SVO Exec Resigns Amid Outrage Over ‘Racist’ Political Hit Piece

The head of the South Bay’s regional chamber of commerce has stepped down over a political ad widely and vociferously denounced as racist.

Silicon Valley Organization CEO Matt Mahood announced his decision this morning outside his downtown San Jose office as a litany of nonprofits severed ties with the group, which represents 1,200 businesses that collectively employ 300,000 people.

“I am very sorry for the completely unacceptable image that was put up on our website earlier this week,” he wrote in an email sent to reporters after the press conference. “That image and messaging DOES NOT represent who I am as a man, a father, a husband or community leader. The people who know me and work with me on a regular basis know that. And I also know that the image and messaging does NOT represent the values of our members or the SVO Board of Directors.”

The picture that culminated with Mahood’s resignation was posted on an online campaign ad criticizing San Jose D6 challenger Jake Tonkel that went live Tuesday—and was then promptly removed amid intense outrage.

An ostensible attack on Tonkel’s stated support for redirecting police funding to other services, the SVO website depicted a group of Black men in a cloud of smoke or tear gas along with the question, “Do you really want to sign on to this?”

Backlash came swift and fierce.

Prominent board members quit. Elected officials condemned the organization. The Silicon Valley Council of Nonprofits withdrew an award it recently granted the SVO.

Mercury News editorial called the ad “sleazy.”

A Change.org petition began circulating demanding Mahood’s resignation as well as that of the heads of the SVO Political Action Committee, the California Association of Realtors and the California Apartment Association.

Scores of local charities called on the SVO PAC to disband entirely.

In a race that could shift the power dynamics on the San Jose City Council, the ad supplied plenty of ammo for the SVO’s political foes.

“We can’t have people who are blatantly stoking fear and racism involved in the future of where San Jose is going,” Tonkel tweeted Wednesday. “The SVO needs to take a step back and take a good look at themselves before they can be a part of the political discourse.”

Labor and civil rights groups backing Tonkel joined in the chorus of condemnation.

The council’s so-called Latino Caucus—a labor-friendly bloc comprising Sergio Jimenez, Raul Peralez, Sylvia Arenas, Maya Esparza and Magdalena Carrasco—scheduled a Friday presser to voice their objections to the ad and demands for “comprehensive organizational change ensuring these racist campaign practices do not continue.”

An op-ed penned by San Jose SPUR Director Teresa Alvarado, Silicon Valley Community Foundation CEO Nicole Taylor and Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County Executive Director Gregory Kepferle took the occasion to highlight yet another SVO ad that they say stoked similarly racist stereotypes about multi-family housing.

Progressive community leaders called on candidates supported by SVO to give back whatever money they got from its political action committee.

Dev Davis, the business-aligned councilwoman Tonkel’s trying to unseat, returned contributions from the SVO’s political fundraising arm. In a Facebook post disavowing the hit piece, she said she’s ashamed of past support she received from the group.

She also gave $1,200 to the San Jose-Silicon Valley NAACP, reportedly representing what the SVO donated to her candidate-controlled committee.

To date, the SVO PAC—whose biggest donors include developers, corporate landlord and other real estate associations—has spent $40,033 supporting Davis and $132,066 for Councilman Lan Diep in District 4 while pouring $191,320 against Tonkel and $197,291 against Diep’s challenger David Cohen.

Mahood’s departure, which ends a 13-year tenure as president and CEO of the chamber group, comes a day after the board placed him on leave, hired a third-party investigator to find out who was responsible for the conceptualization of the ad and suspended all campaign campaign activity.

Though Mahood denied knowing anything about the controversial ad until after it went live, he said he accepted responsibility for it as the leader of the organization and immediately had someone take it down.

“I have spent the last nine-plus years working hard to make San Jose a better place to live, work, play, raise a family and to run a business,” he said in an email following the press conference. “Over that time, myself and the organization have achieved many of our goals—working collaboratively. I love my work, the people I work with, the SVO, the board of directors and our community.”

Despite that, he acknowledged, mistakes were made.

“Although the SVO internal investigation has not yet been conducted or concluded, I am confident that the results of the investigation will show a breakdown of internal process and control, and that I had no knowledge of the image’s posting on our website,” Mahood said. “And in fact, as soon as I was made aware that the webpage existed, I had it taken down immediately. The investigation will find that it was a horrible mistake made by someone on the SVO team—the team for whom I am ultimately responsible for.”

Law firm Carothers DiSante & Freudenberger LLP will conduct the internal review, which the SVO estimates will couple weeks to wrap up and whose findings will be published on the chamber’s website.

The SVO also committed to creating a Diversity and Inclusion Review Board and require all employees to undergo cultural sensitivity training starting next week.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth. Or, click here to sign up for text updates about what she’s working on.

5 Comments

  1. During Matt Mahood’s tenure SVO usually went with racial/ethnic stereotypes in its messaging during election cycles. Mostly it was the Latino candidates who felt the brunt of those ads. So, when he says that the messaging doesn’t represent him as a community leader, this isn’t really true. It is exactly who he is as a community leader and in the past, he was happy to be that person. Also, that advertising is exactly what SVO is. However, I’m sure when the so-called internal investigation is done, it will find that some poor intern or webmaster was “responsible” for the photo on the website. Thus, SVO will continue to support local candidates with racist tropes.

  2. This all sounds good. But there are problems with Mr. Mahood’s response. First, this is the same type of racial stereotyping and fear mongering that SVO has used for the last three election cycles that I am aware of. Most of these racial attacks are directed at Latino and Latina candidates.

    This article does not address the political mailers that SVO sent out out that used the same or a similar image and contained blatant lies about the candidate’s positions.

    The fact that this has gone on for at least 9 years (three elections) is proof that SVO agrees with using race and lies as a tactic for helping the candidates they support win elections. This is just plain wrong.

  3. The real racism problem at the Silicon Valley Organization (SVO) is not in the intermittent and repeated, retail incidents like the racist attack ads aimed at District 6 progressive candidate Jake Tonkel. Rather, the problem is in the long-term, persistent and wholesale impacts of SVO members on the lives of working people of color.

    First, SVO-groomed and financed elected officials are mainly dedicated to serving large businesses and their wealthy owners (https://www.thesvo.com/candidate-cultivation-academy; https://www.thesvo.com/svo-pac; https://www.thesvo.com/campaign-wins). A case in point is SVO-financed Councilmember Dev Davis who has distinguished herself by repeatedly voting to lower taxes, fees and regulations for wealthy developers resulting in tens of millions of lost taxpayer money that would otherwise have been used for affordable housing. Such housing would, of course, disproportionately benefit working people of color.

    Second, and more generally, SVO electoral and lobbying activities aim to reduce taxes; reduce worker protections; reduce environmental regulations; reduce employer mandates, etc. all of which harm working people by producing negative physical and economic “externalities.” Given historical/structural factors, including ones in which SVO members have been complicit, the fallout is disparately borne by Latinos, Asians and Blacks.

    A case in point is the historic role of the real estate/apartment owner interests (central players in the SVO) in Proposition 13 of 1978, that alone has defunded local governments and school districts by hundreds of billions in the past 40 years (see the recent documentary on Jarvis and his campaign at https://www.kcet.org/shows/the-first-angry-man/episodes/the-first-angry-man). Furthermore, lobbyist-driven reductions in business taxes from state government in the past several decades dwarfed public revenue losses from Proposition 13 (https://calbudgetcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/CA_Budget_Center_tax-expenditures-2020.pdf; https://calbudgetcenter.org/resources/corporations-pay-far-less-of-their-income-in-state-taxes/).

    The effects of a starved public sector are reduced housing, education and health resources, fewer social services and less poverty reduction assistance on which working people rely on and especially working poor people of color. Thus, negative racial outcomes on a massive scale are business as usual for the SVO and its members.

  4. — “a group of Black men in a cloud of tear gas along with the question, “Do you really want to sign on to this?”

    Call me what you want, but no, I don’t want to “sign on” and have the likes of Jake Tonkel invite this city to become the next victim of barbaric, opportunistic black rioters. It’s bad enough this city is now directed and otherwise influenced by people who’ve never matured intellectually beyond adolescence, the latest evidence being their strong reaction to an isolated image and non-reaction to the many actual riots this country has endured of late (including the destruction black rioters are now inflicting on Philadelphia).

    How many of you think that were the downtown to be set upon by young black rioters any of those who criticized the SVO ad would dare stand up to the rioters as they now so boldly stand up for their image? How many times have you seen progressives or race activists get out on the street and attempt to convince the mob to cease its rioting and looting? The answer is never. Where progressive politicians go to hide from their diverse constituency and crummy policies is anyone’s guess, but you can always count on the NAACP to react by making-up a new demand list (as part of their never-ending shakedown of the American public).

    Know-nothings like Jake Tonkel view black Americans as if they were children in need of protection. Black Americans know full well there are black criminals eager to exploit controversy through riot, just as whites know there are Antifa punks doing the same. But while Antifa punks are new to the city-destroying biz, inner-city blacks are not. And when progressives award credibility to riotous black criminals they set in motion a scenario oft-repeated in American cities. Businesses in black neighborhoods get destroyed (investments evaporate, loans are defaulted), government fix-it money is looted (by the likes of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton), businesses fail to return (resulting in job loss and blight), civility declines (often to the point where parents keep their kids on lockdown), drug dealers turn corners (where stores once stood) into battle zones, property values (and tax revenues) plummet, murder rates soar along with policing risks, activists blame the lack of neighborhood stores on racism (always with a university study in hand), progressives plot to Section 8 the inner-city into rentals throughout the city, sports teams flee to the suburbs, and people fortunate enough to live outside city limits watch their property values rise and do business in the city only reluctantly.

    The SVO ad may be in poor taste but it accurately depicts an image that exists in the minds of millions of Americans (of all races). It is an image that has been a major boon to gun manufacturers. It is an image no one who cares about America wants to see become a reality anywhere.

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