San Jose’s elected leaders most agree on the city’s biggest challenges: homelessness, exorbitant rents, a jobs-housing imbalance and the fate of small businesses in a worsening pandemic. They’re just conflicted about how to solve them.
After a few-year stretch marked by split votes between Mayor Sam Liccardo’s business-aligned majority and the labor-endorsed so-called Latino Caucus, however, the balance of power on the 11-member City Council is about to tilt in the other direction.
David Cohen’s impending ouster of Lan Diep in D4—where Cohen holds a lead of nearly 3 percentage points with 87 percent of ballots counted as of Monday night—flips the one-vote advantage from business to labor.
Still, the presumed councilor-elect, who felt confident enough to declare victory on Sunday, said he won’t reflexively close ranks around any faction
“The expectation has been that there’s six votes and then five the other way,” Cohen said in a recent phone call with San Jose Inside. “But I hope we can change the dynamic, and that people who assumed before that they have that vote lined up will have to work with the other side and reach more consensus.”
Over the past few years, debates about whether to tackle the housing crisis by upping fees for developers or extending tax breaks to incentivize new construction have culminated in 6-5 votes, with Mayor Liccardo’s bloc preferring to cut red tape and dissenters favoring subsidies for low-income housing. The same rift emerged from conversations about rent control, budget equity and expanding the city’s mayoral powers.
In the months leading up to the election, the divisions again came to the fore in conversations about so-called Opportunity Housing, a plan to densify residential development in San Jose by upzoning single-family neighborhoods to allow fourplexes.
The Silicon Valley Organization (SVO), which represents the city’s developer and business interests, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep Councilwoman Dev Davis in D6. In the March primary, the group endorsed Matt Mahan as successor to Johnny Khamis in District 10, which encompasses Almaden Valley.
Diep’s departure deprives the mayor and his SVO cohort of a reliable vote. But the council’s latest ideological realignment—and Mahan leaning more toward the center than his predecessor—may necessitate more bridge-building going forward.
For Liccardo, that could mean recruiting his next vice mayor from across the aisle.
“The whole balance has shifted to the point that I think these groups will be forced to work together and really collaborate to get things done,” Cohen remarked. “I think we’ll have a better council because of it.”
For the several weeks remaining until the council’s official changing of the guard, Cohen said he’ll focus on staffing up his district office.
In a Facebook video posted on his candidate page over the weekend, the soon-to-be D4 rep announced some of those prospective hires.
Campbell Union High School trustee Stacey Brown will lead his transition team, which also includes San Jose Planning Commissioner Rolando Bonilla, campaign adviser Johnson Tran and Sergio Jimenez policy aide Helen Chapman.
“I want district staff to reflect the community,” Cohen said.
He campaigned on incentivizing below-market-rate housing, carbon-neutral building retrofits and realizing the city’s long-held plans to create urban villages around BART stations and other transit hubs, and Cohen said his team will now start figuring out how to translate his platform into policy proposals.
Though he has yet to state a public position on Opportunity Housing and where in San Jose he thinks it should go, Cohen will have to grappled with that issue in the coming months as well. In August, a general plan task force recommended studying the feasibility of densifying more of the city, where 94 percent of neighborhoods are zoned for single-family homes. The council is expected to consider that proposal next spring.
Then there’s the pandemic. With the Covid-19 outbreak about to get worse before it gets better, Cohen said he’s also bracing for painful decisions about budget cuts and how to steer San Jose through this next year’s inevitable economic fallout.
It’s a tough time to step into this kind of role, Cohen acknowledged, but it reminds him of his first stint in public office: a 14-year run as Berryessa Union School District trustee that began in 2006, spanned the Great Recession and led to multiple re-elections.
“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “But I learned how to find opportunity in the face of difficulty.”