Cindy Chavez and Matt Mahan Headed to Runoff in San José Mayoral Race

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Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, left, and San José City Councilmember Matt Mahan will face each other in San José's November mayoral election. (Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí/KQED)

Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez took the lead in San José's mayoral primary Tuesday, easily advancing to the November runoff, where she will face City Councilmember Matt Mahan for the top job in America's 10th-largest city.

The first round of results showed Chavez with about 40% of votes, compared to Mahan's 32%. Third-place finisher Dev Davis, also a city councilmember, trailed Mahan by some 22 points.

The runoff between Chavez and Mahan presents a contrast of candidates running on experience and change.

Chavez first ran for mayor in 2006, after two terms on the city council, losing to Chuck Reed that year. In her run this year, Chavez has focused on her work on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, where she has served since 2013. In particular, she touts the county's landmark affordable housing bond — Measure A — and its acquisition of O’Connor Hospital in San José, which faced potential closure.

"What I want people to understand is experience matters and it particularly matters when you can line up accomplishments. Because what faces this city in the future is so significant and so big," Chavez said on election night.

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Mahan, meanwhile, has promised to shake up city government, if elected, with a plan to tie councilmember and department-head raises to metrics measuring progress on reducing homelessness and crime. After co-founding Brigade, an app for civic engagement and political debate, Mahan was elected to the city council in 2020, representing Almaden Valley. As a mayoral candidate, he has vowed to reduce development fees and avoid levying new taxes on businesses as part of his effort to bring more jobs downtown.

"I think voters want real change, and I think they want accountability for results," Mahan said. "And this November, they're going to get a real choice between [me and] someone who's been in the public eye for 30 years, and elected office for nearly 20, and has pushed much of the same policies that have us where we are today."

Mahan’s pro-business platform puts him and Chavez on opposite sides of the business-labor divide that has long framed politics in the city. Before her election to the board of supervisors, Chavez ran the powerful South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council.

For the most part, that divide steered the millions of dollars of outside spending that poured into the race. While Chavez and Mahan's campaigns each spent north of $900,000, independent expenditure committees backed by the Labor Council and the San Jose Police Officers’ Association spent a combined $680,620 to bolster Chavez’s candidacy. Local business leader Carl Guardino and the San Francisco 49ers also threw their weight behind Chavez, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to air digital and cable ads backing the supervisor.

Meanwhile, a super PAC created by current mayor Sam Liccardo brought together tech and developer dollars to spend $360,373 in support of Mahan.

Those resources helped Chavez and Mahan outpace Dev Davis and Raul Peralez, the other two elected officials in the field.

"They were able to do a lot of mailers and a lot more ads because of that outside money," Davis said on Tuesday night. "And so it definitely gets in front of people's eyes much more."

Davis, whose District 6 council seat centers on Willow Glen, ran on a platform of what she called “tough love,” with a pledge to ban homeless encampments, staff up the city’s police force and strongly protect single-family zoning. During her tenure, Davis has chided her fellow councilmembers for pursuing legislation that requires gun owners to purchase insurance and allows noncitizens to vote.

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Peralez, a former city police officer who represents downtown on the council, hoped to challenge Chavez for the progressive vote. He garnered support from YIMBY groups with his push for more state involvement in housing laws, and promised to expand sanctioned homeless encampments and push for free public transit for lower-income residents and students.

"Having my roots here in the city have I think allowed me to be a voice for some of our communities that traditionally has not had that voice," Peralez said on Tuesday, while adding "It's sobering, disappointing not to be in the runoff."

The top priority of whoever wins the race in November likely will be tackling the city’s worsening homelessness crisis. San José’s unhoused population has grown by 11% since 2019, according to the latest point-in-time count, and the federal government has pressured the city to clear its largest encampment, located on city land south of the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport. In his 2021 state of the city address, Liccardo called homelessness “our greatest failure.”

As part of San José’s weak-mayor system, the mayor has just one vote on the city council on major policy issues. But the winner of the November runoff nonetheless will have an opportunity to leave an indelible mark on the Bay Area’s largest city — where major downtown development projects, like Google’s Downtown West development and the planned BART extension to Diridon Station, are expected to break ground in the next decade.

San José voters on Tuesday also appeared likely to approve Measure B, a proposal to shift future mayoral elections to presidential election years. That change will force the next mayor to go back on the ballot in just two years. But it also opens the possibility for that candidate to additionally serve two four-year terms, amounting to up to 10 years in office — the longest mayoral tenure in city history.