Santa Clara’s politics got flipped on its head this week when three newcomers came out ahead in their bids for City Council, stripping down a longstanding alliance for Mayor Lisa Gillmor at a critical moment for the growing city.
City Council newcomers Anthony Becker (District 6), Kevin Park (District 4) and Suds Jain (District 5) maintained healthy leads in the contest for three of the four seats up for grabs. District 1 incumbent Kathy Watanabe, who has been a reliable Gillmor ally on the council, also won re-election.
The returns shocked even the newly elected.
“I think the thing that is surprising is that we were really hoping to get two seats, and that would have changed the balance of power,” Jain said in an interview this week. “We got three, so now the balance of power has changed.”
When the election season started, four candidates—Becker, Park, Jain and Harbir Bhatia—dove into Santa Clara’s contentious City Council race as a united team, branding themselves underdogs pushing back against the status quo: an almost all-white council in a city where elected leadership has never been as diverse as its citizenry.
The vote comes as the city grapples with what to do with a court order to split into six districts for voting, a mandate by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle, who said holding elections with districts, rather than having every resident vote on every council member, would help even the playing field for minority voters.
Though the mayor and the majority of current council members pushed back on that assertion as the city appeals the decision, the new slate of elected officials say they agree with the judge.
But even more front-and-center in the election was the question of what to do about the San Francisco 49ers, which manage the city’s more than $1 billion Levi’s Stadium, but have for years been in a tit-for-tat fight with the city over the management agreement, events and curfews, resulting in multiple lawsuits.
So, it was perhaps no surprise that was the issue Gillmor hammered home through the election, as she pushed for a slate of contenders she said would take a harder line with the NFL team to benefit the city. Her preferred candidates included Watanabe, who won against Bhatia, as well as District 4 incumbent Teresa O’Neill and candidates Bob O’Keefe (District 5) and Robert Mezzetti (District 6).
Gillmor’s claims about the 49ers took on new life in the months leading up to the election as support from a political action committee (PAC) funded by 49ers owner Jed York filled with $3 million to support Bhatia, Park, Jain and Becker.
On the other side of the aisle, Gillmor and the city’s Police Officers Association (POA) endorsed O’Neill, O’Keefe, Mezzetti and Watanabe. Developer The Related Cos.—which is working on a 9.1 million-square-foot development in the city—donated $25,000 to the POA’s PAC, helping to launch a website in support of the four contenders.
But as the 49ers’ unprecedented PAC dwarfed the POA’s political funding, Mayor Gillmor accused the football team of attempting to buy influence on the council.
“Rather than pay their bills and follow the law, like they should, they would rather pick their council members and control Santa Clara—period,” Gillmor told San Jose Inside earlier this year. She did not respond to a request for comment following the election.
Among the four candidates supported by York, most agreed the “help” from the 49ers probably hurt more—or was a wash at best. Each insisted the York-funded PAC would have no influence on their decisions as council members, though they all said they wanted the city to have a better relationship with the team.
“I know a large number of people did not vote for me because there was the taint of the 49ers money and this perception that I was in their pockets, and even the mayor and the Chief of Police were spreading those rumors,” Jain said. “I am by no means in the pockets of the 49ers and I have a very long history of opposing them.”
Park was more optimistic about the 49ers impact to raise awareness around his campaign, but said he felt participating in forums, walking parts of the district and speaking and emailing with voters were what moved people to vote for him.
Split The Pot
The election was the second time in two years that council seats were decided with districted elections due to Judge Kuhnle’s order. The first time, in 2018, Raj Chahal won his bid for a council seat, breaking a long streak of nearly all-white representatives in Santa Clara. That became a proof-point for those who say districted elections are a good option to increase diversity.
Chahal has since become the most vocal advocate on the council to keep the districts as they are, even as others on the council pushed a failed ballot measure—Measure C—in March to split the city into fewer districts.
“When we talk about districts, that is probably one of my first actions I’m going to take,” Becker said. “I don’t know if I’m going to have to battle [Councilman] Raj Chahal, or it’ll be kind of like Family Feud, where you're gonna hit the button as fast as you can.”
Becker, a current city planning commissioner, has run two other times in Santa Clara—once for city council and once for mayor—but both times were at-large races, meaning he needed to nab the majority vote of the entire city.
This time, Becker walked every block of Santa Clara’s District 6, shedding about 20 pounds in the process and convincing constituents that he was the guy for the job. He credits his win to that outreach.
“When I ran the two city-wide races, I was being outspent so fast by whatever developer was funding the POA, I had no chance because they were able to send so many mailers to every single voter in the city,” he said. “With districts, though, I could beat somebody with my legs, and I could beat somebody with my ideas. I could beat somebody by actually having a conversation with [voters].”
Likewise, Jain, who is also city planning commissioner, said he pounded the pavement during the election season, talking to voters—at a safe distance—about his hopes to bring more live music to the city, implementing a development fee for public art and finding new ways to help businesses survive the pandemic.
Both Jain and Becker said the most unexpected upset was Park’s win over Councilwoman Teresa O’Neill.
“Teresa has been so popular for a long time, so that was a surprise to me," Jain said.
Park has repeatedly said he doesn’t consider himself a politician, and as a husband and father, would have preferred not to run for office. But he also wasn’t happy with the existing leadership in the city, which pushed him to run.
“At the end of the day, if you can’t find good candidates, then I have no problem getting my hands dirty and running myself,” he said. “I’m not going to ask people to do something that I would not be willing to do myself.”
Despite his wide lead on Saturday and notes of congratulations from city officials beginning to hit his inbox, he wasn’t ready to begin celebrating until every vote was counted. But assuming his win, his first priority will be to “staunch the outgoing money flow,” in the city, he said.
“I don’t know what the effects of COVID will be,” Park said. “I’m sure that my first meeting with the City Council and with city staff on what our budget and financials look like will probably be an eye opener.”