San Jose Councilman Lan Diep says he’s been caught in the crossfires of an apparent political hit that aims to cast him in a bad light as he gears up for re-election in 2020.
Rumors had been swirling for months about Diep’s involvement with a female staffer. But an article published last week on a local news site brought them to a wider audience, prompting a whole lot of backlash for the D4 rep.
The Aug. 6 article on San Jose Spotlight cited multiple city hall sources, all anonymous, who claimed they saw Diep rub his colleague’s shoulders and accused the pair of turning a Sister City trip to Okayama, Japan, last year into a taxpayer-funded romantic getaway.
But, according to the two people involved, those rumors turned out to be just that—unverified gossip. Diep said he never dated his staffer, who asked not to be named in this piece so she can at least try to retain some semblance of privacy. A comment from the councilman was notably absent from the Aug. 6 article.
He knows what he would’ve said.
“The accusation is false,” Diep insisted.
Meanwhile, the whole tawdry ordeal has left the staffer in question feeling defamed and like “collateral damage,” according to a comment she left below the original article. She also claimed she was never contacted for the Aug. 6 story, which Diep called a “politically-motivated character assassination.”
One of the councilman’s ex-employees also chimed in on the situation to back up Diep. Irie Yee, who worked for the councilman from March 2018 to April 2019 took to Facebook to declare that the “defamatory allegations” are untrue.
The news site that ran the anonymously sourced story, however, wasn’t the first organization to amplify the rumors. The whisper campaign made its rounds this past spring in what Spotlight described merely as an “anonymous political poll.”
That poll was conducted in late May and went out to more than 400 households in Diep’s district. It presented the claims and erroneously purported that the councilman “violated city policy” because of the alleged relationship. It then asked how convincing the statement was as a reason to vote against him in 2020.
An insider living in the councilman’s North Valley district said he got a call from the poll, which asked about Diep and his labor-aligned challengers, Huy Tran and David Cohen.
“It definitely did show more negative towards Lan,” the survey recipient said. “I can’t remember the specifics for the negative for Huy or David, but I remember David and Huy’s were more, ‘they’re community leaders, would that make you vote yes or no?’”
The source said the slant of the poll made him believe that a labor group was behind it. Multiple sources with insight into the situation confirmed that hunch.
As the only Republican on the council, and a reliable ally for the city’s business-friendly mayor, Diep said he knows he has a target on his back. “This is a poll-tested smear by union bosses who oppose me because of my work with Mayor Sam Liccardo,” he said. “They have intentionally injected malicious lies into our community dialogue by using a push poll to present falsehoods in the form of a question.”
San Jose Inside reviewed campaign expenditures for the city of San Jose for the first six months of 2019. During that time, only two groups funded polling activities: the South Bay Labor Council and San Jose Firefighters IAFF Local 230 PAC. Unless it was bankrolled by an outside group, the poll would have to show up on campaign filings.
While it remains unclear who paid for the poll, here’s what we were able to ascertain.
The San Jose Firefighter’s PAC bought a poll through EMC Research Inc. for $12,000. The research group ultimately contracted with American Directions Group for polling efforts for an additional $5,013.96.
The South Bay Labor Council funded a poll through EMC Research for $20,000. However, the money came from the group’s issues account, which could have gone to a number of things including research for a recently proposed ballot initiative to re-align the mayoral election year with the presidential election.
The Labor Council also gave endorsements to Diep’s competitors—Tran and Cohen—earlier this summer.
In the spring and early summer, two different election polls went out. One in Diep’s District 4 and the other in the District 10 race, which is for a seat that opens up when Councilman Johnny Khamis terms out next year.
An insider told San Jose Inside that the firefighters funded the poll, but when asked if they were responsible for it, Local 230 President Sean Kaldor said the PAC did not pay for a survey in District 4.
Dianna Zamora Marroquin, South Bay Labor Council’s political director, told San Jose Inside that it’s their policy, “never to confirm or deny whether we have funded a poll.”
Melinda Jackson, a political science professor at San Jose State University said the poll that went out to Diep’s constituents sounds like a push poll—a tactic used to sway voters instead of gathering true public opinion from them.
“The problem is they’re using the guise of polling for a cover story to simply spread misinformation about an opponent,” Jackson said in an interview Wednesday.
She added that the strategy increases a “sense of distrust” in legitimate polls and makes it harder to do public opinion surveys.
“It feeds into the cynicism that people have about politics,” she said. “It contributes to the growing distrust in government, news organizations and all kind of institutions in our society that are part of what makes democracy work.”