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San José Labor Groups Don't Like Mayor Matt Mahan. So Why Does His Reelection Seem Assured?

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A bearded white man in a maroon sweater high-fives someone.
Matt Mahan, then a San José mayoral candidate, high-fives a campaign staffer at his campaign headquarters on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

San José Mayor Matt Mahan’s first year in office has been marked by a series of confrontations with his opponents, chiefly the city’s powerful labor unions.

Those groups denounced Mahan’s proposal to hold special elections to fill vacant City Council seats, decried his plan to redirect affordable housing funding toward homeless shelters, and castigated his vote against raises for city employees.

But now it seems increasingly likely that they could let Mahan waltz into a second term in office.

With just over three weeks until the deadline to file, no high-profile candidate has stepped forward to challenge Mahan in the March 5 mayoral election.

San José’s recent mayoral contests have typically pitted a progressive candidate supported by labor unions against a more moderate candidate supported by the business community. But at this point, few local labor-aligned politicians have the name recognition to quickly stand up a campaign — and changes to the election calendar have truncated the timeline to raise money and orchestrate a citywide campaign.

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Some political observers in the city think Mahan’s opponents are forfeiting their best opportunity to halt the mayor’s political rise.

“I think, for me, it would be easier to put up a challenge against Matt because he’s only two years in,” said Lan Diep, a former city council member. “It’s tougher once he’s had another four years under his belt because he will have a longer record, he’ll have done more for the community, he’ll have built deeper ties to neighborhoods all across the city.”

Many progressives hoped Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, a household name in the South Bay labor movement, would seek a rematch against Mahan after losing last year’s tightly-contested mayoral election. But earlier this month, Chavez told her supporters she would not make a third run for San José’s top job.

Prospective candidates still have until Dec. 8 to launch a campaign, and Jean Cohen, executive officer of the South Bay Labor Council, said she expects someone to challenge Mahan on the ballot.

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“I think because there is so much dissatisfaction, there is a great desire to ensure a public dialog occurs as voters determine who they want to select as mayor next year,” Cohen said.

But the window to launch an effective challenge is closing. Voting will begin in early February, giving any new candidates less than a month after the holidays to make their case to voters.

That compressed election calendar is partly of labor’s own making.

Last year, in an effort to boost turnout in future mayoral elections, unions in the city successfully pushed a ballot measure that moved future races for San José mayor to align with presidential elections. But labor leaders didn’t expect the beneficiary of those changes to be Mahan, who will be back on the ballot just two years after his initial upset victory and could then have the opportunity to run for a second four-year term in 2028.

Adding to the time pressure is California’s early primary in presidential election years. While a labor-backed candidate could be bolstered by outside spending from union super PACs, South Bay political strategist Brian Parvizshahi said few candidates have the connections to raise the $1 million to $2 million he estimates they’ll need before March.

“Fundraising started in August, and traditionally, this season right now is the hardest time to raise any type of funds,” Parvizshahi said. “So it is a very short turnaround time for any candidate that would run for office.”

For his part, Mahan returns to voters after a year as something of a happy warrior who has often eschewed compromise and sought to draw clear contrasts with his opponents.

“When I go back before voters, the message is that we are following through on my promise of being more focused,” Mahan said. “That was the number one thing I ran on — was that we were going to focus on reducing unsheltered homelessness, making the city safer and making the city cleaner.”

“So I’m not really running a campaign so much as focusing on solving problems and doing my day job, which is getting San José back on track,” he added.

But a dashboard of statistics piloted by Mahan in late October showed mixed results on his top priorities. The report highlighted new public safety investments, such as license-plate readers, and showcased survey data showing that most residents feel safe. But it also showed that San José’s police department continues to be plagued with a high vacancy rate, particularly in field patrol and traffic enforcement units.

Mahan has touted a decrease in the number of unhoused people on San José streets. And the city’s most recent annual point-in-time homeless survey, released in May, shows that city programs to prevent homelessness appear to be working: Roughly 95% of households receiving aid to avoid homelessness retained their housing a year later. And a similar share of households who moved from the streets into permanent or temporary shelters remained housed.

But that count reflects work done before Mahan took office in January. And the mayor’s push to open new temporary shelters has moved painfully slow. To date, Mahan has only reached about 30% of his goal to create 1,000 new shelter spaces in 2023 — and is only about halfway toward his related goal of opening 1,000 temporary housing units by the end of the year.

But without a tough reelection fight, as appears increasingly likely, Mahan can turn his attention to toppling the labor-backed majority on the council, said Diep, the former city council member. Competitive seats in the North San José and Evergreen neighborhoods are up for grabs, and labor groups are eyeing an opportunity to win the District 6 seat in Willow Glen, currently held by termed-out Councilmember Dev Davis, a moderate.

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“This election is going to be about picking up allies so he can finally get around to doing the things that the voters have sort of put him there to do,” Diep said.

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