San Jose to elect new mayor

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday September 21, 2022
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San Jose mayoral candidate and Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, second from left, was joined by gay Assemblymember Evan Low, left, and Congressmember Ro Khanna, right, at Silicon Valley Pride in August. Photo: Courtesy the candidate
San Jose mayoral candidate and Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, second from left, was joined by gay Assemblymember Evan Low, left, and Congressmember Ro Khanna, right, at Silicon Valley Pride in August. Photo: Courtesy the candidate

Voters in San Jose will be electing a new mayor in November, as Mayor Sam Liccardo is termed out of office. Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, a former San Jose city councilmember, and District 10 City Councilmember Matt Mahan survived the June mayoral primary to compete head-to-head on the fall ballot.

Whoever wins will serve a truncated two-year term, as the Bay Area's largest city in 2024 will realign its mayoral races with the quadrennial presidential election. That fall the mayor will revert back to being elected to a four-year term.

Like Liccardo, Chavez and Mahan are straight allies who are expected to be strong supporters of LGBTQ issues if elected mayor. As the Bay Area Reporter noted in 2015, Liccardo's inauguration that January as San Jose's 65th mayor marked a sea change from the previous mayor, Chuck Reed, who was a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage. (Chavez, 58, lost against Reed when she first ran for mayor in 2006.)

In separate interviews with the B.A.R. about their candidacies, Chavez and Mahan were both supportive of designating an LGBTQ liaison in their mayoral administration. It was one area where San Jose lost points on the 2021 Municipal Equality Index compiled by the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ rights organization; the city received a score of 97 last year.

"As I am going around the city talking to folks, I am seeing many communities in the city want a dedicated person in the mayor's office. I think it is an important model and idea," said Mahan, 39, who was elected to his council seat two years ago. "I am committed to doing it not just for the LGBTQ community but others as well."

Chavez noted that Santa Clara County, which provides much of the South Bay's health services and social programs, created the country's first countywide office for LGBTQ initiatives. Thus, she would want to ensure a mayoral LGBTQ liaison wasn't a duplicative role but an effective position.

"My question would be does it make sense we have a liaison, which I think would be great, really. It has to have enough resources to have an impact," said Chavez, who lives downtown with her husband and their college-age son. "I would want to see what we could leverage with what the county is offering to spend to get more money on services. But I do like that idea a lot."

The candidates also spoke of the need for affordable housing for both LGBTQ seniors and youth in San Jose. As part of her homelessness plans, Chavez notes that the city needs "to provide more interim housing for the most vulnerable homeless, such as the current New Haven shelter that is focused on LGBTQ+ homeless residents."

Chavez pointed to the shelter as "a great partnership" between the county and city she hopes to replicate as mayor. The city owns the building where the shelter is located, while the county provides the services to the residents.

"One of the most important opportunities we have is to get the county and city to work together on issues just like that," said Chavez, who added that she is "particularly interested" in seeing more LGBTQ-affirming senior housing be built in San Jose. "I have been told by the community when people are looking at retirement homes, for the LGBTQ community in particular, so many people still are not completely out to their families."

Mahan agreed that San Jose needs more LGBTQ-affirming senior housing and also more housing for LGBTQ youth and others who age out of the foster care system and must find a place to live. He pointed out he has supported such a project in his council district being built by Eden Housing. Called Mesa Terrace, 23 of the building's 46 units will be set aside for transitional age youth.

"I am moving forward a project in my district that has dedicated rooms for foster youth who are transitioning out of the foster care system into young adulthood and need that bridge," said Mahan, who has two young children with his wife and lives in the Almaden Valley section of San Jose.

Long LGBTQ ties

Due to her long political career, having been first elected to the city council in 1998, Chavez has drawn wide support from South Bay politicians and LGBTQ community leaders. All of the current San Jose city council members other than Mahan have endorsed her for mayor.

The LGBTQ political group BAYMEC, which stands for the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee, is also backing Chavez in the race. Her former colleague on both the county board and city council Ken Yeager, the first openly gay person to win elective office in Santa Clara County, is among her endorsers.

"Because we all know, and have worked with, her, some of us for decades," Yeager told the B.A.R. as for why so many current and former elected officials have endorsed Chavez to become San Jose's 66th mayor.

In terms of her broad support within the LGBTQ community, it is due to her being an advocate for LGBTQ rights for so long, he explained.

"It is one thing to answer on a questionnaire yes, you are in favor of LGBTQ rights. It is another thing to be on the battle line where all the arrows are angled at you and your political career might be on the line because of your position. She was just always there," said Yeager.

Chavez, known for her ability to raise money for BAYMEC at its events, will be the auctioneer at the 40th anniversary gala next month for San Jose's Billy DeFrank LGBTQ Community Center. She joked to the B.A.R. that her "relationship with the community is as old as the Earth."

She served on the statewide campaign committee in 2000 known as the No on Knight initiative that was unsuccessful in defeating Proposition 22, which defined marriage in California as being between a man and a woman. Chavez became close friends with Mike Marshall, the gay man who led the fight against Prop 22.

In her childhood she lost a gay relative to AIDS who was not out to their entire family. At college a very close friend come out to her as gay even though he was afraid it would end their friendship, recalled Chavez, who attended San Jose State University.

"I could hear the pain in his voice when he said it," she told the B.A.R. "It was so deep — I am getting a little emotional as it's been a long time since I thought about him. So deep was his experience of rejection he had already faced that really made me stop and think about my own thinking about human sexuality.

"My own thinking was would someone really reject a friend because they were gay? It is one of the most outstanding moments for me," Chavez continued.

San Jose City Councilmember Matt Mahan marched in the Silicon Valley Pride parade last month. Photo: Courtesy the candidate  

Mahan, who was endorsed in August by Liccardo and received the endorsement of the San Jose Mercury News earlier this year, has attracted the backing of numerous community leaders, some of whom are LGBTQ. His friend from high school, Jeremy Avila, is personally supporting Mahan for mayor.

A gay man who was vice president of BAYMEC when it endorsed Chavez in the spring, Avila explained to the B.A.R. that he is backing Mahan due to their 24-year-long friendship. They met in high school in San Jose.

"From day one he has always demonstrated and proven himself to be someone who cares about equality, justice, and about treating people with dignity and respect. What goes hand in hand with that is Matt's diligence and a real desire to always see the right thing happen," said Avila, stressing he was speaking for himself and not on behalf of BAYMEC, which he continues to belong to as a member. "I am supporting him because I know the type of person that he is and the values that he holds. That's what drives me to want to see him succeed."

Mahan, who grew up in Watsonville, noted he has long spoken out on behalf of LGBTQ rights going back to when he attended the Jesuit-run Bellarmine College Preparatory school in San Jose on a low-income scholarship program. He said he used his platform as a student government leader to address the homophobia his fellow classmates faced.

"The issue of inclusivity, particularly around sexual orientation and gender identity, has been personal for me since high school. I had very close friends bullied by unaccepting, intolerant classmates," recalled Mahan, because they were either perceived to be gay or had come out.

At Harvard, where he was student body president, Mahan said he purposefully attended the first same-sex weddings performed at Cambridge City Hall on May 17, 2004 when marriage equality took effect in Massachusetts.

"I took flak for it from conservative groups on campus. This was nearly 20-plus years ago," said Mahan. "When I ran for student body president at Harvard, I had the endorsement of the LGBTQ club. I worked with them to get the first gender-neutral bathrooms at Harvard."

Throughout his professional career as an educator in San Jose and as an executive at several tech companies, Mahan said he continued to support LGBTQ issues. While working in San Francisco, he recounted supporting an employee who faced a difficult time transitioning their gender.

"We made every effort we could to accommodate and create a flexible and supportive work environment," said Mahan.

A tight race
Their election is expected to be a tight race, with both candidates confident of their chances. Polling released in early September by Mahan's campaign found the race to be statistically tied with Mahan at 37% and Chavez at 38%, with 25% of voters undecided. The telephone poll of 674 likely voters, conducted in English and Vietnamese, had a margin of sampling error of ±4%.

Mahan is banking on voters wanting a fresh perspective and political independence at City Hall.

"My opponent has a lot of relationships built up over 30 years and a record of failed policies on homelessness, housing, and public safety," he told the B.A.R., adding that "I think it is time, and think most voters feel it is time, for fresh leadership."

Chavez is counting on the relationships, both political and personal, she has built over her years of elected service to help her finally achieve her goal of leading San Jose as its third female mayor.

"I am very excited. One of the best parts of being a candidate is I go out to all these events and house parties where you get a chance to hear people's hopes, dreams, concerns, and their thoughts and ideas on solutions," said Chavez. "It is kind of a tremendous honor. It helps me to imagine a city where everybody belongs."

UPDATED 9/23/22to clarify that Jeremy Avila was BAYMEC vice president when it endorsed Chavez and is now just a member of the organization.

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