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.
A 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.
As I stated earlier, SVO’s use of a photo conveying an implicitly racist campaign message was abhorrent. Racial fear-mongering has no place in our city. Though CEO Matt Mahood took down the photo as soon as he became aware & publicly apologized, SVO cannot let this happen again
— Sam Liccardo (@sliccardo) October 29, 2020
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.