SAN JOSE -- The 118,000 registered voters in Santa Clara County's District 2 will choose their next leader in a hastily scheduled special election, following former Supervisor George Shirakawa Jr.'s plunge from power last week due to multiple criminal charges for misusing money from taxpayers and his political donors.
The remaining four county supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday for a June 4 nonpartisan election to fill the vacancy -- created by Shirakawa's resignation just four days earlier -- declining to appoint an interim representative.
Numerous members of the public implored the board -- which now has four white, male members -- to let the heavily Latino District 2 determine Shirakawa's successor.
"The board has no right to appoint someone to represent me," said community activist Aurelia Sanchez. "What I see here is a lot of people who don't understand our needs. I want to choose who's going to represent me, I want someone who's similar to me."
The June election will cost the county roughly $1 million, and so far, the supervisorial race will be the only item before voters. The winner is expected to be seated within a week following certification of the election and will have to get right to work on the county's most significant business: Hearings on the annual budget begin June 17.
The new supervisor's work will be delayed if no candidate receives 50 percent plus one in June, however. Then a run-off election for the top two vote-getters will be held July 30.
Supervisor Mike Wasserman summed up the board's sentiment Tuesday by saying an election is the fairest option.
Given the power of incumbencies, and the generally lackluster supervisorial races, if the board chose to appoint, that person could well coast through 12 years in office -- three four-year terms is the county's limit -- riding in on nothing more than the choice of four elected leaders.
"There's no better way to ensure Democracy than to let the voters decide. The cost of the election pales greatly in comparison to the voice of 337,000 residents who are not here today," Wasserman said, referring to the number of residents in the district.
The possibility of a run-off increases with the number of candidates on the ballot, and already several names, all Democrats, have surfaced. On Tuesday morning, Patricia Martinez-Roach, a longtime high school teacher in the Franklin-McKinley School District, announced she will run. Martinez-Roach may be joined by possible candidates including Cindy Chavez, a former San Jose City Councilwoman, and Teresa Alvarado, the daughter of former Supervisor Blanca Alvarado.
In an email statement, Martinez-Roach, a perennial candidate for various local offices, said she anticipates a tough job as supervisor and noted she would "pray for guidance and strength," in yet another campaign. "I do so knowing that George Shirakawa's work and dedication to his district and community could never be replaced -- only continued," she wrote.
Shirakawa faces five felonies, seven misdemeanor charges and 10 violations of the state's Political Reform Act for bilking taxpayers and his campaign donors, and for committing perjury. The 51-year-old veteran politician has agreed to plead guilty later this month.
The hastiness of the board's decision led to some concerns the nominating and campaigning period would be cut short. Noting "this rather extraordinary event that has taken place," Supervisor Joe Simitian encouraged the board to schedule the election just a tad later, on June 25, to allow more candidates to emerge and for more thoughtful campaigns to unfold.
Simitian ultimately agreed with his colleagues' insistence that the election be held more expeditiously.
Aarón Reséndez, president of the Story Road Business Association, praised the board for its decision. He said the next District 2 supervisor does not have to be Latino; he or she just has to be "a fresh face" committed to residents' needs.
District 2 is a vast expanse of the county that encompasses San Jose's East Side, including the former home of legendary farmworker icon Cesar Chavez; all of downtown and running to the border with the city of Santa Clara. According to the 2010 Census, more than half of the district's residents are Hispanic, with 87 percent identified as non-white. Of the 118,000 registered voters, 34,958 have no party preference; 61,395 are registered Democrats and 17,012 are registered Republicans.
Reséndez expressed outrage over Shirakawa's deception of the district, saying he left his Mexican state of Durango hoping for less corruption, not more of the same. "We like coming to the U.S. and seeing Democracy," he said. "Seeing this corruption is like going back to our countries."
Shirakawa was elected, Reséndez added, "but now we have to go to the voters, and the voters have to correct the mistakes that he's made."
San Jose City Councilwoman Madison Nguyen, whose name had surfaced as a possible appointee, also applauded the board for its decision to call for a special election after Shirakawa's arrest Friday for misuse of public funds.
"The current board of supervisors consists of only men. It would be wonderful to see a few female candidates run for this seat," Nguyen said. The board is without a female member for the first time in 37 years. "The cost of a special election is a small price to pay to begin the process of healing and restoring confidence in county government," she said.
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors set June 4 for the nonpartisan election of a District 2 replacement. Qualifying is set from March 13 to March 27.
To qualify, candidates must live in the district, have been a registered voter of the district since Feb. 25, pay a $1,430.31 filing fee and have 20 valid signatures from registered voters in the district.
Mail-in ballots will be sent out on May 6.
If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be July 30.
Officials estimate it will cost $1 million for the June 4 election and another $1 million for the runoff, if needed.
To vote, residents must live in the district and be registered to vote by May 20.