San Jose City Council LGBTQ drought could end

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday May 18, 2022
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Congressmember Ro Khanna, left, has endorsed Omar Torres for a San Jose City Council seat. Photo: Courtesy Omar Torres campaign
Congressmember Ro Khanna, left, has endorsed Omar Torres for a San Jose City Council seat. Photo: Courtesy Omar Torres campaign

A 16-year drought of LGBTQ representation on the council of the Bay Area's largest city could come to an end this year. It is up to the voters in San Jose's 3rd council district to decide if the South Bay city will have its second out councilmember in its history.

In 2000, Ken Yeager was elected as the first gay councilmember of California's third largest city. He departed in 2006 when he became the first, and so far only, out member of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

This year, gay Democratic Party regional director Omar Torres is running for the open 3rd council district seat to represent downtown San Jose, including his alma mater San Jose State University, and the Japantown, Washington-Guadalupe, and Spartan Keys neighborhoods. The incumbent, City Councilmember Raul Peralez, is termed out and running to be mayor; he has endorsed Torres to succeed him on the council.

Torres graduated from San Jose State in 2011 with a bachelor's degree in political science and a minor in public administration. Like recently appointed gay San Francisco District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey, Torres is open about his struggles with alcohol and drug addictions and has been clean and sober for more than five years.

"I have stayed in San Jose because this is the city that has made me who I am today. I am a working-class activist fighting for progressive ideals," Torres, 40, a renter in Japantown who grew up in Washington-Guadalupe, told the Bay Area Reporter. "The challenges that we have are of great concern. But I know our strength and diversity is beautiful and strong, and that is why I choose to stay in the city of San Jose."

Four other candidates are also on the June 7 primary ballot for the council seat. The San Jose Mercury News has endorsed attorney Joanna Rauh, 40, as did San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and the San Jose Police Officers' Association.

Also in the race are intellectual property attorney Elizabeth Chien-Hale, 60, president of the San Jose Downtown Residents Association; mediator Irene Smith, 61, a volunteer attorney with Santa Clara County's Pro Bono Project; and health care worker Ivan Torres, 38, a progressive who unsuccessfully ran in 2020 against Congressmember Zoe Lofgren (D).

With so many candidates, it is not expected that anyone will be able to secure more than 50% of the vote to win the seat outright next month. Thus, it is expected that the top two vote-getters will face off on the November general election ballot.

Torres, an elected member on the board of the San Jose Evergreen Community College District, is confident of his surviving the primary race.

"I am hitting the pavement. I have been entrenched in this community for over 25 years," said Torres. "I have the name recognition. I hope to make it to the runoff; from a bird's-eye view, it looks like I will."

He is the lone candidate with elected office experience — prior to serving on the college board, Torres was on the board of a local K-8 public school district — and has experience working inside City Hall, as he served as District 5 City Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco's community relations director then as her deputy chief of staff.

He left last July, expecting to take several months off, but saw the San Jose Downtown Association was looking for a business resiliency manager. He was hired and began in the position last August.

The Santa Clara County Democratic Party, South Bay Labor Council, and Carrasco have all endorsed Torres, as has San Jose mayoral candidate Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez. Also backing him are several LGBTQ groups and leaders, including statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality California, the LGBTQ Latino-led HONOR PAC, and BAYMEC, the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee that focuses on electing LGBTQ people and straight allies to office in the South Bay region. Gay Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Campbell) endorsed Torres, as did Yeager.

"I am very excited about his prospects and would love to see him on the City Council," Yeager told the B.A.R., pointing to his breadth of experience and long ties to the district. "I just know he can deliver. Plus, he grew up in the neighborhood and so understands the economic issues in the lower income areas."

Torres' family has called San Jose home since the 1960s. Both sets of his grandparents migrated to the U.S. from Mexico, with one relocating to California first and the other to El Paso, Texas. His mom and dad, who were both born in Texas, moved to San Jose and found work in the local canneries.

His father died in 2006, while his mother lives lives in the Gardner area of San Jose and now works for a medical device company. Torres first landed a job with the city of San Jose in 2001 as a recreation leader and held various municipal positions before being tapped as executive director of the Santa Maria Urban Ministry in 2012. He led the nonprofit that focuses on low-income families for nearly three years until joining Carrasco's staff in January 2015.

Critic of mayor

Torres has been critical of Liccardo, who is termed out of office this year, and how he has handled various issues from housing to the BART extension into downtown San Jose.

"I am not supportive of Sam Liccardo. I think he has failed our city when it comes to building housing, especially affordable housing for our unhoused, teachers, veterans, and so forth," said Torres.

Supportive of seeing both BART and the state's high-speed rail system come into downtown San Jose, Torres said it is also important for the city to build more housing along the transit corridors. He believes the city could better promote first-time homebuyers programs and should strengthen its rent control rules while lowering its cap on annual rent increases, currently at 5%.

With developers and tech companies proposing major development in the downtown area, Torres also wants to ensure the projects include affordable housing in addition to market-rate units.

"I strongly believe the county and city can not deal with our unhoused crisis on their own. Tech companies do have to step it up when it comes to making sure we are housing our unhoused," said Torres.

UPDATED 5/23/22 to clarify that Omar Torres' mother still lives in San Jose.

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