Mahan Holds Slim Lead Over Chavez in Still Undecided San José Mayor's Race

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San Jose mayoral candidate Matt Mahan.
San Jose mayoral candidate Matt Mahan hi-fives with a campaign staff member at his campaign headquarters in San Jose on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The race for San José mayor remains in the balance nearly a week after Election Day, as election officials in Santa Clara County continue to count mail ballots.

The latest results, posted Monday evening, show San José City Councilmember Matt Mahan leading Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez by 4,256 votes, or 51% to 49%. The registrar's office estimates that, countywide, 79% of ballots have been counted.

"Our democratic process is inspiring. Over 250,000 San Jose citizens thought seriously about what direction they wanted for our city before they cast their ballots," said Mahan, in a statement. "While we are hopeful that the majority of voters have chosen common sense and change, however they voted, I am deeply grateful to every person who cast their ballot."

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While Mahan won over 60% of the votes cast at the polls on Election Day, Mahan and Chavez are virtually tied as hundreds of thousands of vote-by-mail ballots continue to be processed and counted.

"This is a real close race – and we applaud the work the registrar is doing to ensure the outstanding ballots are processed and voters' voice are heard," Chavez's campaign manager Brian Parvizshahi said in a statement.

The San José mayoral race was dominated by debates over the candidates’ approaches to reducing homelessness and improving public safety — along with arguments over which of the candidates was better positioned to bring change to city government.

With decades of experience, as a San José City Council member, labor leader and, currently, Santa Clara County supervisor, Chavez touted her work funding hospitals and health services and pushing for the passage of a $950 million affordable housing bond, Measure A, in 2016.

In her first run for mayor, in 2006, Chavez was weighed down by her ties to embattled mayor Ron Gonzales. This time around, Chavez framed her candidacy as a departure from the leadership of current mayor Sam Liccardo — who endorsed Mahan — on issues such as police staffing.

Mahan ran on a vow to shake up City Hall by tying councilmember and mayoral pay to specific benchmarks on reducing crime and housing the unhoused. With just two years under his belt on the City Council, the former tech executive honed sharp attacks on Chavez’s record in local government — on housing, policing and serving residents with mental illness.

He charged the county with taking too long to enact reforms on mental health treatment, said the Chavez-backed housing bond was taking too long to show results, and tied the city’s current staffing shortages to cuts that followed generous pension votes made by Chavez in the early 2000s.

Santa Clara county supervisor Cindy Chavez
San José mayoral candidate Cindy Chavez greets a supporter on Election Day at her campaign headquarters in San José on Nov. 8, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Cost of housing was a top concern for many San José voters, including Susana Burgos, an East San José resident who has lived in the city for over 25 years and was able to vote for the first time on Election Day after her naturalization.

“Now that I’m a citizen ... we have to use our voice and vote to speak for those who cannot vote,” Burgos told KQED in Spanish. “In my work I get to talk to families every day at stores, in the supermarket, and what comes up is that housing is too expensive, that there’s not enough preschools and places for parents to leave their kids while they work.”

Mahan’s candidacy motivated Anh Nguyen, a downtown San José resident who works in the mental health sector, to become more engaged with the election.

“I tend to avoid politics because I don’t like confrontation, I don’t like debates. But I realized that in my life, I wanted to learn how to make a difference,” Nguyen told KQED. “I love [Mahan’s] consistency, his accountability, his authenticity ... I don’t trust politics, but I trust Matt.”

Óscar Quiroz-Medrano, a South San José resident who voted for Chavez, was turned off by Mahan’s attack ads.

“I think Cindy Chavez could do a lot better than Matt Mahan. From her views and how she promotes herself, I think she’s more open to alternative housing models and really open to listening to the community,” he said. “There was a lot of smear campaigns coming from Matt Mahan that I really did not like.”

Both candidates listed the hiring of more police officers as their top priority if elected. The city’s violent crime rate jumped in 2021, although the rate of property crimes like burglary and vehicle theft have been on a steady decline for a decade. The city’s police force has slowly been growing after Great Recession cuts and departures, but the department has 200 fewer positions than it did at the turn of the century. While the City Council could soon weigh whether to move internal investigations outside of the department, Chavez and Mahan focused far more attention on hiring than oversight and reform.

The centerpiece of Mahan’s platform to reduce homelessness was the construction of emergency interim housing units: prefabricated or quick-build homes for unhoused residents, often on government-owned land. Chavez argued those units would be no substitute for permanent supportive housing, where unhoused residents could receive wraparound services. Neither candidate laid out a detailed vision for how to combat neighborhood opposition that routinely quashes both short-term and permanent homeless housing.

The winner of the race will be back on the ballot in 2024, thanks to voter-approved changes aligning future mayoral elections with presidential contests. But the election reforms will allow the city’s next mayor to seek two additional terms, with the potential to serve in the city’s top job until 2033.

KQED's Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí contributed to this report.