The recent poll showing Dave Cortese in first place—and Madison Nguyen in second—for the San Jose mayor’s race must have been a shock to the Sam Liccardo camp. So much so, that Liccardo released his own polling information showing that he was rising and now in second place by one percentage point.
But is Nguyen’s current political strength real or illusory?
The Liccardo camp would have you believe the latest polling is simply a reflection of demographics. Nguyen is a member of the fast-emerging Vietnamese community, she is a woman and the general public has not focused on the mayor’s race yet. Liccardo’s people may be right.
However, Nguyen has political strengths. As vice mayor, she is close to Mayor Chuck Reed, who is still popular despite heavy criticism over pension reform. Nguyen’s consultant, Victor Ajlouny, a Republican, is the same as Reed’s, and that is important to the primary race. Nguyen also has some big name supporters in San Jose, including former President Eisenhower speechwriter and KLIV radio station owner Bob Kieve.
Liccardo’s poll shows just how much Republicans matter, as it included Pat Waite, who never even joined the race. Waite polled at 7 percent, and both Liccardo and Nguyen need those folks.
With Waite and conservative Councilmember Pete Constant out of the race, Republican voters will have to choose from almost entirely Democratic candidates. Republican voters like Reed. In fact, a good friend of mine, a right-wing conservative, recently approached Reed in a restaurant to tell him what a good job he was doing. This is a man who rarely says anything positive about local politicians, but he likes the mayor.
If Nguyen can capture that bloc and hold part of the women’s vote, as well as carry the Asian community, she could manage to beat out Liccardo, who is currently better funded. But she has problems galvanizing votes from women and the Vietnamese community.
Rose Herrera’s candidacy may split off people who would only vote for a woman. And many strong women leaders have already endorsed Cortese, who is ahead in the first polls. Nguyen also has problems with some in the Vietnamese community over the “Little Saigon” fight—an emotional yet unnecessary issue that hurt her standing.
Nguyen has focused on those she can persuade to come back to her side. She refuses to stay mired in old battles, which is a must for any politician who seeks a larger constituency and wants to enhance their electability. In fact, those outside the Vietnamese community who don’t care or understand why it was such a flash point hail Nguyen’s stance as reasonable. And the electorate likes people who will stand up against their own natural constituency when they believe it is the right thing to do.
Finally, the historical significance of electing the first mayor of Vietnamese heritage could be alluring. San Jose was the first big city to elect a Japanese-American (Norm Mineta) and woman (Janet Gray Hayes) as mayor.
So, Liccardo’s camp may be more worried than they let on, and it could explain their willingness to release polling data.
The race for mayor remains wide-open, but out of the gate it looks like a three person race. There are pathways for Herrera and Councilmember Pierluigi Oliverio, who are currently garnering single-digit support, but it is a tough hill to climb. Either or both could play the role of spoiler, or king/queen maker, if a political deal is offered.
That’s what makes this race so interesting.