SAN JOSE -- After four months of relentless campaigning between two well-known Latina candidates, the race for Santa Clara County's District 2 supervisorial seat now has come down to the ground game: who can get out the most voters in the next 36 hours.
Tuesday's special runoff election between labor leader Cindy Chavez and water district communications manager Teresa Alvarado has already motivated 17,065 voters to turn in their vote-by-mail ballots, according to the Registrar of Voters Office -- slightly more than those submitted by the weekend before the June 4 primary.
The primary, which featured six candidates and drew 22,418 valid ballots from a total of 117,456 registered voters, saw Chavez take first place with a 9-point lead over Alvarado. But it wasn't enough to get her over the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff.
"You're looking at labor's feet versus the ability of the Chamber of Commerce to marshal their forces in the other direction," San Jose State political science professor Larry Gerston said of the major backers of the two candidates, both of whom are registered Democrats, though the seat is nonpartisan.
Gerston said the midsummer timing of this race isn't likely to help the turnout, which was low to begin with in early June at 19.54 percent. He said he expects less than 20 percent this time around. Consultants for both candidates agree with that assessment, but for different reasons.
Jim Gonzalez, Alvarado's consultant, believes the final runoff numbers will reflect new groups of voters who did not participate in the primary, while Chavez's consultant, Ed McGovern, disagrees.
"We knew who voted in the primary, and we know who has turned in a ballot now, and of those people, we think about 90 percent of them are people who participated in June," said McGovern.
Gonzalez, though, said: "We're seeing quite a big bloc of voters who took a pass on the primary now turning in ballots because they feel it will make a difference in the outcome."
"Our sense is that our message of reform has gotten through," said Gonzalez. "They are looking for someone like Teresa who will bring transparency and efficiency to government and put the dark days of backroom deals and political scandal behind them."
McGovern said that's not what Chavez's supporters are saying.
"The biggest issue everybody tells us on the phone and at the door is that they're worried about crime," he said. Chavez, who is running on her experience as a two-term San Jose City Councilwoman, has the credentials and slate of public safety endorsements "to back up claims that she can do more about crime than Teresa," McGovern said.
McGovern expects a significant number of Vietnamese voters to support Chavez after she received the endorsement of Scott Hung Pham, who came in third in the primary with 14 percent of the vote.
Gonzalez countered that "the endorsement we value is the large amount of volunteers from the Vietnamese community that are at our headquarters every night." That will make a bigger difference than Pham's endorsement, he said.
Both candidates' campaigns have raised competitive amounts of money, with Chavez slightly out-raising Alvarado in the last reporting period for an overall total of $275,062, compared with Alvarado's $257,310. But independent groups supporting each show the union-backed Chavez about $80,000 ahead of Alvarado's business, real estate and Republican party supporters.
Despite the massive spending on campaign mailers, phone banks, ethnic radio, television and newspaper ads as well as some Internet ads, Gerston predicts the race remains "below the radar" to most voters in the district, which he attributes to timing and voter apathy, particularly in special elections. Another factor: More people might be enticed to vote if they could discern more differences between the two candidates.
Still, he said, the burden is on Alvarado, 48, to catch up to Chavez, 49.
Alvarado, the daughter of former District 2 Supervisor Blanca Alvarado, has sought to do that by establishing herself as the more independent of the two. She sees herself as a reform candidate who is not tied to unions and vows to restore accountability to county government after lapses in departmental oversight allowed former District 2 Supervisor George Shirakawa Jr. to avoid filing campaign reports and abuse his county-issued credit card. Shirakawa, a Chavez ally, has pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to both, and is expected to be sentenced in the coming months.
Meanwhile, Chavez has continued to emphasize her experience on the San Jose City Council, where she worked on billion-dollar-plus city budgets and supported children's health insurance, affordable housing and expanded homework centers.
Alvarado also has pushed for more government transparency, with mailers citing Chavez's past votes as a councilwoman on a backroom $11.25 million garbage deal linked to former Mayor Ron Gonzales and a rushed vote for a $4 million taxpayer subsidy for a Grand Prix auto race.
Chavez has said the county should adopt the same types of transparency rules as San Jose. But on the campaign trail, the former head of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council has emphasized recent victories she helped orchestrate, including a minimum-wage increase in San Jose and a $500 million county sales tax measure to fund public health and welfare programs.
Both women say pension reform at the county is needed, though critics say Chavez's ties to employee unions will challenge her loyalties.
Contact Tracy Seipel at 408 275-0140.
District 2 voters don't have to wait until Tuesday to vote in the special election for the new county supervisor. They can vote in person from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday at the Registrar of Voters office, 1555 Berger Drive, Building 2, San Jose.
On Tuesday, Election Day, 52 polling places in the district will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., as will the registrar's office. Voters can drop off their vote-by-mail ballots at any polling place or the registrar's office. A list of six other ballot drop-off sites can be found on the registrar's website at www.sccgov.org/sites/rov/.
For more information, call 1-408-299-VOTE (8683) or toll free at 1-866-430-VOTE (8683) or go online to www.sccgov.org/sites/rov/ Source: Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters