Supporters of Dave Cortese’s unsuccessful bid to become mayor of San Jose continue to insist that San Jose is a city divided. In particular, a color-coded map of precincts has been cited as showing a demarcation that cuts straight through the middle of the city, separating affluent white voters who supported Sam Liccardo in the west from more diverse, lower-income voters who backed Cortese in the east.
But there is an underlying detail in the election analysis that has received almost no attention: incumbency.
Looking at vote totals alone, one could reason the "city divided" mantra is real, with Sam Liccardo edging out Cortese with just 50.8 percent of the vote. This reinforces the mindset of voters who were primarily motivated to support Cortese by the divisive issue of pension reform. But past elections show that close mayoral races are more often the standard in San Jose than the outlier.
Chuck Reed trounced Cindy Chavez in 2006, when he took almost 60 percent of the vote. Yet in the previous mayor's race featuring non-incumbent candidates, 1998, Ron Gonzales edged Pat Dando with just 51.17 percent of the vote. In 1994, Susan Hammer defeated Frank Fiscalini with a lesser margin than Liccardo's victory—just 50.38 percent of the vote.
Going beyond low-voter turnout this past election, which hurt Cortese more than Liccardo, the reality is that Cortese had a built-in advantage that was squandered by being an uninspiring candidate.
A Cortese has represented voters in the eastern areas of San Jose since 1969. To put that in perspective, that's the first year Richard Nixon took office as president. It's the same year the first man in history walked on the moon—unless you don't believe in that kind of thing.
Dave’s father, Dom, served on the county Board of Supervisors for an 11-year period ending in 1980. After that he served more or less the same area of San Jose for 16 years in the state Assembly, before joining Alum Rock’s school board for an additional four years starting in 1998.
Dave followed in his father’s footsteps, using the traditional starting point for a political career by joining a school board. He ran for and won a seat on the East Side Union High School District in 1992, before moving up to the San Jose City Council in 2000. Eight years in that office, followed by the past six as a county supervisor like his father, and the Corteses have a legacy that accounts for a combined 53 years of representation.
That’s the kind of name recognition money can’t buy—at least not in a single campaign. The first polling showed as much. But name recognition wasn't enough to overcome some significant strategic flaws, namely that Cortese failed to lay out a vision for San Jose beyond increasing police officer pay and benefits.
The San Jose police union also overplayed its hand, so that both candidates were on record—ad nauseam—saying that they wanted to beef up the department but had different stances on Measure B, which passed in 2012. As one of several elected officials admitted to me on Election Night, when returns showed Cortese trailing, "Most voters don't know what the [cluck] Measure B is."
The race's focus in the final weeks was a war of words about who told police officers to leave for greener pastures, and Cortese couldn't control the message—which in the end meant his campaign didn't really have one.
It's unlikely Liccardo will restore relationships with city unions, especially the police, any time soon. But repeating the mantra that the city is divided is really just a face-saving measure for the camp that fell short. It's designed to create future leverage at the negotiating table. And it's a tactic most voters don't give a [cluck] about.