during his first term as San Jose mayor, ending a bitter feud with the police union over pension cutbacks and changing course by supporting a higher minimum wage. But he’s drawn the ire from tenant rights and union advocates for coming down pro-business on issues such as rent control and a rule requiring employers to give workers more hours before bringing on new hires. So far, no serious contenders—progressive or otherwise—have announced plans to challenge him in November’s election. From the present vantage point, it looks like Liccardo, a reliable vote for business and landlord lobbies, stands a good chance of hanging on to his seat for a second term.
One issue certain to play into the mayoral campaign is the “Evergreen Senior Homes Initiative.” The controversial measure headed for the June ballot would circumvent the city’s approval process by asking voters to sign off on a consequential zoning change in San Jose’s east foothills. Proponents of the measure—billionaire Carl Berg chief among them—say the project would help with the historic affordability crisis by boosting the city’s housing stock by nearly 1,000 new units. Mayor Liccardo begs to differ. Characterizing the “affordable” tag on the development as disingenuous because the homes would be upscale and there’s no way to assure any extra would be reserved for seniors or veterans. Then there’s the fact that it would eat up land San Jose needs to create jobs so the city could generate enough tax revenue to afford essential public services. Liccardo and several of his colleagues worries that the initiative could set a dangerous precedent by giving developers end-around elected officials on projects that may not align with the city’s long-term objectives.
Ga-Ga for Google
Google’s tentative plan to build a massive new headquarters in the heart of San Jose sparked impassioned debate when city officials announced the news last summer. The pro-growth urbanist sodality called the proposal a godsend, while labor unions and the working poor expressed trepidation over how the influx of 20,000 new jobs would affect existing problems with housing costs and displacement. The city’s leverage comes from the fact that Google needs to buy several parcels of public land around the Diridon train station to build its grand vision. An agreement between the advertising giant and City Hall is expected by March. By then we’ll see if local officials have been good stewards of the public’s resources, or whether they missed their chance to negotiate community benefits that would win over more widespread support for a project that would fundamentally reshape the city.
Battle of the Badges
Sheriff Laurie Smith’s latest term has been beset by serious problems that resulted in multiple lawsuits, a federal review and a sweeping reform effort. Three jail guards murdered mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree. Several officers got caught exchanging racist text messages. Inmates escaped from jail, fled from the courthouse and filed complaints accusing correctional deputies of brutality. And just like during the last election, the unions representing Smith’s jail and patrol deputies are dead-set on ousting her. But her lead challenger, retired Undersheriff John Hirokawa, oversaw those same troubled jails until he retired in 2016. He’ll have to convince voters that the problems under his watch took place despite his own efforts. So far, he’s come out swinging against his former boss by issuing incendiary pronouncements about the way she handled a recent hunger strike and the courthouse escape. Since Hirokawa was a longtime insider, his campaign might launch some well-timed hit pieces to undermine Smith’s shot at re-election.
The trend of outing powerful men for sexual harassment and assault will likely continue into the New Year with revelations about local government officials.
Housing the Homeless
Santa Clara County leaders banded together a few years ago to tackle homelessness head-on, budgeting more money for services and persuading voters to pass a nearly $1 billion bond measure to build permanent housing. But when it comes to short-term solutions, San Jose has wasted precious time. A bid to build tiny cabins to shelter the homeless stirred up some shockingly hateful NIMBY backlash that delayed the project and turned some City Council members against it entirely. The coming year will show whether local electeds were serious about helping the homeless—which requires both short- and long-term fixes—or whether it was just lip service to tide them over til another term.
Resistance to President Trump manifested from the get-go in street protests, symbolic resolutions passed by local elected officials and a spate of litigation against Trump’s executive fiats on immigration. The Women’s March for equality, which drew tens of thousands to the streets in downtown San Jose after Trump’s inauguration, is in for a re-dux Jan. 20. South Bay cities intend to continue their battles against a White House that’s positioned itself as a threat to the diverse population that comprises the region. Local media responded to Trump’s corrosive presidency by assiduously reporting on how national policies affect us here at home. Meanwhile, Santa Clara County emerged as an activist jurisdiction by joining high-profile lawsuits against Trump’s failed travel ban and unconstitutional crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities.
This article has been updated.