Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez conceded defeat in the race for San José mayor Wednesday, acknowledging that San José Councilmember Matt Mahan would ascend to the top job in the nation’s 10th largest city.
New vote totals released by the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters on Tuesday showed Mahan leading Chavez by 2.64%. Chavez said she called Mahan to offer her congratulations.
"Of course I feel disappointed," Chavez said in an interview with KQED. "I was [and] am so excited to be able to serve the public."
Mahan’s victory caps a meteoric rise in city politics. The former tech executive first won office in 2020, when he was elected to a City Council seat representing Almaden Valley and Blossom Valley. Now, Mahan becomes the face of San José's response to rising homelessness and ongoing staffing shortages in city departments.
“I’m going to push for what I ran on, which is greater accountability for results,” Mahan said in an interview. “I certainly don’t believe I have all of the answers for how to solve these problems. I have a lot of ideas, but I know others do as well, and what I care about is that we are focused on the biggest problems.”
In a bitterly contested campaign, Mahan seized on voter desire for change with persistent broadsides against Chavez’s record in office and the city’s response to homelessness, while touting his own status as a newcomer to local government.
“The secret of the campaign and what I want to bet on going forward is keeping the community engaged, staying close to the community,” Mahan said. “When I was in tech we had this concept of staying close to the customer … and I want to bring that same spirit of customer service to local government, and you can expect to see me out in the community constantly doing cleanup and meeting with small-business owners and inviting people to get involved.”
Mahan rejected the focus that Chavez and other local leaders have placed on building permanent housing for the homeless, promising instead to pivot to more quick-build, temporary units. And he vowed to bring accountability to city government by tying the pay of city leaders to metrics on issues like crime.
“Matt as a candidate symbolized optimism and the potential for trying something new,” said former City Council member Lân Diệp. “And voters I guess said we want to try something new.”
For Chavez, the defeat comes despite an avalanche of outside spending on her behalf. While Mahan led Chavez in campaign fundraising and spending, independent expenditure committees backed by the South Bay Labor Council, the San Francisco 49ers, the city’s police union and business leader Carl Guardino spent more than $1.5 million to back Chavez in the general election.
Sensing voter desire for a new direction at City Hall this year, Chavez aimed to tie Mahan to his most notable supporter, current mayor Sam Liccardo — whose own super PAC spent more than $500,000 in support of Mahan.
Working within the confines of San José’s weak mayor system, Mahan will need the support of five other Council members to enact his legislative agenda. Diệp said it's important for Mahan to turn his attention to two upcoming vacancies on the Council: in District 8, where incumbent Sylvia Arenas won a seat on the county Board of Supervisors, and Mahan’s current seat in District 10.
The City Council will likely vote before the end of the year on whether to fill the seats through a Council appointment or a special election. Mahan said he prefers to see the seats filled through a special election.
“If he is able to pick up those two seats, he should be able to form a majority,” said Diệp. “But short of that, being on the City Council is about working across the aisle and building coalitions, so he won’t be able to exert force and get his way on everything.”
Voter-approved changes to the city charter will put the mayor's office back on the ballot in 2024. Chavez said her focus will remain on her work on the board of supervisors but didn't rule out a third run for mayor.
"I'm going to be interested in continuing to serve San José in whatever way makes the most sense for the community I represent," she said. "So I'm going to be very open-minded about that."