As part of San Jose Inside’s ongoing election coverage, we’ve brought you overviews of San Jose’s District 2 and District 4 races—two of five seats up for grabs on the 11-member City Council. In this installment, we focus on D6, where Councilwoman Dev Davis faces three opponents: Jake Tonkel, Marshall Woodmansee and Ruben Navarro.
District 6 has traditionally been known as one of the most politically active and affluent parts of the city. Its boundaries encompass Willow Glen, the historic Rose Garden, Santana Row and The Alameda, a re-urbanized neighborhood filled with eateries, shops and coffee houses. The district is bordered by downtown San Jose to the east, Santa Clara to the north and Campbell to the southwest.
In recent years, residents have grappled with an uptick of car and home break-ins, which has put public safety at the forefront of many voters’ minds. The district also spills into the western part of downtown, where Google plans to build a mega-campus over the next decade. The tech titan’s grand plans for the Diridon Station area have sparked concerns about affordability and displacement as well.
Forty-one-year-old Dev Davis says she hopes to win her re-election by expanding on her most pressing first-term priorities.
A 16-year San Jose resident, Davis lives in North Willow Glen with her husband Chris and their two adopted children. Before venturing into politics, Davis worked as a researcher for Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. She also holds a bachelors degree in economics and a master’s in public and education policy and organization and leadership from the university.
A self-described fiscal conservative, Davis said she decided to run for office back in 2016 after witnessing the impact of un-funded services on residents.
As an ally of business-friendly Mayor Sam Liccardo, Davis has supported his goal of building 25,000 housing units over a five-year-span. That may seem like a moonshot, but she says reaching that benchmark is a matter of figuring out what “levers” to pull.
“We can’t build [homes] ourselves,” she says. “But we do influence policy that either incentivizes or disincentives people to build.”
She points to San Jose’s incentives for building backyard cottages, known as accessory dwelling units (ADUs), as a case in point.
“We’ve basically deregulated backyard units,” she says “and we’ve seen a doubling every year … in the number of applications for ADUs.”
Davis says she also plans on “making a dent” in San Jose’s homeless population. The 2019 point-in-time count saw a spike in the number of unhoused people throughout Santa Clara County, with more than 6,000 of them in San Jose alone.
Last year the D6 rep faced backlash for trying to relocate Hope Village—a sanctioned homeless encampment—to Willow Glen. The plan fell through, but Davis says it taught her that, “it’s really important to be having these discussions all the time, not just when there’s a project because people do have ideas about what they want to see.”
On the charity front, Davis says she’ll continue to collaborate with local groups like the Winter Faith Collaborative, an interfaith group that provides services for unhoused people, including safe parking in church lots.
If re-elected, Davis says she would fund LUCAS chest compression devices—which automate CPR—for the remaining San Jose Fire Department engines. She says she first learned about the tools at a training in her first six months in office.
“It’s life-saving,” she says. “I’ve asked for them every year and I’ve always asked for a certain dollar amount so we can put them on more engines. The fire department is prioritizing the engines that get the most medical calls.”
Davis, who left the Republican party because of President Trump, faces three progressive challengers in the March 3 contest.
Jake Tonkel, 29, who works as a research and design engineer for a local biotech startup, has lived in D6 on and off since 2011.
After graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, he spent two-and-a half years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. He sees his work in the Peace Corps as a “huge parallel to being an elected official” because of the way he had to listen to and collaborate with community members in the North African nation.
For the past two years, Tonkel has focused on environmental and community investment policy as the head of the South Bay Public Banking Action Team—a local branch of the California Public Banking Alliance.
Tonkel is the only Green Party candidate running for the non-partisan office. He says he registered with the party when he turned 18 “because it was the only group of people in politics talking about how much [is] spent globally on war and what benefit that money could do for communities, education, healthcare and infrastructure.”
If elected to the City Council, Tonkel says he would make it his top priority to address the inequalities that divide San Jose. To close the gap, the D6 hopeful says the city needs to apply an “equity lens” to every policy, including those related to the environment.
“When we create a Climate Smart San Jose Plan and then don’t address equity where we go around and ask people to change their water heater and put insulation in their home and don’t help them fund it … you’re almost always going to make the wrong decision for the long-term health of our city,” he says.
Meanwhile, he adds, the city’s community outreach to ensure that all residents are included in the political process could use some improvement. Over the years, he says he’s noticed that the same small group of people tend to show up at every meeting. To fix that, he says council members should knock on doors and talk to constituents between elections—not just when they’re trying to win another term.
“We don’t have council members who want to get more voices into the conversation and that’s not hard to do,” Tonkel says. “It’s about really wanting to represent people and really wanting to be fair to everyone that’s in the district. … The city sends out warning letters 500 feet north, south, east and west of the project and then the other 200 members of the community just have to find out through [other] ways.”
At the beginning of his campaign, Tonkel signed a tenant’s rights pledge and has sworn off donations over $200 from developers, lobbyists, real estate and big business. He has also vowed to refuse money from corporate and super PACs.
At 19-years-old, Woodmansee is the youngest candidate running for San Jose City Council this year—by far. Despite his young age, he boasts a near-decade-long record of community organizing. He says he first got involved with politics at the age of 7 when his parents brought him along to local government meetings.
In eighth grade and throughout high school he participated in the YMCA Youth and Government program, spending a week each year engrossed in mock government in California’s capitol. More recently, Woodmansee interned in the office of Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) and founded Project Now SJ, a youth grassroots organization that has lobbied for climate change action and better public transit.
When searching for solutions to help San Jose’s growing homeless population, Woodmansee says he determined that the city needs to pursue “simpler housing options that actually are successful in taking the people off the streets.” As city leaders push to increase San Jose’s housing stock, he says he wants to build more tiny homes and institute other intermediary solutions such as sanctioned tent encampments.
But Woodmansee’s plans call for a bit of a green thumb as well.
“We have to start thinking about urban agriculture as well, and having these sanctioned tent encampments and tiny home villages providing unhoused people … with the opportunity to grow and garden,” he says.
Woodmansee’s campaign is also putting Silicon Valley’s struggling public transportation system and increasingly dangerous roads under the microscope. “We have to start moving toward lifestyles that focus around mass transit and biking and walking,” he says. “But I can’t tell my neighbors to do that because, currently, it’s either two hours to get anywhere on the bus or train or your life is threatened from just being on a bike.”
The youthful candidate is a staunch advocate of Vision Zero—a global initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities—and says he wants the city to focus on designing, or redesigning, streets that are safer for pedestrians and cyclists. He also believes that the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority should reallocate 2016 Measure B funds away from high expansions and instead use the money to improve public transit.
While most candidates are equipped with a slew of staff members out on the campaign trail, Woodmansee says he’s doing this all on his own, in part because he hopes to show other young people that it’s possible for them to run, too. “The system isn’t meant for people to run unless you have a dedicated campaign manager and a campaign treasurer and you have a paid advisor who can run you through all the steps,” he says. “I chose not to because I’m creating a campaign that is replicable by anybody.”
Ruben Navarro was the last to jump into the D6 race. The 44-year-old says he made the last-minute decision because he believed none of the challengers could topple such a deeply-rooted and well-financed incumbent.
A San Jose Housing and Community Development commissioner, Navarro ran for the seat in 2016 ago but took fourth in the primary behind Davis, Helen Chapman and Norm Kline. Back then, he says he had little name recognition. This year, however, is different—especially since he scooped up the coveted Santa Clara County Democratic Party endorsement.
Navarro has lived on and off in D6 for more than 40 years. He and his wife, Olivia, are now raising their three kids in the very neighborhood where the couple grew up.
The D6 challenger touts a background in tech sales and a tireless work ethic, which he traces back to the age of 13 when he snagged his first job at the San Jose Flea Market.
Navarro also points to a long history of community involvement. In 2017, he says he helped victims displaced by the Coyote Creek flood. He has also volunteered for the 2018 Measure T campaign and participated in the Willow Glen Police Activities League as a coach and commissioner.
Between his experience in tech, his blue-collar past and the time he spent as a young man sleeping in his car and couch surfing, Navarro says he’s one of the most relatable candidates in the race. “I’m able to communicate with the homeless person that’s in the room and I’m able to also communicate with the billionaire that’s in that room,” he says.
One of Navarro’s top priorities is to ensure the city enacts a commercial linkage fee, which would raise money from non-residential development to fund affordable housing. “It’s kind of a no-brainer when other cities have that,” he says. “I think [there’s] this whole fallacy about if [the fee’s there], developers aren’t going to build. …What we do need to evaluate is what that fee is and what are we looking to develop.”
Instead of just throwing millions of dollars at building housing for San Jose’s homeless, Navarro says he to focus some of those resources on preventative measures to stop people from losing their homes in the first place. “It’s almost like healthcare,” he argues. “Preventative medicine is a lot cheaper for our society versus somebody that’s at the ER and having the public pay for that.”
If elected, Navarro says that his leadership style will differ from that of the current D6 council member. For example, he says that he would have held on to the 10.5 acres of public land that San Jose sold to Google and instead lease it to the tech giant. Navarro also says that, unlike Davis and her cohorts, he would have refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement with the Mountain View-based corporation.
San Jose State political science professor and CreaTV’s Valley Politics host Terry Christensen predicts a clear win for Davis. “She’s been a strong participant on the City Council,” he says. “She’s part of the mayor’s majority. She’s very visible to her district.”
However, given the number of challengers, he says he’s unsure if Davis can garner the 50 percent-or-more vote needed to win the race outright.
The business-aligned councilwoman’s biggest challenger at the moment, he said, is Tonkel, who claims support from the South Bay Labor Council. He predicts that Navarro will prove popular with Latino voters and Woodmansee with young people.
Depending on how many votes from those demographics each of those challengers can accumulate, Christensen said, they may very well may push Davis into a runoff.