SAN JOSE -- Could Dave Cortese suddenly be the underdog after finishing on top in Tuesday's primary for San Jose mayor?
The Santa Clara County supervisor took pole position in the five-way primary race with a third of the vote, securing a spot in the November runoff against Councilman Sam Liccardo, who got about a fourth. But the rest of the votes, which are now up for grabs, went to three council members who are expected to ask their supporters to back their ally, Liccardo, in November.
"It's a new ballgame now," said Garrick Percival, a San Jose State political science professor.
Cortese stood out in the primary largely by advocating a City Hall overhaul. The union-backed challenger was the only candidate who wanted to appease cops by abandoning parts of a pension reform measure that they blame for officers leaving for better-paying cities.
The other four candidates all aligned with outgoing Mayor Chuck Reed and his fiscal and pension reforms they say were needed to curb runaway benefits costs that have devoured funds for police and other services. Liccardo emerged on top of that pack after spending the most money in the race.
Now the fight goes on for Cortese and Liccardo to win over the 37 percent of voters whose candidate was eliminated Tuesday.
Those three contenders -- Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen and council members Pierluigi Oliverio and Rose Herrera -- said it was too soon to announce an endorsement for November.
A similar scenario played out in the last open mayoral election, in 2006, when union-funded candidate Cindy Chavez emerged from a five-person primary field to face the fiscal-restraint candidate, Reed. In the November runoff, Reed easily won after gobbling up votes that had gone to ousted primary candidates who largely opposed unions and Chavez.
This time, Reed, the termed-out mayor, who did not endorse in the primary, is expected to throw his support behind Cortese's opponent.
"I don't think voters want to go back to the days of cutting services to pay for employee pay and benefit increases, and that's what they'll get with Dave Cortese," Reed said Wednesday while praising Liccardo.
But Cortese points to differences between this year's election and the 2006 race. Cortese comfortably scored the top spot in the primary, unlike Chavez, who was second eight years ago. And Cortese says Reed won the 2006 race not because Chavez was backed by unions but largely as a result of his stance on a major issue of the time: ethical reforms at City Hall. The outgoing mayor, Ron Gonzales, was tainted by a scandal, and Chavez as vice mayor suffered by association.
Now, Cortese says another issue that has overtaken residents' minds -- crime -- will be much more important to voters than his union support.
"In this race, the deciding factor is going to be public safety and how we decide to restore it," Cortese said Wednesday. Voters "are concerned with safe neighborhoods, not 'did my council member support this guy or that guy.' "
Cortese's plan to regain police staffing is to settle a union lawsuit that calls for the city to abandon key parts of a pension reform measure voters approved two years ago. Liccardo wants to keep fighting the case in court in hopes of keeping the reforms and would increase police staffing through taxpayer savings from the pension cuts.
Mayoral candidates who back pension reform scored 62 percent of Tuesday's votes, compared to 69 percent of voters who approved the pension initiative, called Measure B.
Liccardo maintains his strategy was to finish second in June and then win over voters who had supported Nguyen, Oliverio and Herrera in November.
"I can appeal to the same voters with the same message -- finding ways to improve services and safety by spending smarter rather than spending more," Liccardo said.
It's less clear that Nguyen's supporters will flock to Liccardo, though. Many of her backers are immigrants or Asian-Americans who said they followed Nguyen because they could relate to her inspiring personal journey from Vietnam, not necessarily for her policy specifics.
And Percival points to one other large wild card: A large crop of new voters who didn't cast ballots Tuesday but are expected to come to the polls in November, when turnout is usually much higher. Those low-interest voters historically lean a bit left, which could help Cortese, he said.
"That may supersede any benefits that Liccardo might get from really hitting the Measure B theme hard," Percival said. "It should be a good race."
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/rosenbergmerc.