SAN JOSE -- In what is sure to be one of Silicon Valley's biggest political contests in years, the wide-open race to replace outgoing Mayor Chuck Reed is ready to begin -- giving voters a choice of staying the cost-cutting course he charted through some of San Jose's most difficult years or picking a new path forward.
The race to lead Northern California's largest city officially gets underway Thursday -- 180 days from the June primary -- when at least a half-dozen declared contenders can begin raising and spending money in a campaign expected to center on public safety and rising crime in what was once called America's safest big city.
Public safety unions and other labor groups have blamed Reed and his City Council allies for driving away cops by pushing pay and benefit cuts to balance budgets. They are putting their formidable campaign clout behind Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese, a former councilman and mayoral contender whom Reed tapped as his first vice mayor but who has since criticized Reed's style as divisive.
Cortese will face a battery of Reed loyalists on the council. They have defended the pay and benefit cuts, including a 2012 pension reform measure voters overwhelmingly approved but that unions are fighting in court, as needed to avoid crippling city services.
"I don't think there's ever been a time in San Jose where the voters have had an opportunity to have such a broad discussion about San Jose and its needs and its future," said Councilman Pete Constant, one of the Reed allies among the mayoral candidates.
The mayoral contest is the centerpiece of a major political war to determine the balance of power at City Hall, as half of the 10 City Council seats are also up for grabs in June. Three of the five are now occupied by members of Reed's voting bloc.
Running for mayor for the first time are council members Constant, Sam Liccardo and Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen -- who are termed out like Reed -- plus council members Rose Herrera and Pierluigi Oliverio, whose terms end in 2016. Cortese, re-elected to a second term on the county board last year, is making his second bid for the mayor's seat. Forrest Williams, a former San Jose councilman sympathetic to the city's employee unions, says he is mulling over joining the race, too.
The mayoral candidates agree a key issue in the race will be restoring a city police force that has shrunk from nearly 1,400 officers three years ago to less than 1,100 now.
The race unfolds as the city's finances slowly recover with the local economy. After years of budget deficits, hiring cops, re-opening libraries, and fixing potholes and other basic infrastructure problems are among the top priorities of a city shifting from figuring out where to cut to deciding how much the city can afford to restore. The council has approved employee raises while cautioning that city finances remain fragile.
While the current council members running are generally supportive of the current path, Cortese thinks Reed's leadership has sown conflict between the public and the city's workers.
"I want to get the city back together again; I see it as very divided right now," he said.
As in the council races, candidates for mayor can only win outright in June by claiming more than 50 percent of the vote, which no one is expecting. The top two vote-getters, each of whom may get only a small fraction of the votes, will face off in November.
In the 2006 primary, then-council members Reed and Cindy Chavez advanced to the November runoff with only 29 and 23 percent of the vote, respectively. At the time, the three losing candidates said they sat too quietly in the middle while Chavez and Reed positioned themselves as the most liberal and conservative candidates, respectively. Reed, in particular, established himself as the biggest opponent of the incumbent administration of the time, which was marred by scandal swirling around then-Mayor Ron Gonzales.
Constant, a retired city police officer, is the only registered Republican in the nonpartisan race. The other major contenders are all Democrats who reflect a divide in the valley's dominant party -- nearly half the city's 420,000 registered voters are Democrats, and there are more independents (29 percent) than Republicans (21 percent). Cortese and Williams are seen as sharing a traditional Democratic loyalty to labor unions, while Nguyen, Liccardo, Oliverio and Herrera, like Reed, are considered more aligned with business interests.
For the coming June 3 primary, the race is expected to heat up early. More than 70 percent of South Bay voters now cast ballots by mail, and those ballots will be sent out May 5. No independent polling has been done yet.
"There seems to be no heir apparent; nobody at the moment is able to claim any mantle," said political analyst Larry Gerston, a San Jose State professor, noting that in the coming months some candidates will likely drop out while others could emerge. "We don't really know how this thing will play out just yet."
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/rosenbergmerc.
Dave Cortese, Santa Clara County supervisor, former San Jose vice mayor and councilman
Madison Nguyen, San Jose vice mayor
Sam Liccardo, San Jose councilman
Pierluigi Oliverio, San Jose councilman
Pete Constant, San Jose councilman
Rose Herrera, San Jose councilwoman
Forrest Williams, former San Jose councilman (considering run)
*A handful of others who have not held elective office also have shown interest.