The battle lines have officially been drawn in the 2020 race to replace San Jose’s Almaden Valley Councilman Johnny Khamis.
On Thursday, the PAC affiliated with the Silicon Valley Organization (SVO)—the region’s biggest chamber of commerce—announced that it’s backing Matt Mahan in the March 3 primary for the District 10 seat. The South Bay Labor Council came out in support of Jenny Higgins Bradanini a few months back.
Helen Wang, a retired nurse who joined the race earlier this month, has yet to land endorsements from any notable political groups, but she does claim support from the Santa Clara County Republic Party’s former chair and Milpitas Councilman Bob Nuñez, and GOP lawmakers, including Assemblyman Vince Fong from Bakersfield and state Sen. Ling Ling Chang of Diamond Bar.
In announcing its endorsement, the SVO PAC says Mahan’s experience as a startup CEO, teacher and member of the San Jose Clean Energy Community Advisory Commission make him well-suited for a seat on the 11-member council. The business group also praised his vision for boosting San Jose’s housing supply and improving public transit by working collaboratively with the private sector.
“In a time of unprecedented growth, coupled with the challenges of housing costs and traffic congestion, [Mahan] brings a fresh perspective that will positively impact San Jose residents for years to come,” SVO President Matt Mahood said in a news release. “Out of all the candidates running in this race, Matt is the most prepared and most knowledgeable on the issues that matter to his district.”
The SVO’s stamp of approval follows a slew of endorsements for Mahan from business-aligned moderates, including Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, councilors Lan Diep and Pam Foley.
With the full force of the local business lobby behind Mahan, it won’t be an easy fight for Higgins Bradanini and Wang. All three candidates, however, have backgrounds in both business and public service.
A registered nurse, Wang says in her campaign bio that she worked as managing partner for 30 years at one of San Jose’s first urgent care medical clinics. In her free time, she volunteers as a member of San Jose’s Small Business Task Force, the Milpitas Tenant Protection Task Force and as president of the Sunnyvale Estates Homeowners Association. As head of the Silicon Valley Chinese Technology and Business Association, she says she’s organized six Smart City conferences in the region.
Higgins Bradanini, for her part, says she helped grow a startup from its founding until it went international with 300 employees. After the 2016 presidential election brought Donald Trump to the White House, she got more involved in politics, becoming president of the Bay Area Women’s March.
Mahan’s focus also began to shift in the time leading up to that pivotal election year.
In 2015, he launched a startup called Brigade Media with the lofty, though vaguely defined aim of using Silicon Valley tech to hack national politics. The idea appealed enough to billionaires Sean Parker, Marc Benioff and Ron Conway to garner near $10 million in Series A funding, which puts no small degree of pressure on Mahan to translate his transformative vision into some kind of reality.
Brigade never scaled enough to reshape American democracy; earlier this year, Mahan sold off the starry-eyed startup to Countable and Pinterest. But it wasn’t a wash either.
By heightening Mahan’s perception about what matters, Brigade served a role in shifting his ambitions from the big-picture to the hyper-local—thus, his run for City Council.
“San Jose gave me a lot when I was growing up, a city of opportunity and upward mobility,” he says. “I came here as a 14-year-old doing that brutal commute everyday because San Jose had the education and internship opportunity.”
Growing up, he says, his family lived paycheck to paycheck from the salaries of his teacher mom and mailman dad. So he jumped at the opportunity when Bellarmine Prep offered him a full ride scholarship. He says he’s forever grateful that the community in San Jose gave him an education he wouldn’t have received in his hometown of Watsonville, where the only public high school clocked a 50 percent dropout rate.
“I really believe that the future of middle class mobility in America is going to be won or lost in cities like San Jose, cities that are home to large and diverse populations,” he says.
While he touts a platform with big ideas about upward mobility and opportunity for all, Mahan says he’s also focused on the more quotidian concerns that define life in this city, like infrastructure and public safety.
“Having two little kids literally one block from Santa Teresa Boulevard, where there is constant street racing, is a personal concern about the safety of my own child,” he says.
If elected, Mahan said he hopes to ramp up San Jose’s community policing to address those kinds of quality-of-life issues, such as dangerous traffic and the city’s rising property crime. From July to December last year, the city tallied 12,735 property crimes and 3,407 stolen vehicles. It also saw a 17 percent uptick in burglary.
To curb that trend, Mahan says, SJPD needs more cops on the force, whose ranks reached a 30-year low in 2016 and have since been steadily on the rise.
On the issue of housing, Mahan is decidedly pro-growth. To address the city’s housing shortfall, he thinks the city should incentivize single-room occupancy complexes, backyard granny flats and, of course, more dense, mixed-use infill development. At the same time, he says, it’s important to keep attracting commercial development, which rakes in higher tax revenues that fund vital city services.
Circling back to the big-picture theme of his campaign, Mahan says all his policy ideas are in service of upholding his vision of making San Jose a city of opportunity—which for too many people it’s not. “I know so many members of my generation and friends,” he says, “who are struggling to stay here.”