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San Jose mayoral hopefuls spar over homelessness, public safety

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With their closely fought race heading into its final stretch, San Jose mayoral contenders Cindy Chavez and Matt Mahan sparred Wednesday over homelessness and public safety, critical concerns in the Bay Area’s largest city as it chooses its first new leader in eight years.

Chavez, a Santa Clara County supervisor and former San Jose vice mayor making a second bid for the top job, told a packed crowd at Rotary Club of San Jose that the city hasn’t moved fast enough to increase police staffing that fell during battles over pension costs a decade ago.

“When I served on the City Council, San Jose was the safest big city in America,” said Chavez, who represented the city’s downtown district from 1999-2006. But today, she said, the city has hundreds fewer officers than it did then.

Chavez, a former labor leader who’s backed by the city’s police officer union, said that while the council has approved a budget that will add more officers, the city needs to “move more quickly” in building up the force.

Mahan, a San Jose City Council member since 2020 and former technology entrepreneur backed by outgoing Mayor Sam Liccardo, said he was “all for adding more officers.” But he said the city’s ability to afford additional police has been hampered by the costs of benefit increases Chavez and other council members had approved years ago. And he said the size of the force isn’t all there is to public safety, adding that officers he’s spoken with complain about their frustration with a cycle of repeat offenders.

“We’ve been far too slow,” Mahan said, in “investing in appropriate interventions for repeat offenders.”

However, despite the perceptions over rising crime, the trends aren’t so clear. Over the last decade, city police data show San Jose’s violent crime rate per 100,000 people, including murder, rape and robbery, is higher, but the property crime rate, including burglary, larceny and vehicle theft is lower than it has been since 2012.

While the lunchtime debate drew intense interest from the city’s elite, the mayoral contest is mainly being fought through a flood of mailers inundating local mailboxes. But the incendiary and often negative quality of that mail can leave voters wondering which way to turn for positive leadership — something Mahan and Chavez sought to portray Wednesday.

One of the clearest delineations of their differences came on the issue of homelessness. Mahan said other cities such as New York that have even worse problems with homelessness are doing a better job than San Jose at getting people off the streets. San Jose is putting too much faith in costly long-term affordable housing as a solution instead of emergency shelter, he said.

“We need to end the era of encampments,” Mahan said. “There’s a lot we can do to move faster. I have not seen the level of pragmatism we need to see, given the crisis on the streets.”

Chavez countered that “the problem is deep, complex and wrapped in human suffering,” something she said she’s been working on for years while Mahan “joined this revolution very late” and doesn’t fully understand what’s being done regionally to address it. She added that shelters and other transitional accommodations alone cannot solve the problem, which is why it is essential to construct affordable housing as well.

“I don’t want people in our community to give up faith and hope that we can get this job done,” Chavez said. “In 2015 we created, with all of our cities, an approach that has started to get people housed. … We’re not waiting at all. … Nobody believes the status quo is OK.”

The debate, moderated by former Mercury News editorial page editor Barbara Marshman, also touched on spending in the race by special interests organized as independent political committees, including business and real estate interests backing Mahan and labor and businesses, including the San Francisco 49ers, backing Chavez.

Mahan said that the majority of special interest money has gone to Chavez and that such organizations don’t invest in a politician “without expecting something in return.” He said “I don’t think we should do favors for our political backers” and that the business owners supporting him are “tired of politics as usual where the answer to everything is another tax, another program.”

Chavez said her vote’s not for sale and that she’s proud of her support from the NFL team — which has said it liked her leadership in the pandemic response during which its Levi’s Stadium became a mass vaccination site — and other businesses, which often have opposed candidates like her linked to organized labor.

“I would not have run again had I not had a broad section of the community supporting me,” Chavez said. “We need to do a better job of working together.”


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