Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager’s terming-out has left the District 4 race wide open, drawing seven candidates vying for the vacant seat. While many of the contenders agree about the core issues faced by the county, they diverge in their ideas on how to address them. Here’s a look at who’s running and why.
The Kid’s Champ
Susan Ellenberg, 51, has served as president of the San Jose Unified School District board since 2014. She is a social justice teacher at Yavneh Day School and earned a doctorate in law from Columbia University Law School.
All the work she has done, Ellenberg says, is “focused on engaging communities with an emphasis on advocacy.” She says she will champion policies that prioritize families.
Ellenberg says she wants an emphasis on early childhood development, ensuring that children have stable housing and good nutrition. She says schools are a “microcosm of the county.” By changing the Sheriff’s Office, Ellenberg says she can better serve the county’s most vulnerable people.
While Ellenberg says she doesn’t support a “no consequences” approach, she believes in putting more “diversionary” programs in place to keep mothers and children together.
“Women who are in Elmwood [Correctional Facility] on any given day are waiting for trial or a judicial decision for low-level, nonviolent crimes,” she says. “We are traumatizing another generation of kids.”
Another issue that needs more attention, Ellenberg says, is environmental sustainability. She says the county should be instilling in children an appreciation of nature. She says the county is “sorely lacking stewards.”
Although she says she doesn’t want votes simply because she is a woman, Ellenberg says having a more “diverse population” in government leads to “objectively better results,” increasing transparency and making governing processes more “outcome oriented” as opposed to “personality driven.”
Ellenberg has the endorsement of the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee—an LGBTQ advocacy group founded by Yeager, Santa Clara County League of Conservation Voters, National Women’s Political Caucus of Silicon Valley, and Democratic Activists for Women Now (known as DAWN).
The Labor Darling
Don Rocha, 49, worked for the San Jose Redevelopment Agency for six years, before its dissolution in 2011 and now serves on the San Jose City Council, representing District 9. He served on the Cambrian School District board before his election to the council, where his final term ends in December.
Rocha says he decided to run for supervisor to bolster programs for those in need.
“The world is not just about me,” he says. “I am in a position to make sure nobody steps on the little guy.”
If elected, Rocha says, he will push for more cooperation between cities, adding that the area is “ripe for a regional approach” to governing. There is too much emphasis placed on invisible boundaries, he says. Reinstating a committee made up of planning commissioners and city council members from area cities would go a long way toward that goal, he says.
Partnerships are important, Rocha says. Whether it is with the Sheriff’s Office or the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, he says he wants to nudge the boards to engage regional stakeholders. He says none of the partnerships in the area are “serving as well as it could or it should.”
“There is no reason for us not to be on the same page,” Rocha says.
But he acknowledged that striking a balance between cooperation and results is paramount.
Improving residents’ quality of life by increasing the quality of libraries, community centers and parks is also a priority, Rocha says. County parks are underused, he adds.
Rocha shares the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee endorsement with Ellenberg. He also has the endorsement of four San Jose City Council members and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Silicon Valley.
The Business Pick
Pierlugi Oliverio, 48, is a former San Jose City Council member, where in his three terms he served on more than 20 boards and commissions before terming out. Since then, he has been working as a field service engineer for a tech company.
During his tenure on the City Council, he says he acquired a “high level” perspective of the issues facing the county. He says that job got him accustomed to “constructive criticism” and “creative problem solving.”
The county’s core responsibilities have been neglected, he says. By focusing on mental health, Oliverio says the board can help alleviate police officers’ having to deal with the county’s homeless population, making us “all better off.”
Bringing persistent focus back the board is also a priority, he says. Discussions about important issues usually only happen for short periods, “usually after some big tragedy, like a mass shooting,” he says, then quickly dissipate.
Though he enjoys support form the region’s business lobby, the Silicon Valley Organization, he says he’s the only candidate who can remain independent and not beholden to one interest group because he didn’t seek a union endorsement. Striving for fiscal efficiency, he aims to follow through on his commitments and eschew over-promising while under-delivering on issues such as traffic, education and housing.
“Residents don’t know what the county does, so [other candidates] make promises to do things that they have no authority over,” he says. “It might make good politics, but it is bad government.”
The Transit Wonk
Jason Baker, 47, is the former mayor of Campbell. He is a former wildlands firefighter and has worked as a lawyer.
Like many other candidates, he says “affordable” housing is a sticking point at the county level. He disagrees with Oliverio’s statement about housing and traffic not being under the purview of the Board of Supervisors.
While the board could do more to add housing in the unincorporated areas of the county—the only place the board can directly affect housing—he says the board’s role in funding transportation is key, saying that the county can “tie transportation dollars to affordable housing.” Doing so would help mitigate traffic congestion and reduce housing costs.
“Affordable housing isn’t just about being nice to people who can’t afford a home,” Baker says. “It is about our survival as a region. … If we don’t help solve some of those problems, we may lose what we got going.”
The biggest problems facing the county, he says, are regional; they require regional solutions. By taking a “regional approach,” Baker says, all cities will benefit.
He says he has shown leadership on “common sense” gun safety, adding that the county has done a good job “standing up to the Trump administration” on LGBT and immigration issues.
“The government nationally is doing so wrong,” he says. “I believe we can do better here, and we should.”
Baker has the endorsements of the mayors of Morgan Hill, Campbell, Cupertino, Los Altos, Mountain View and Sunnyvale.
Mike Alvarado is a self-described grassroots candidate. The 57-year-old IT veteran also runs a small, family-owned car wash. His campaign is self-funded because he says it is “not really right” to accept contributions when running for local election, adding that it invites corruption and that he will not be “tied down by supporters.”
“I just don’t think you can be effective in your job if you are hamstrung by special interest,” he says.
Although he is a no-money candidate, Alvarado says he believes none of the candidates will be aggressive enough on the issues, adding that none of them are real heavyweights. He says he wants to go further than any of his competitors.
To help address the housing crisis, the county should build housing on the unused lots in unincorporated areas, Alvarado says.
On transportation, Alvarado says the county should work to extend BART and Caltrain farther south. He says nobody has done enough to mitigate traffic in the county or increase transportation. In addition to alleviating traffic, he says the county should be extending freeways.
While he pointed to medical care in the county as an issue, Alvarado was specific in saying infectious disease, notably tuberculosis, needs more attention.
Maria Hernandez is another no-money candidate. Her knowledge of the issues, she says, makes her the best pick for District 4. She works in marketing and public relations.
Hernandez, 40, proudly proclaims that she has “no political pedigree,” saying she decided to run for supervisor because, unlike some, she legitimately wants to help.
“My point of view is that if I wanted to be a career politician, I would have started a long time ago,” she says.
Her decision to run as a no-money candidate was born out of what she calls a “lack of transparency and a waste of tax dollars,” accusing regional politicians of abuses of power. Hernandez says she will change the jails and the family courts to attack the root of the region’s inequities.
Working in marketing, Hernandez says she is “very responsible with money,” something she sees as sorely lacking in the county. Though she is not a well-known name, she hopes to set an example for those who are not career politicians that they can make a difference.
While out getting signatures to get on the ballot, Hernandez says she realized how reluctant many are to openly discuss the issues, or endorse her, because of the influence from special interests. She aims to rattle some cages, tackling the issues in a direct and earnest way, unencumbered by having to mince words.
“When you’re a career politician, you have to watch what you say,” she says. “I am not afraid to speak the truth. I never realised the amount of fear in the community.”
A political science teacher at Santa Clara High School for 21 years, Dominic Caserta has served on the Santa Clara City Council since 2014, where he has championed progressive causes such as a worker retention, a sanctuary city policy and a higher minimum wage.
As a lifelong resident and past councilor from 2004 to 2006 as well, the 43-year-old says he has a unique perspective on regional issues, adding that no one has deeper roots in the South Bay. He categorizes himself as an economic populist who wants to empower the middle class, saying he would bring a much-needed focus on social justice to the board. Additionally, he says Santa Clara—as one of the wealthiest cities in the county—deserves “a flag on the dais.”
Caserta says he wants to reform the jail and teach sheriff’s deputies de-escalation techniques. In an effort to alleviate stress on the jails and provide better law enforcement, he says the county needs to do a better job treating drug addiction and auditing and monitoring the Sheriff’s Office. Regarding social services, Caserta says the county needs to devote more resources to domestic violence and rape victims.
Adding more below-market-rate housing is also a priority, he says. When the cost of living is pricing out teachers—colleagues of his—who earn $80,000 a year, it falls to the county to add more housing to the county’s stock.
“We are losing a whole generation of public servants,” Caserta says.
More than 20 unions officially supported Caserta, who also had a split endorsement from the South Bay Labor Council, until allegations of sexual misconduct came to light earlier this week prompted the organizations to withdraw their support.
The Big Picture
Terry Christensen, professor and chair emeritus of the political science department at San Jose State University, says all four frontrunners—Ellenberg, Caserta, Rocha and Oliverio—have strong bases that have helped them get elected previously. Those bases could prove the difference in the race.
He says that “all things being equal,” Oliverio is the strongest candidate. However, he acknowledges that all things are not equal. The dropped sexual harassment suit against Oliverio could prove the difference, he says, especially against Ellenberg, who resigned as director of program operations at the Silicon Valley Organization earlier this month over SVO’s response to a political mailer regarding Oliverio.
SVO endorsed Oliverio, but a flier mailed by the Santa Clara County Government Attorneys’ Association PAC urged voters to contact CEO Matt Mahood and call him out for the endorsement.
Christensen calls Oliverio a “narrow constructionist” who wants to get “back to basics,” adding that he is less favorable to unions than Rocha or Caserta, saying those views could play poorly with a progressively liberal board. On the other hand, he notes that his “shake things up” attitude might strike a chord with voters fed up with the status quo.
Still, Christensen agrees with Oliverio’s assertion that most people are ignorant of the county’s role, saying its roles in housing and education are “somewhat minimal.”
Further, the narrative surrounding social services is largely a misnomer, Christensen says. “This county is not the one most in need of social services,” he says.
One key to the primary could be county employees and nonprofits, who rely on county money for much of their livelihood. At this stage, Christensen says, the race is very much “personality based.”
The District 4 supervisor primary is June 5.