The battle over who would lead Santa Clara in the next four years seemed to boil over in Council Chambers on Sept. 29. It was not a normal City Council meeting but rather a forum featuring the two candidates for Santa Clara’s mayor – Council Member Anthony Becker and incumbent Mayor Lisa Gillmor.
A few dozen people attended the in-person forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of San Jose/Santa Clara and picked sides almost unconsciously. The room was divided much like a wedding with Gillmor supporters on one side of the aisle and Becker supporters on the other.
Even before the forum started, the tension in the room was palpable. The rules were simple, don’t talk about the opponent. Gillmor, for her part, was judicious in her word selection, staying just on the right side of the rules while still voicing criticism of her opponent.
Becker was not so careful. Twice he was warned by the moderator. Finally, obviously frustrated, Becker interrupted the moderator and was met with a chorus of “boos” from Gillmor’s side of the aisle.
Supporters of Gillmor would later say they thought they heard Becker utter a cuss word. The recording of the meeting will tell you he did not.
While the candidates do not agree on much, they will both say this election will determine Santa Clara’s path for the future.
“Santa Clara is at a crossroads. We have a chance to get our city back on the right track. I need your help to build a better future. This race is about the heart and soul of our City,” said Becker in his opening statement.
“Today Santa Clara is at a crossroads. A nationally recognized ethics expert said that he sees quote, ‘The most egregious collapse of ethics of any institution I have worked with in three decades.’ unquote. More than ever, leadership matters, especially leadership that can’t be bought,” said Gillmor in her opening statement.
Future of Santa Clara
In his opening statement, Becker outlined his plan for the future of Santa Clara.
“My priorities as mayor is an ambitious plan called the Santa Clara New Deal which is building affordable housing for seniors, families and young people, rebuilding our downtown, reducing our deficit and housing the homelessness,” said Becker.
Gillmor talked about her work during the pandemic and what she accomplished in her first full term in office.
“In my first term, we increased our financial reserves by over $50 million. Today, we have safe neighborhoods and good parks. I’ll keep it that way,” said Gillmor.
The candidates’ visions for the future are very different.
“My priority is first to bring civility, trust and openness back to the City. That’s what’s been missing in the last two years,” said Gillmor. “Also, the public safety, putting public safety back to its fullest level. Our citizens tell me on a daily basis, they’re tired of their cars being broken into, their homes being broken into, other issues that we’ve never had to deal with in the past. And mainly because a lot of it is we’ve had the stadium debt, that has really not given the money to our general fund that we had expected. And so, I really want to clear that up and make sure that we can get the money that we need to provide basic City services to our community, and reopening our senior centers, our libraries, our community centers, and our recreational facilities.”
For Becker, the focus was making Santa Clara affordable, rebuilding downtown and balancing the budget.
“My top three priorities as part of my Santa Clara New Deal. And that is focusing on building the affordable housing for young people, families. Look at the cost of rent out there. I pay $2,800 a month. It’s hard to survive out here,” said Becker. “My next one is rebuilding our new downtown. That is the heart of a City. That’s been missing for years and decades. I’ve never gotten to see it…And lastly, the biggest priority is reducing our City’s deficit. Look at the deficit that we’re in right now. $27 million, because of mistakes made by leadership. It is time that we take accountability and reduce our deficit.”
As for the problems facing the City, Becker reiterated his focus on homelessness and affordable housing. He also pointed to “false accusations” and “false narratives” that misinform the public and the “toxic relationship” Santa Clara has with other cities. Becker believes one of the reasons Santa Clara is in a deficit is the top-heavy City salaries.
Meanwhile, Gillmor reiterated her concerns about members of the council meeting with a “special interest group” and giving that group “concessions” affecting the general fund. She says recovering from the loss of sales tax and hotel tax revenue during the pandemic hurt the City’s budget. And she said the City needs to bring back “trust and integrity” to the Council meetings.
Whoever becomes mayor will face a $27 million budget deficit. Both candidates were asked to explain the cause of the deficit and how they would deal with getting out of it.
Gillmor said the City’s reserves were depleted because of COVID, when sales tax and hotel tax revenue dropped dramatically. She said the lack of performance rent at Levi’s Stadium since 2017 has not helped the budget either and the rising cost of living has led to the increase in City salaries.
“We need to work proactively to get out of it with the combination of using our reserves, revenue solutions like the Related project, which, when it will be built will be bringing us between $19 and $25 million a year in for a general fund because the City owns the property and other revenue generating opportunities,” said Gillmor.
Becker said COVID is an easy scapegoat but the real problem is wasteful spending and mismanagement.
“This is more and if you go look even deeper, Related project, which also endorses my opponent, they paid $0 to our city. Zero,” said Becker. “At the same time, my opponent and her majority lost $6 million to the CVRA lawsuit. That is where our money went. And just remember, your taxpayer dollars are spent on this.”
In one of the only agreements of the forum, both candidates agreed that the deficit has hurt their ability to reopen the senior center, natatorium and expand library hours but it’s a top priority for both candidates in the coming term.
Role of the Mayor
While the issue of uniting a divided council was not broached, both candidates gave insight into what they saw as the role of the City’s mayor.
“The role of the mayor is the head of the political leadership of the City,” said Gillmor. “The person that should be setting the tone of the City; that should be bringing the City and the community together; that should show trust, transparency and openness in government.”
Becker agreed with Gillmor and expanded on the idea.
“The role of a mayor is basically we are a single vote. Just like the council member is one single vote,” said Becker. “It is a ceremonial role. They run the meetings just like how the Planning Commissioners run. So, the role of mayor is a ceremonial role and a leader of the City.”
Neither candidate was asked how they would work with the 49ers moving forward, though they were asked about PAC spending within the election.
“Well, it’s their constitutional right to do what they want. Until the United States Supreme Court overturns Citizens United, there’s nothing we can do,” said Becker. “At the same time, my opponent, and a current council member brought the stadium to the City of Santa Clara. We have never seen anything from any PACs or anything until her developers helped her, as well as the 49ers who spent $5 million in 2010 on Measure J. Remember, the mess was brought here. I didn’t bring it.”
“I think it’s up to the residents to see what’s going on,” said Gillmor. “For instance, the majority of the council agreed on a settlement agreement at the end of August. Two days later, the 49ers opened the PAC and put in hundreds of thousands of dollars to support candidates for office, including my opponent. So, I’m just saying that the residents are the people that need to turn down and really open your eyes and see what’s going.”
Other Discussion Items
Other questions appeared to be staged by members of the audience.
One question asked about workshops for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth at local libraries and whether or not parent consent should be required. Becker, who is openly gay, agreed that parent consent was necessary and encouraged parents to bring their kids to learn about the LGBTQ+ community. Gillmor was ready with a story about how she stood up for library staff against a parent angry about a pride display in the library.
Another question asked about the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force. Gillmor said she was proud to co-found the task force as the Black Lives Matter movement grew. Becker credited his opponent for founding the task force and said he’d like to see the task force grow and include more members of the community.
The moderator attempted to add levity to the forum several times, with quick questions that would ease the tension in the room.
When asked where would you take a friend if they had one day in Santa Clara, Becker said, “I’d say that the biggest one would be Great America. We got to use it while we still have it. That has been an icon for our community for decades and it’s been an icon from my childhood as well. I think that’s our biggest asset, as well as our beautiful city streets.”
“First of all, I would take them to our parks, and then I’m going to take them to all the wonderful eating places we have in the City and we would just eat our way across Santa Clara,” said Gillmor.
As for favorite food, Gillmor said “Linguica sandwiches at the Art & Wine Festival. I love them.”
“I have Italian German, Portuguese, and Hawaiian blood in me. I love Italian food and I think my waistline proves that,” said Becker.