SVO Executive Put on Leave as Members Cut Ties With Business Group Over ‘Blatantly Racist’ Ad

A day has come and gone since Silicon Valley’s regional chamber of commerce posted—and then promptly removed—a campaign ad decried as racist.

But the fallout is far from over.

The Silicon Valley Organization (SVO) today convened an urgent board meeting where leaders decided on three things: to place CEO Matt Mahood on paid leave, hire an independent investigator to figure out who’s responsible for publishing the offending image and suspend all campaign activities.

In an announcement today, SVO Vice President Madison Nguyen said there was “no excuse” for the ad, which featured a monochromatic image of Black men in clouds of tear gas or smoke along with the question, “Do you really want to sign on to this?”

“An image was recently posted on the SVO website that was blatantly racist, completely inappropriate and unacceptable,” she wrote in an email. “We are horrified by this image as it does not represent the values of the organization, the leadership, the board of directors or our members. For that, we apologize. There is no excuse.”

The SVO said it already identified a third-party firm to determine how and why the image was posted. But it said nothing of when those findings will be made public—if at all.

“Their investigation will explore all levels of the organization starting with leadership and will include inherent cultural issues in the organization that might have contributed to this disgraceful post, along with recommendations for necessary changes,” Nguyen’s Wednesday morning statement went on to say.

On Thursday, she said, the SVO will host a press conference to further address the issue.

“The board of directors is moving quickly and effectively to understand how this could have occurred, and to ensure it never happens again,” Nguyen concluded. “We understand that swift, effective action is required so that the other positive work and community support of the SVO is not impacted.”

For something so divisive, of course, swift action won’t necessarily beget swift amends.

In the past 24 hours, the SVO drew denouncements from scores of nonprofit leaders, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and longtime chamber members Joshua Howard and Anil Babbar of the California Apartment Association.

“This action and its message were never discussed or vetted by SVO PAC members,” the latter two wrote in a letter explaining their departure. “It does not reflect the values of our community or that of the California Apartment Association and its goals of promoting all local, state, and federal fair housing laws for all residents without regard to color, race, religion, sex, marital status, mental or physical disability, age, familial status, sexual orientation, or national origin.”

Liccardo echoed the sentiment, calling the SVO’s use of the image “morally wrong.”

“Clearly, that’s an atrocious use of an image in a political campaign that we know has racial undertones,” the mayor said in a Facebook Live stream today, “and that’s exactly what we do not want to see anywhere in the United States of America.”

Joining the chorus of condemnation were the two candidates in the City Council race that inspired the ad in the first place.

“I just became aware of the horrific web page posted by SVO showing rioters in the streets,” District 6 Councilwoman Dev Davis wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday. “I am angry and shocked by the horrible graphic and truly disappointed by the very poor judgment and racist picture the SVO posted. I denounce this in the strongest terms and am ashamed of the past support I have received from them.”

Both D6 contenders are white, but Davis’ Green Party challenger Jake Tonkel’s public support for protests against police brutality redirecting local law enforcement funding to safety-net services has drawn a number of well-funded, inflammatory attacks from the incumbent’s institutional backers.

On Twitter, Tonkel slammed the SVO for “blatantly stoking fear and racism,” and urged the organization to “take a step back and take a good look at themselves before they can be a part of the political discourse.”

To date, the SVO Political Action Committee has spent a record -breaking $500,000-plus on campaign ads supporting business-friendly incumbents and attacking their progressive, labor-backed challengers in San Jose’s District 6 and District 4 races.

In addition to the ad at the center of a public reckoning for SVO, the business group’s campaign arm sent out anti-Tonkel mailers criticized for invoking stereotypes hearkening back to the nation’s redlining era of racially segregated neighborhoods.

Silicon Valley Community Foundation Nicole Taylor, San Jose SPUR Teresa Alvarado and Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County CEO Gregory Kepferle co-wrote an op-ed published Wednesday afternoon in the Mercury News that lambasted the housing fliers as “false, misleading and racist.”

“The housing hit piece employs abhorrent tactics like showing large gray-scale residential ‘towers’ next to cheerily-colored single-family homes—bringing to bear all the false and racist stereotypes about rental housing and more affordable housing as well as the individuals and families who live there,” the piece reads.

The co-authors note how such “racist tactics were highlighted” in Richard Rothstein’s 2017 book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, which they note was “ironically, a book recently recommended by Matt Mahood, CEO of SVO, as well as by the National Association of Realtors).”

The online ad with the image of Black protesters takes it a step further, they go on state, suggesting “a disturbing pattern of racist tropes.”

Alvarado, Taylor and Kepferle close their piece by urging other organizations to boycott SVO. “If we want to create a community that is anti-racist, we must start now,” they declare. “The day of reckoning is here.”

Valley Water CEO Rick Callender, a longtime NAACP leader, didn’t need much convincing. The water executive announced that he’s joining the exodus from the chamber by ending his agency’s 44-year SVO membership.

“As an African American CEO, I am disgusted, hurt and deeply offended by [SVO’s] racist attempt in a political campaign to use a civil rights era picture of African American men to stir up racial fear and hatred,” Callender said. “Using these images to suggest there should be something to fear or distrust or other stereotypical issues associated with African American men should not be allowed in political campaigns, in the community, or from those who purport to represent us as industry associations.”

The issue transcends the present election, he added.

“This is about trying to incite people to be fearful of me, an African American man, in my own community, in which I live and work,” he wrote. “This racist act is unacceptable.”

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.

7 Comments

  1. The attack ads and lies have been escalating for the last few weeks. Dev could have stopped her surrogates long before now but chose to benefit from their lies. It was only when the blowback became damaging did she disavow. Says a lot about her values.

  2. Thanks to Ms. Wadsworth for this very good reporting. While race consciousness and racism are clearly part of the story here, people are largely missing the class dimension of this episode. No one has commented on the fact that candidates groomed and supported by the Silicon Valley Organization (SVO) and its member and predecessor organizations are committed to serving the interests of the largest, wealthiest businesses around here.

    The SVO PAC openly touts its support to “business friendly candidates” including their featured candidates this election cycle: Ann Ravel, Dev Davis, Lan Diep, Matt Mahan, for starters (https://www.thesvo.com/svo-pac). Ravel’s claim to fame–as indicated in the dozen pro-Ravel or anti-Cortese mailers I have received so far–is that she is endorsed by Barack Obama, the recipient of more corporate and wealthy donor money than any other politician in U.S. history prior to the 2020 election cycle (see https://www.opensecrets.org/industries/summary.php?ind=K&recipdetail=M&sortorder= U&cycle=All). Obama’s legacy was such a disaster that it paved the way for the ascendancy of Trump in 2016 (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/09/barack-obama-legacy-presidency; https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/05/obama-white-house-financial-crisis-hundt).

    Then there are Davis and Diep who have distinguished themselves by their votes with the San Jose City Council neoliberal majority to shower wealthy developers with taxpayer money (https://www.sanjoseinside.com/news/councilwoman-dev-davis-faces-green-party-candidate-jake-tonkel-in-san-joses-d6-race/#comment-1691055). Ironically, the zealotry of the SVO attack on the Tonkel campaign turned out to be too embarrassing for the California Apartment Association members of the SVO leadership, the very interests that politicians like Davis and Diep are there to serve.

    Didn’t anyone else notice that the Madison Ngyuen cited in this article as the SVO’s executive vice president is none other than the former neoliberal Vice Mayor of the City of San Jose (https://www.linkedin.com/in/madison-nguyen-b6595766/?challengeId)? Ironically, she is responsible for the SVO’s Candidate Cultivation Academy that systematically trains and grooms people to be local “business-friendly” elected officials (https://www.thesvo.com/candidate-cultivation-academy). Could there be any more direct or compelling evidence of the SVO’s business and class objectives? Or that Mayor Liccardo, whose was interviewed long enough to cover for his buddy Matt Mahood, is prominently featured on the SVO website (https://www.thesvo.com/campaign-wins)? Or that the SVO monitors and lobbies City, regional and national government in a regular and ongoing way for its members and brags about its successes (https://www.thesvo.com/policy-watch; https://www.thesvo.com/past-accomplishments)?

    The scandal here is not only the racist nature of a number of SVO attack ads against disfavored candidates in recent years, it is also about the class nature of the SVO’s agenda, the SVO as a revolving door nexus of current, future and former local politicians, and the ignorance, indifference and unconcern about that agenda on the part of San Jose Inside, San Jose Spotlight, the San Jose Mercury News and nearly all those interviewed in all the articles and opinion pieces on this episode to date—except Jake Tonkel himself (https://sanjosespotlight.com/furor-builds-over-racist-post-by-san-jose-business-group/; https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/10/28/board-members-resign-in-fallout-from-silicon-valley-chamber-of-commerces-racist-attack-ad/;https://www.sanjoseinside.com/news/svo-executive-placed-on-leave-as-members-boycott-business-group-over-racist-campaign-ad/;https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/10/28/editorial-bad-ads/; https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/10/28/opinion-day-of-reckoning-has-arrived-for-silicon-valley-organization/).

    The SVO, and other Silicon Valley business organizations, are actively engaged in shaping the nature of local, regional and national governments to ensure these serve their interests first and foremost, even if this means less than livable wages and dangerous working conditions in the COVID-19 era; workers and families lacking basic health care; insufficient resources for schools in poorer zip codes; and communities being subjected to physical and environmental harm from the pollutants emitted by business operations. With all of these negative effects being disproportionately borne by Hispanic/Latino, Asian and Black residents of this city and region. Barely concealed behind SVO mea culpas and politicians’ posturing about the SVO’s most recent racist gaffes is the reality that most of those same politicians are umbilically connected to the harmful agenda and objectives of the SVO and its members.

  3. Good Job Jennifer. SVO needs to be disbanded. They have a pattern of using race in their politics. All Liccardo said was be racist but just don’t do it and get caught. Liccardo supports Davis. Davis receives PAC money from SVO. Davis and Liccardo support a racist organization.

  4. What the hell is this about?

    > A day has come and gone since Silicon Valley’s regional chamber of commerce posted—and then promptly removed—a campaign ad decried as racist.

    What campaign?

    What was the point of the ad? Was it a valid point?

    Did the ad support the valid point?

    Is this just a way for opponents of the campaign to suppress a valid argument about a campaign issue?

    What picture do all the naysayers say SHOULD have been used to make the point?

    > bringing to bear all the false and racist stereotypes

    Would a different picture have simply offered a different “false and racist stereotype”?

    If the point of the ad was to depict urban crime by people like antifa and black bloc, a picture of unicorns and rainbow would likewise be “false and misleading”.

  5. SJOB, I’m hoping your eyesight is better than mine and you can help me here but it looks to me like only one of the five people in that photo is actually Black. And if that is tear gas, they don’t seem to be in too big of a hurry to get away from it. It seems more like that is a cloud of smoke from a fire they just started in a dumpster or in someone’s business.

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