Features & Columns

The Ballad of Sam and Dave

The jockeying to become San Jose's next mayor
Sam Liccardo Dave Cortese San Jose Councilmember Sam Liccardo and Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese reach for the Mayor's office. Illustration by Fred Harper

When San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed terms out in a little more than two years, the roster of prospective mayoral candidates ranges somewhere between a couple and a couple too many, depending on who assesses the field. Invariably, in every discussion, two names pop up: San Jose Councilmember Sam Liccardo and Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese.

It's difficult to understand why either man would want the job. The pay only slightly exceeds that of the 10 councilmembers, and the rancor between San Jose's workforce and its city administration hovers somewhere between gangrenous and toxic. The position is a political dead end, too. No one since Norman Mineta, who held the office four decades ago, has gone on to higher office.

After a decade of budget shortfalls in San Jose, city workers took an across-the-board pay cut last summer, and dozens of police officers were laid off—an inglorious first in the department's history. Libraries limited access by cutting back days and hours. Community centers and a police substation that were built with more than $100 million in taxpayer bond money have yet to open their doors.

This summer, Mayor Reed's controversial pension-reform ballot measure goes to the voters. The strategy to opt out of labor negotiations is bold—and littered with legal pitfalls. But the pension crisis is real.

An unfunded liability of hundreds of millions threatens to send San Jose on the trail to bankruptcy. The future deficit changes depending on the day and which interest group does the math, but most agree that the red ink to support the city of San Jose's retirees will fall somewhere between $300 and $400 million by fiscal year 2015–16.

Reed has tied his legacy as mayor to pension reform, and he has no choice but to stay the course in his final two years in office. If he succeeds in scaling back the city's pension and health benefit contributions, whoever is elected mayor in 2014 has an opportunity to lead that hasn't been afforded to anyone at City Hall since the days of Tom McEnery. During the 1980s, McEnery led the transformation of a forgotten downtown into one with hotels, modern offices, museums and entertainment venues, though it still struggles to establish itself as an urban residential and retail center.

With a slowly improving national economy and Silicon Valley's dramatic recent job growth, even without the San Jose Redevelopment Agency, a cautious sense of optimism percolates about the city's future, and mayoral aspirants appear hungry to capitalize on Reed's stewardship through tough times.

Both Sam and Dave, the betting crowd's two obvious contenders, seem to be struck from the same mold. Both are of Sicilian descent and were born to established Santa Clara Valley gentry, to accomplished dads who'd made names for themselves in the valley.

Both graduated from Bellarmine College Preparatory school, an all-boys academy that's pretty much a factory for valley judges, political leaders and prominent developers, including the billionaire Sobratos. Both Liccardo and Cortese are attorneys, and both will have served two terms on the City Council as of 2014.

Once one gets beyond ethnicity, schooling, class and career, the similarities end. Cortese is a product of the valley's conversion from orchards to sprawling suburbia; Liccardo is an urbanist and alternative-transportation wonk.

Liccardo has aligned himself with San Jose's business community and Reed's pension-reform bloc, while Cortese, since losing out in the mayoral primary six years ago, has cozied up to organized labor.

The business vs. union divide will likely define the 2014 election, and millions will be spent in pursuit of the office.

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