SANTA CLARA COUNTY — In one of the most consequential Santa Clara County races in recent memory, a San Jose councilmember is seeking to disrupt District 1’s decades-long conservative winning streak, potentially tipping the balance toward the Board of Supervisors’ progressive camp for years to come.
Sylvia Arenas, who represents portions of East San Jose, squares off against Johnny Khamis, a former San Jose City Council member. Khamis is trying to capture the moderate and conservative voters in the mostly rural district, which stretches into southern Santa Clara County.
Whoever is elected will help decide how to spend a gargantuan budget north of $11 billion — roughly equal to the entire gross domestic product of The Bahamas — and oversee a district that includes the cities of Morgan Hill and Gilroy and is in the midst of major demographic shifts.
While both Arenas and Khamis have similar priorities – both are promising to tackle homelessness, public safety and the post-pandemic economic recovery – their approaches to solving problems are starkly different.
“I believe in investments and changing systems,” said Arenas, whose term on the San Jose City Council ends in 2024. “And I don’t know that I am exactly seeing that from my opponent.”
Meanwhile, Khamis says he is wary of unchecked county spending. “Before we get into something, I want to study the pros and cons,” he said, “if we’re getting a good value or if we’re getting robbed.”
SAN JOSE – MARCH 17: San Jose City councilmember Sylvia Arenas speaks during a press conference outside of the San Jose Police department in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, March, 17, 2021. (Randy Vazquez/ Bay Area News Group)
Q&A on the issues
What do you think about Gov. Gavin Newsom’s CARE Court, a new program that will have California counties mandating mental health care in certain circumstances?
Arenas: “It isn’t the solution to all of our problems. What is missing is very long-term care. That’s what really is going to set people up for success. Just forgetting about these folks is not the solution.”
Khamis: “Very much in support. I want to make sure that (the funding) gets spent wisely.”
A new Santa Clara County jail proposal years in the making was recently pushed aside. Would you vote for the facility to get built or not?
Arenas: “I’m not sure exactly where I would land. I want to make sure there’s an environment that is dignified for those who are working there and incarcerated. And I want to make sure that there are mental health facilities that aren’t in existence now.”
Khamis: “I think we can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. Going out to bid for years is not the right way to get (things) done.”
The county is currently embroiled in a lawsuit against a San Jose church where they’re trying to retrieve millions of dollars in COVID-related fines. It has also gone after small businesses for similar violations. What do you think about this and the county’s overall approach to the pandemic?
Arenas: “I think it was more important to keep people safe. I certainly go to my church to fulfill my spiritual needs. But I don’t ask them for my medical recommendations.”
Khamis: “I thought the whole county’s approach was draconian from day one. I want to forgive these fines for everyone. Why should we keep going down this road? Stop chasing money that I don’t think we’re ever going to get.”
A sand and gravel mine is being proposed in D1 near Gilroy. Do you support or oppose it?
Arenas: “I know that there are the native tribal groups hoping to protect that land. At times, (mining resources have) been prioritized over honoring the land of the people before us. We need to make sure that we continue to support that.”
Khamis: “I have to take a look at the numbers. How bad for the environment is this? Are we pushing off our pollution to another country? I don’t know where I stand … but I would lean on looking at the facts, pros and cons, as I do in every decision.”
What is one nice thing you can say about your opponent?
Arenas: “I like Johnny. We get along. What I respect about him is his focus on his family. He is proof of how people can overcome and be successful in this country.”
Khamis: “I think that (Sylvia) is very personable. She has really good social skills. I think that she is very socially adept. I think she connects with people well.”
Councilmember Johnny Khamis is photographed during a city council meeting in San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. (Randy Vazquez/Bay Area News Group)
Who will come out on top?
Though Arenas was able to outpoll Khamis in the June primary by 1,462 votes, political analysts of the race say that there’s no clear frontrunner at the moment.
“It is so hard to predict races like these,” said San Jose State University political science professor Larry Gerston. “The turnout and the electorate is rather small. And when you’re talking about something that small, a variation of four to five thousand votes could completely rewrite what anyone is thinking.”
However, a few developments since the primary may offer clues as to who will be the next supervisor.
Khamis has secured the endorsements of current D1 Supervisor Mike Wasserman — who is terming out this year after serving since 2010 — and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, which could be vital in attracting moderate and conservative voters in the area.
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But the labor-backed Arenas nabbed the endorsements of her other two primary opponents in June: Claudia Rossi and Rich Constantine. That could spell danger for Khamis if Rossi and Constantine’s voters jump on the Arenas bandwagon, giving her a comfortable lead over her conservative opponent.
On the other hand, said Gerston, Republican voters who would come out for a conservative candidate such as Khamis are traditionally much more likely to head to the polls than progressives.
“If you’re able to get a high Republican vote in a place where Democrats are lethargic, you can tilt a lot of elections in a different way,” he said.
Gerston said that another key indicator of how the D1 race will tilt is the outcome of the mayor’s race between San Jose Councilmember Matt Mahan and D2 County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who came out ahead in the June primary by over 10,000 votes.
“I think the D1 race will probably mirror that,” he said about the outcome of this November’s mayoral race. “I think a rise in Chavez’s vote is probably going to help Arenas. And Mahan will help Khamis. It will have some bearing on what happens.”