Santa Clara: Power struggle unfolds over four City Council seats

Reprint by Ramona Giwargis, rgiwargis@bayareanewsgroup.com

SANTA CLARA -- Two years after the San Francisco 49ers opened their new stadium here, the NFL team officials are finding a chilly reception at City Hall, where Santa Clara's elected leaders had once welcomed them with open arms.

Mayor Lisa Gillmor, who had backed the stadium project, is now among team management's sharpest critics. With voters set to decide four seats on the seven-member City Council in November, including three Gillmor allies seeking re-election, she and her allies are casting the race as a referendum on the team's influence over City Hall.

"I think this is going to be a monumental election in Santa Clara, and it will define where we go as a city," Gillmor said. "I've heard the 49ers are lining up their candidates that will do their business. The question facing Santa Clara voters is going to be very simple: Do you want the 49ers running the city?"

The team has denied recruiting or funding candidates for office. A team spokesman said the organization has been a part of Santa Clara since the mid-1980s, when it established its first training facility. "Like businesses everywhere, we have a vested interest in the prosperity of our own community," said Bob Lange, the team's vice president of communications.

"Continuing to develop Santa Clara as an attractive location to visit, live and conduct business is integral to securing a fruitful future for our city and its residents," Lange said. 

Candidates run citywide for numbered seats. Councilwomen Debi Davis (Seat 3), Kathy Watanabe (Seat 6) and Teresa O'Neill (Seat 7) are seeking re-election. And Councilman Jerry Marsalli (Seat 4), who has been sympathetic to the team, decided not to run after battling cancer this year, opening the door to the city's most crowded race.
Burt Field, who leads Stand Up for Santa Clara, a group critical of what it contends is undue 49ers influence over City Hall, called Seat 4 candidates Patty Mahan and Ahmad Rafah, and Seat 3 contender John McLemore, a 49ers-friendly slate despite the team's and the candidates' denials.

"I know for sure that they're trying to get the council back," Field said. "All three have shown that they're sympathetic to the Niners and at least two of them have political experience."

That 49ers reps find themselves searching for the welcome mat at City Hall just a couple years after joining with city leaders in celebrating the opening of Levi's Stadium is rooted in a different kind of football.

Gillmor -- a soccer mom -- and her female council allies have clashed with the 49ers over a push to use the youth soccer park next to Levi's Stadium for parking. Youth soccer parents have been furious at the 49ers over what they consider an unkept promise by the 49ers to replace the soccer fields. Gillmor and other city leaders have questioned whether the city's getting a fair deal from the team on Levi's rent and security.

Gillmor is backing the three incumbents, and Tino Silva for Marsalli's seat. Silva, a parks commissioner, Stand Up for Santa Clara cofounder and president of the Santa Clara Youth Soccer League, has sided with Gillmor on issues related to youth team's soccer park.

Mahan, an attorney who served three previous terms on the council and two as mayor, spearheaded Measure J, the 2010 ballot measure that authorized using city land to build and fund Levi's Stadium. She has accepted free game tickets and a $500 campaign contributions to her mayoral campaign from team owner John York and Chief Financial Officer Larry MacNeil. Mahan said the 49ers didn't recruit her to run for council and that she won't take contributions from the team or its personnel in the upcoming race. But she also said the city hasn't always been fair to the Niners.

"They're our partners," Mahan said, "and we've got to have open communication with them."

Rafah, a former policy director to Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose, also denied any ties to the Niners after the former head of the Chamber of Commerce invited him in an email to join a meeting with the team's director of external affairs to discuss ways to "take back the council majority." He said he didn't attend and is running to represent the city's Afghan community.

Of the other Seat 4 contenders, Raj Chahal has served on the city's planning commission, Sister Cities Association and library foundation, while Markus Bracamonte, who works for the city of Sunnyvale, is a newcomer to Santa Clara politics. Neither has indicated having a dog in the fight over the 49ers.

McLemore, a business consultant who also served on the council from 1996 to 2004, is the only challenger to Davis for Seat 3.

He was linked to the Niners after he set up meetings earlier this year to bolster communication between the female council members and the NFL team. Gillmor asked him to set up the discussions, McLemore said, which happened over two coffee meetings before she became mayor.

"There was a logjam in communications and they asked me to personally help the two sides communicate with each other," McLemore said, adding that he doesn't "intend" to accept campaign contributions from the team. "There is no intention on my part to be caught up in this political theater that's been created."

Four people are challenging Watanabe, the newest member of the council whom the council appointed in March to fill Gillmor's spot when she became mayor: Anthony Becker, Mario Bouza, Mohammed Nadeem and Sudhanshu Jain. None of her Seat 6 challengers have been singled out as 49ers sympathizers.

Nadeem said while he "strongly" supported the stadium project a few years ago, he considers himself an independent candidate. Nadeem is a business professor at National University in San Jose who has served as a civil service commissioner and ran for council three times before.

Jain, a technology worker and current city planning commissioner, unsuccessfully applied for Watanabe's seat earlier this year. Jain opposed building the stadium because of noise and traffic concerns, but said the city has to "make the best of the situation" now that the Niners are here. He said he's unhappy with the team meddling in politics. Bouza, a businessman and civil service commissioner, previously ran for office twice. He was an opponent of building Levi's Stadium, saying the city should not be involved in running the stadium. "No one at City Hall understands how to run a business of this size," he said.

Becker is a Santa Clara University student and political newcomer. 

Kevin Park, an engineer and teacher who unsuccessfully ran for council in 2014, is O'Neill's only challenger for Seat 7. Park, who sat on the city's General Plan Steering Committee and Citizens' Advisory Committee, considers himself independent from the team's influence. Park said it "would be nice if the 49ers would embrace the city's causes and residential concerns the same way city fans have embraced them." 

"Santa Clara is not a charity, and the 49ers certainly aren't needy," he said.


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