SAN JOSE -- Pull up a chair. Make yourself comfortable -- and get ready for a spirited faceoff between two female political powerhouses in San Jose.
The race to replace former Santa Clara County Supervisor George Shirakawa Jr. has attracted six candidates hoping to succeed him in a special June 4 election.
But the reality -- barring a major mishap -- is that the contest will be played out between a pair of marquee names: Teresa Alvarado, daughter of well-known former county Supervisor Blanca Alvarado, and Cindy Chavez, entrenched labor leader and one-time San Jose vice mayor.
For many of the district's 118,000 registered voters, who are starting to focus on the election after enduring Shirakawa's months-long slide into political oblivion from misusing public and campaign funds, the race offers a much-needed new beginning.
"It's an opportunity to choose new leadership," said J. Manuel Herrera, a longtime East Side Union High School District board member. "It stirs the waters of people who want to get clear on what is important to them, and who and where they want to be aligned."
Already supporters are drawing familiar battle lines in what has become San Jose's increasingly bitter divide between local labor and business interests.
Both Democrats -- Chavez turned 49 on Sunday, and Alvarado is 48 -- attract praise from their respective fans, yet lacing the reverence of some is an unmistakable wariness about siding with one over the other.
"There are fierce elements to the characters of both these ladies," said one local Latina leader, who asked not to be named. "Let's just say: You do not want to cross them."
Chavez's power comes from influence she has wielded over local public employee unions since she was named to head the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council in March 2009. In December, she stepped down to continue as director of its affiliated think tank, Working Partnerships USA. On Wednesday, she will take an unpaid leave of absence from that job while she runs for supervisor.
Those labor ties are expected to help Chavez marshal not only legions of foot soldiers for her campaign, but also their vast dues-paying contributions to challenge Alvarado's base of financial support, likely to be generated by members of the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce among other supporters.
Since May 2011, Alvarado has worked as a communications and audit manager at the Santa Clara Valley Water District where she also is on an unpaid leave of absence during her campaign. In 2010, she ran unsuccessfully for the District 1 county supervisorial seat, and before that she served as executive director of the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley. She has since moved back into District 2.
Both candidates will have their work cut out for them. The district is the county's poorest, with a median income of $58,000. Of its 337,797 residents, almost 55 percent are Hispanic, the highest number of any of the county's five districts.
Also running for the District 2 seat are Joseph La Jeunesse, 44, a Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office deputy; Scott Hung Pham, 49, a San Jose City College language instructor; Patricia Martinez-Roach, 63, a teacher in the Franklin-McKinley School District; and David Wall, 58, a retired city of San Jose worker. Experts expect a low voter turnout in an off-cycle election year.
As they kick off their campaigns, the two front-runners offer two distinct messages:
Chavez intends to run on her political experience as a two-term San Jose City Council member and will emphasize recent union-backed victories that championed a $500 million countywide tax measure for the next 10 years, as well as a new San Jose city minimum-wage hike.
She will highlight the need to improve the ranks of public safety to help reduce crime, implement affordable health care and increase jobs while emphasizing her City Council budget experience to oversee the county's $4 billion annual budget.
Of the two candidates, Chavez comes with more baggage: Her landslide loss to Mayor Chuck Reed in November 2006 was considered by many to be a stinging rebuke of her close ties to former Mayor Ron Gonzales, whose administration had been leveled by a garbage scandal, among other controversies.
Chavez, who has been close to Shirakawa over the years, had flirted with the idea of running for the same supervisorial seat in 2008, but ultimately moved aside to let him take the lead.
"I decided not to run at that time in part because I had just gone through the mayor's race and wanted an opportunity to really come back as a refreshed public servant," Chavez said.
Last year, she criticized Reed's fiscal reform agenda including his Measure B pension reform, which San Jose voters passed overwhelmingly as a way to reduce the city's ballooning pension costs, though unions have sued to stop it from being enacted.
Meanwhile, Alvarado has thrown down the gauntlet of good government as her key campaign platform after Shirakawa's multiple felony charges, to which he has pleaded guilty and for which he will be sentenced soon.
Alvarado's reform agenda includes pushing the county to enact a series of sweeping changes to advance greater transparency, community engagement and ethical conduct in county government. Her goals appear to mimic many of those promoted by Reed during his 2006 mayoral campaign, largely in response to backroom deals involving Gonzales.
Yet critics note the water district has witnessed a series of problems related to its own lack of transparency, as well as wasting public money in recent years on high salaries, rich benefits and questionable projects.
But Alvarado said the newest members elected to the water board and its new CEO have worked hard to reform the organization.
Others question Alvarado's lack of elected office experience, which she shrugs off.
"You can have people who served in public office for a very long time -- just look at George Shirakawa," she said. "What we need is someone coming in with a fresh approach, not the same old business as usual. You don't get transformation that way."
Jose Montes De Oca, a former director of the Alum Rock Counseling Center, isn't convinced. "She'll benefit from the name recognition, but when you look deep, you have to acknowledge that she has not had that political experience," he said.
But Beth Gonzales, a history teacher at Oak Grove High School, said Alvarado already has proved herself in plenty of other high-level positions.
"I don't think that precludes anyone from being able to do a good job," Gonzales said of Alvarado's résumé. "You have to start somewhere."
Contact Tracy Seipel at 408-275-0140.
Job experience: On leave as manager of the Office of CEO Support and Communications at the Santa Clara Valley Water District; former CEO of the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley; former outreach specialist at PG&E's Solar Schools Program; worked in environmental health and safety issues at NASA/Ames Research Center
Job experience: On leave as director of Working Partnerships USA; former executive director of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council; former San Jose vice mayor and City Council member; former policy analyst with Santa Clara County
Joseph La Jeunesse
Job experience: Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office deputy and major in the U.S. Army Reserve
Job experience: Kindergarten teacher in the Franklin-McKinley School District
Scott Hung Pham
Job experience: San Jose City College language instructor
Job experience: Retired San Jose city worker