The rematch between San Jose Council District 7 incumbent Tam Nguyen and anti-homelessness advocate Maya Esparza could pave the path for how the city tackles some of its most pressing issues in coming years.
With different ideas on ending homelessness and solving the housing crisis, residents in a district that’s disproportionately affected by those problems will decide whether to continue leadership under someone with an irregular voting record on those causes or start fresh with a candidate who’s deeply entrenched in fixing them.
Even with support from some residents in his district, it’s been an uphill battle for Nguyen, who is fighting to keep his seat in a community still recovering two years later from the Coyote Creek flood—an event that many living there said he severely mishandled. His heated first term has also included a controversial visit to Vietnam, squabbling with the Vietnamese community, and being disbarred.
There are no endorsements listed on his website (although an internet search did turn up one from the Sierra Club Loma Prieta chapter), but it’s an endorsement Nguyen didn’t win that got him attention for the wrong reasons earlier this year.
Back in May, Sacred Heart Community Service took Nguyen to task for using unauthorized photos in a mailer that made it look like the local nonprofit had backed his campaign. Nguyen apologized for what he said was an error and promised to stop sending the misleading materials, but months later the same mailer is still prominently featured on his campaign website. Sacred Heart doesn’t endorse political candidates but was clear that “we would likely endorse pretty much anyone else” if they did.
“Unfortunately, Tam Nguyen has shown this community that he lacks that consistent commitment to our society’s most vulnerable,” they stated in a blog post.
That spotty track record includes voting against lowering the rent cap to be consistent with the Consumer Price Index and rejecting protection for tenants living in duplexes.
There have been a few high notes for Nguyen like bringing a long-awaited community center and garden to his community, but reversing his support for a homeless shelter on Senter Road after an overnight stay at a homeless camp in Portland two years ago didn’t sit well with many.
Even so, Nguyen is optimistic about his odds and told San Jose Inside that he has plans for getting a better grip on the widespread poverty in his district if reelected. He also voiced support for last year’s Measure A bond and Measure V, which appears on this year’s ballot.
“The housing (crisis) is terrible issue,” Nguyen said. “The homeless is separate issue and has to do with mental health sickness and other situations. We have to have alternative sheltering” like tiny homes, bridge housing and encampments.
“We’re working on very creative and alternative sheltering, including we voted on the safe car parking program,” he added.
Esparza promises to bring both a vast working knowledge of San Jose’s homelessness problem and leadership that will affect serious change in a district that she called “neglected” and “starving for attention.”
“We’re knocking on doors every day and District 7 residents are ready for a change,” Esparza said in a recent phone interview, pointing to higher turnout at the primary as evidence. “What we saw in the June election was a 12 percent increase in voter turnout from the four years previously,” particularly among the Latino community that she aims to represent.
It remains to be seen if that uptick is enough for Esparza to win; four years ago she narrowly lost the same seat to Nguyen. For the past two years, the former Franklin-McKinley School District trustee has led the All The Way Home campaign throughout the county for local nonprofit Destination: Home while simultaneously planning her comeback. This time around she just might succeed now that she has the help of groups like the South Bay Labor Council at her disposal.
She also won the endorsements of County Supervisors Ken Yeager, Dave Cortese and Cindy Chavez, San Jose councilors Raul Peralez and Sergio Jimenez, and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont). Esparza is hopeful that she’ll finally unseat her competition and put what she’s learned into action at City Hall, which she said isn’t doing enough to get people off the streets.
“The city is about to launch the first safe parking in District 7 and yet there are only nine homeless outreach workers in the city, three of those designated for downtown,” she said. “We need a lot more homeless outreach workers. We also need to do a better job of partnering with the county.”
“Ultimately the way to end homelessness is to house folks,” Esparza added, hence why she also advocates for motel vouchers and other housing programs.