This week’s inauguration of Republican Johnny Khamis to the San Jose City Council is a bittersweet moment for yours truly. On one hand, I’m disappointed to have worked on the losing end of the District 10 campaign last fall, and as a lifelong Democrat, I’m frustrated that my hometown’s leadership has shifted further to the right. On the other hand, we were already there, and at least this gives me something to write about.
The present council is nominally made up of nine Democrats (including Mayor Reed), and two Republicans (including Mr. Khamis). Yet an unbiased observer looking only at voting records and rhetoric would likely put the breakdown at 6 Democrats, 4 Republicans and a Libertarian. I’ll leave the peanut gallery to guess who’s who, but it doesn’t take rocket science to explain this discrepancy.
Because of the sizeable voter registration advantage built by local Democrats over the past two decades, it’s politically expedient to register as a Democrat in San Jose, regardless of one’s political or social views. This is more critical for “career” politicians thinking about higher office, but it makes little difference in local races, where a candidate’s party preference doesn’t appear on the ballot.
Contemporary San Jose elections aren’t about D vs. R. With the city’s labor-management feud at a fever pitch, union politics have come to trump partisan loyalty. In other words, it’s about L vs. C — or Labor vs. Chamber for the uninitiated. And whatever your positions on the issues or your interpretation of the electoral tea leaves, it’s clear the Ls have had a difficult time explaining their relevance to average voters over the past few cycles. Which brings us to District 10.
For those unfamiliar with the geography, District 10 is made up of Almaden and Blossom Valley as well as Vista Park and other neighborhoods of southwest San Jose. While it is considered to be one of the city’s most conservative districts, Democrats make up 42 percent of an electorate that is 27 percent Republican and 20 percent Decline to State (i.e. no political party). The district was most recently represented by Nancy Pyle, a two-term moderate Democrat.
Mr. Khamis’ opponent in the November runoff, Robert Braunstein, is also a moderate Democrat. But despite their differences in party allegiance, both were fiscal conservatives who supported the pension reform of Measure B and opposed the Measure D minimum wage hike.
The critical contrast in the race came down to L vs. C. Mr. Braunstein had the endorsement of the San Jose Police Officers Association, which Mr. Khamis did not. And while both candidates enjoyed the endorsement of the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce, the police union support was enough to tattoo a big, red “L” on Mr. Braunstein’s forehead, casting doubt on his otherwise sound candidacy in a district firmly planted in the “C” camp. Mr. Khamis eventually prevailed by 1,745 votes.
If the candidates had to list their party preference on the ballot, would the result have been any different? Perhaps. Barack Obama took home 63 percent of the vote in District 10, winning 9,324 more votes than Mr. Braunstein, his Democratic counterpart. On the flip side, Mr. Khamis topped fellow conservative Republican Mitt Romney by 4,133 votes. But there’s something even more disturbing in the numbers.
As I pointed out last month, 6,028 voters in District 10 cast a vote for President and DID NOT VOTE for city council. That’s 15 percent of the turnout, and it speaks to a lack of interest among San Jose residents when it comes to who is representing us on the 18th floor of our local ivory tower.
If you think the culprit is a brighter media spotlight on national politics, consider this: Measure D was even further down the multi-page ballot than the District 10 race, yet 3,530 voters took sides on a higher minimum wage for San Jose without voting for city council.*
With seven councilmembers and our Mayor terming out over the next four years, now is the time for those of us “in the know” and any locally elected official who cares about San Jose’s future to educate our friends and neighbors about the decisions being made for them on Tuesday afternoons, and the people making those decisions.
Peter Allen is an independent communications consultant and a native of San Jose. He is proud to be a Democrat on both the dotted line and in practice.
* Interestingly, Measure D passed by a little more than 200 votes in District 10 while winning handily citywide (59 percent — 41 percent). But as has been noted, District 10 is traditionally more conservative.