Just as Citizens United changed the campaign finance game on a broad scale, a local coalition of union-aligned advocacy groups hope to upend what they call a pay-to-play environment in San Jose politics.
Members of Silicon Valley Rising—an advocacy nonprofit led by the South Bay Labor Council and Working Partnerships—filed a petition last week at City Hall that could limit where candidates get their campaign cash.
Under the proposed rules, some for-profit developers and landlords would be prohibited from donating money to political campaigns if they submitted a project application, owned or managed a certain number of rental units or participated in a bid involving more than $250,000 of city funds within the prior two years. Their lobbyists and special interest groups would also be banned from donating.
The initiative would also shift the city’s mayoral election, aligning it with the presidential election year starting in 2024. San Jose’s current mayor, Sam Liccardo, terms out in 2022, which would set up his successor for a two-year term. Advocates for the measure argue that the realignment would up voter turnout in mayoral elections, citing data that show participation peaks in presidential election years.
If the petition tops 70,000 signatures, it would make its way to the City Council for outright approval or placement on the November 2020 ballot.
Richard Konda with the Asian Law Alliance said that the initiative is a way to help improve San Jose’s “dismal” voter turnout for mayor—the only elected official who represents the city at large instead of by district.
“For young voters (and) minority voters, the turnout is something we struggle with, and we see this change in the election as a way to get more young voters and more minority voters to participate in the election,” he said.
Konda added that it’s also a way to get big money out of politics. “This will help elect people that are truly representing people and not just special interests,” he said.
But critics of the move say labor groups backing the measure as a way to crack down on special interests are displaying a curious lack of self-awareness.
“It is ironic that this proposed ballot measure that seeks to remove special interest money out of local politics, conveniently exempts other special interest groups such as labor unions from the same standard,” said Matt Mahood, president of the Silicon Valley Organization (SVO), the region’s pre-eminent chamber of commerce. “Labor unions must be held to the same standard if we are to advance any meaningful campaign reform.”
Konda, however, reassured critics that it wasn’t barring developers from the political process; they would still be able to donate to independent expenditure committees.
But Liccardo said that there needs to be one set of rules for everyone. “The notion that an owner of a daycare center or yoga studio cannot support the candidate of their choice but the NRA or South Bay Labor Council can seems patently unfair to me,” he told San Jose Inside. “Particularly when one of those later groups may be pushing to impose hundreds of millions of dollars of costs on taxpayers for pensions, for example.”
The potential ballot measure is the culmination of a long process wherein a faction of council members tried to realign the mayoral election with the presidential election year. In April, however, it failed 6-5 at the hands of the City Council.
Liccardo, who voted no, said he still has concerns about how it will affect the mayoral elections. “I don’t see how voters will be paying a lot of attention to those critically important local issues when all the media time and political oxygen will be consumed by debates about Bernie and Trump.”