Cindy Chavez is running for Supervisor District 2 in Santa Clara County. In March, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors called a special election to fill the vacancy for Supervisor in District Two. The primary will be held June 4th. District 2 covers the downtown of San Jose, east side of San Jose, and southeast of downtown San Jose. It is one of the most ethnically diverse-and poorest-parts of Silicon Valley.
As a labor leader, Chavez considers helping working families to be among her core values. She received a meaningful education in public policy through her two terms on the San Jose City Council and as Vice Mayor. I sat down with Chavez to discuss her policy priorities and this race with the Calitics community.
I asked Chavez why her labor and public service background has prepared her well for the Board of Supervisors.
“I think one of the opportunities with this seat is to demonstrate that being a progressive leader and policy maker means that you have the ability and the desire to both make sure the government runs well with high quality services; and that it serves the most needy in our community. That’s why I’ve chosen to run for the Board of Supervisors.”
One of her key priorities is education. As Chavez described, “One of the opportunities we have is a program called School Link Services, which means that we can put (in partnership with school districts) mental health services in the schools and catch the needs of children at a much earlier stage than we do today.”
I noted that when she served on the San Jose City Council, Chavez fought hard to make sure that every child in San Jose County had access to health insurance. “Children do better in school if they’re healthy and they don’t miss school days,” she said. “So those are the opportunities we have right out of the box to help children thrive in our community.”
Chavez prioritizes education and raising healthy young children to become healthy adults. She explained that public education is about more than measuring test scores and teachers. She explained, “One example is the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. What it means is that we have to be very focused on prevention. So what happens if we can connect with children and families at a young enough age to prevent chronic obesity? That means you’re not going to have somebody potentially with, diabetes, or heart disease, or blindness or amputation. In many respects, the County has an opportunity like we did with tobacco placement to start to force ourselves to invest in children in a meaningful way.”
Chavez says that she is capable of caring about people and governing effectively, and that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. The Chamber of Commerce has targeted her for her ties to organized labor, suggesting that her advocacy for workers’ rights could interfere with her ability to govern. I asked Chavez what she would say to an undecided voter about this, and she took the question head on. “I think it’s easier for people during elections to try to categorize people. If you’re pro labor, you can’t be pro business. What’s silly about that is that no leader I know in the labor movement is opposed to healthy vibrant businesses. We need companies to thrive in order to make sure that folks have decent wages, and access to health insurance and all of those benefits allow people to be part of our society.”
Chavez continued, saying that abandoning working people to score political points can negatively impact one’s ability to govern. “San Jose was one of the safest large cities in the nation,” she explained. “But we’ve seen a huge rise in crime because the mayor took an anti-labor position in an attempt to manage the budget. But all we did was take a really safe city and make it unsafe. And so we need leaders who can both understand the importance of growing healthy vibrant economy – not on the backs of people, but with the vision and the idea that we are one community – and that we need to be able to invest, whether that’s in education or in safe jobs, at the same time that we support businesses thriving.”
I pointed out that the Chamber has been trying to make the case that County services are going to have to be cut in order to maintain public employees’ wages and pay for the pension plans that the County agreed to years ago.
Chavez responded that as the economy swings back out of a bad business cycle into a better one, making smart continual investments is one way to attract the best and the brightest to apply to be in the public sector.
“They forgo high pay for a stable retirement, and that promise has served the public sector well. That being said, everybody understands that we need pension reform–but if we don’t understand how we got into this situation, then we don’t address the problem clearly. So we have to acknowledge that there were huge dips in the economy that cost everybody. Everybody – even cities that were fully funding their pension plans have had challenges, so that’s one set of realities. But the other is that we have a really expensive health care system – and as soon as we can get our arms around health care costs, a lot of the pressure does lift off our pensions.”
I asked Chavez to say more about public safety and what steps she would take to enhance it and make it sustainable for the County.
“When as an average voter you call 911,” she said, “you don’t look at whether it’s the sheriff or the Highway Patrol or who’s responding to you. You want someone to respond. You want an ambulance to arrive for a loved one. Part of what this economy is allowing us to do is to take a look at services that we provide and figure out how we can work together. So for example, the County has maybe 13 cities total, and many of those cities have their own police forces, not all of them. Some have the deputy sheriff. I think it’s very possible to have the deputy sheriff work with the police departments in all of the areas to make sure that we are fighting crime as a team. Because, frankly, criminals don’t respect too many boundaries, and we have to stop thinking in a boundaries way. We have to start analyzing problems, dealing with those problems, and then being aggressive in terms of safety. We should take our resources that are scarce, say let’s better utilize them, and work more collaboratively.”
Chavez pointed out the importance of fully funding after school programs, as a less expensive way of preventing crime. “As soon as those after school programs went away, we saw a spike in crime because children didn’t have anything to do after school. We saw an increase in burglaries and other kinds of crimes. So one of the things we have to do is take our scarce resources and invest them in after school activities, making sure that children have a safe place to be, that they’re occupied, and that they have a place to do their homework so they stay in school. It is a relatively small investment for a huge payoff as these children become responsible adults.”
Recently Chavez received a high profile endorsement from BAYMEC, the regional LGBT advocacy group. I asked her how she views her responsibility to members of Santa Clara County’s LGBT community.
“When a person runs for office, we all have an obligation to make sure that we come into office with our values, we serve with our values, and we leave with those values,” Chavez responded. “BAYMEC has a special place in my heart because the civil rights of the gay and lesbian community and civil rights in general are core values for me. Getting BAYMEC’s endorsement was a reminder that we are in this together. That we have to continue to see the civil rights of the gay and lesbian community and transgender community the same way we see that for every other community, and be aggressive in fighting for it. It’s easy to see here in California where Proposition 8 passed not so many years ago, that a majority can make a bad decision about a minority. The role of government is to protect the interests of all voices, weak or strong. It’s been an honor for me to support gay marriage when I was in office. In fact I was threatened with a recall for my support of the gay and lesbian community, and it was one of my prouder moments.”
I asked Chavez to explain what approach she will take as Supervisor in working with the business community.
“When I was on the San Jose City Council I collaborated with the business community on many, many endeavors; building high rise housing in downtown San Jose, trying to streamline the permitting process, working on new ways to attract businesses, bringing big events to San Jose that we thought would put us on the map. Anybody who chooses to run for office, win lose or draw, you have to be somebody who believes that all of us working together is better than all of us working apart. I would be no different. I hope that now I’m a more experienced candidate and have had more time to work in the community, I will do an even better job as a member of the Board of Supervisors.”
Chavez had one final thought on being considered a polarizing figure: “I do think that when you choose to run for office you have core values that you believe in and that you hope that others share. If they don’t, then you want to be persuasive about them. For me this is equality and transparency and honesty. But it also means being as strong as you can be for the community that you represent, and this seat would represent some of the poorest people in our community.”
“My comfort is the saying that polite women don’t make history. More importantly, polite women or polite leaders don’t get health insurance for kids, or don’t raise the minimum wage, they don’t make it safe for people to work in their workplaces. They don’t miss an opportunity to make sure that everybody has the right to marry who they love, and they don’t miss an opportunity to protect workers – not just the job, but their right to bargain collectively and to organize. And for all of that I am unapologetic. We need to be bold, all of us, in saying what we think needs to happen in this community.”
For more information about Cindy Chavez or to support her campaign, please go to http://cindychavezforsupervisor.com/. Volunteers and donations are urgently needed ahead of the primary on June 4th. (If necessary, a run-off election will be held on July 30, 2013.)
— Amy Dean is a fellow of The Century Foundation and principal of ABD Ventures, LLC, an organizational development consulting firm that works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations. Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement. Dean has worked for nearly two decades at the cross section of labor and community based organizations linking policy and research with action and advocacy. You can follow Amy on Twitter @amybdean, or she can be reached via www.amybdean.com.