The battle for San Jose’s District 4 seat stands to shift the balance of power on the council, and it could be close after the 2016 election was decided by a mere 12 votes.
On Nov. 3, incumbent Councilman Lan Diep faces Berryessa Union School District trustee David Cohen for the seat on the council that represents the North San Jose area and includes the Piedmont and Berryessa neighborhoods and marina-adjacent Alviso.
Over the last four years, Diep has positioned himself as member of Mayor Sam Liccardo’s business-friendly voting bloc, which currently has a six-person stronghold over labor’s five-member faction. But, if Cohen—the union-backed candidate—can manage to unseat Diep, the remaining two years of Liccardo’s term could look very different.
During the March 3 primary, Cohen placed first with 7,417 votes, while Diep placed second with 6,756 votes. The other two candidates who didn’t make it to the Nov. runoff election—Huy Tran and Jamal Khan—had 4,740 and 1,417 votes, respectively.
Diep told San Jose Inside that he’s running for re-election because he felt like there is a lot left to do and that he is “uniquely qualified to do it.”
“People said to me when I first won that entering elected office would be like drinking from a fire hose,” he said. “I didn’t have context for that but I understand it now. There’s a lot that comes after you right after you take the oath with meetings and learning how the city works. ... you have very little time to reflect and implement the vision that you had as a candidate coming in because you’re learning how things work.”
Before running for office in 2016, the councilman worked as a fellow for the Legal Aid Society’s Vietnamese American Workers’ Rights Project.
Diep said his top three priorities for the district are public safety, economic recovery from Covid-19 and building more affordable housing. While economic recovery and affordable housing are also citywide issues, Diep said North San Jose plays a pivotal role in both.
District 4 encompasses a majority of San Jose’s industrial lands, which makes it a strong tax base for the rest of the city. Diep said that means they need to prioritize keeping people safe while allowing them to go back to work.
As for housing, the North San Jose Area Development Plan calls for thousands of new homes to be built in the district in the coming years—more specifically up to 32,000 units and 1.7 million square feet of retail.
“We’re working to check the land-use policies,” Diep said in a recent interview. “We need to have more housing options for people of all income levels and North San Jose is going to play a big part in that.”
One thing Diep plans to keep doing if re-elected is hold his monthly dumpster day cleanups. “I know the residents really like that and it is a whole ordeal to get dumpsters into a neighborhood and orchestrate the logistics that go into that,” he said. “I’ve acclimated and my team knows how to do it and county Covid rules willing I’m going to keep on doing it as often as I can.”
Over the course of the campaign, Diep has raised $275,456.27, according to public disclosure filings. He lists his top endorsements as Liccardo, Mercury News, former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell) and former Federal Election Commission Chair Ann Ravel.
Cohen, a longtime District 4 resident with two decades of experience working in high-tech, has served on the Berryessa Union school board for the last 13 years. He told San Jose Inside he’s been eyeing the council seat for a while now, but originally waited to run when there was no incumbent.
Then, he said, residents asked him to run.
“I saw that things in the district were just not being addressed and that residents came to me and they didn’t feel like they’re being heard,” Cohen said of his change of heart. “They felt like the current council member wasn’t responsive to the needs of the neighborhoods and I saw that the city wasn’t taking enough action on affordable housing.”
Cohen said his top three priorities for the district and the city as a whole are to build more affordable housing, address homelessness and help the city recover economically from the pandemic.
If elected, Cohen said he wants to focus on rebuilding the community’s relationship with the council office first.
“I think our district is looking for somebody to be an advocate for the neighborhood needs and to be responsive and to have a staff who is empowered to work directly with residents, to actively interact with them and solve their local problems,” he said. “I think our district has been crying out for that for the last few years.”
During his campaign, Cohen said he spent time meeting with residents and making a “long list of areas that need attention” so that he can start addressing specific neighborhood needs immediately.
The trustee also accused his opponent of having high-staff turnover, which he said leaves residents with few ways to contact and work with the District 4 office.
“He has no staff listed there that are empowered to work on issues and interact with the community and that actually frustrates the neighborhoods because they don’t know who to contact, they don’t have direct interaction with staff members who are knowledgeable about what’s going on in the district,” Cohen said.
Cohen has raised $130,410.54 to date, according to election filings. He considers his top endorsements to be state Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose), the League of Conservation Voters and a number of community leaders who decided to back him.