SAN JOSE -- In a term-limit era when incumbent City Council members seldom sweat re-election, San Jose City Councilwoman Rose Herrera is facing the fight of her career as city employee unions enraged over her support for a pension reform measure that voters overwhelmingly approved are campaigning furiously to defeat her.
The unions have in effect turned the race for the District 8 council seat representing the tawny foothills of southeast San Jose into another decision on pension reform Measure B and what they argue is its aftermath: police officers fleeing the city for better-paid jobs elsewhere and surging crime.
Herrera, 59, seeking her second term, argues that pension reform and pay cuts were needed to avoid deeper layoffs of police and other workers as skyrocketing costs for generous retirement packages devoured the city budget. The unions, she says, "want to undo the will of the voters."
"I am doing what is right for the people of San Jose," Herrera said. "They want to take us backwards."
Herrera's opponent, Jimmy Nguyen, a political novice with a thin résumé who says he's been living off credit cards and family support, was catapulted into contention by the aggressive independent union campaign against Herrera. The 35-year-old, who has held various part-time jobs as a recreation leader and mediator, was just admitted to the bar this year, and was the runner-up in a three-way June primary in which Herrera narrowly missed the majority support to clinch re-election.
Nguyen argues Measure B violates employee rights and that the city should have negotiated a pension solution with its unions. Now, he said, crime is on the rise because cops are leaving.
"This election is about the policies and the merits of the policies that either hurt us or help us,'' Nguyen said. "In this case, there are policies out there that are hurting us and exposing us to criminals.''
What makes this contest critical is that, unlike the outcome of the District 10 race in Almaden Valley, where both candidates support Reed's measure, the winner in District 8 could tip the balance of power on the divided council, where Reed has led a fragile majority in a hard-fought quest to reduce mounting employee retirement costs.
The mayor is relying on Herrera, whom he has endorsed, to help him implement the reforms, which city employee unions are trying to block in court.
Those unions backed Herrera's first run for council, and feel betrayed by her vote for pension reform against them. But voters in Herrera's district passed pension reform by almost 71 percent, while citywide the effort passed by 69 percent.
"The police union is against me because I supported Measure B,'' she said.
While not officially endorsed by the police officers union, Nguyen is benefiting from at least $175,000 that independent committees linked to police and other employee unions are spending in a bitter campaign to unseat her. But Nguyen said that the unions "are raising money for themselves; they are not raising money for me.''
Reed and others also have donated at least $164,000 to an independent expenditure group that supports Herrera.
As both candidates introduce themselves to voters, residents have noticed the recent uptick in crime.
Luis Aguilar recently told Nguyen his truck was broken into in late August, and when he called police, it took them 15 minutes to arrive, which he said was too long to wait. If anyone breaks into his house, he said, he might have to defend himself and "take matters into my own hands.'' Aguilar agreed with Nguyen's focus on beefing up the police force, and said he's got his vote.
But businessman Reyad Katwan, who also has witnessed a string of car break-ins near his office building in the district, supports Herrera. If anything, he said, the unions' anti-Herrera campaign is driving criminals to San Jose.
"The police are playing politics with our lives and our safety and our personal property,'' he said. "They should just go out and do their jobs.''
During her first term, Herrera opposed the sale of a water system to a private venture, which she said could have led to higher water rates for Evergreen residents; fought to keep traffic improvements and San Jose's Lake Cunningham Skate Park from being cut; and pushed for a future branch library in Evergreen Village Square. She was a key vote in helping Reed get the pension reform measure on the ballot and in cutting all city workers' salaries to avoid more layoffs.
But Herrera is worried about the rising number of complaints from residents alleging slow response by police to crime in the district. Among other strategies to reduce the city's recent crime spike, Herrera supports the police chief's call to return at least 17 officers to patrol who are doing background checks. City officials say the police union is resisting.
For his part, Nguyen said the district needs someone like him, a volunteer mediator on leave with the Santa Clara County Office of Human Relations, who can resolve issues between two sides that don't agree.
Nguyen also said the district needs more library hours and after-school programs as a way to divert children from getting into trouble. Asked where he would find the money to restore cops, library hours, as well as community centers, park maintenance and street repairs he advocates, Nguyen said it could come from consolidating city departments.
While both candidates grew up in the district, Herrera's career has followed a more traditional path: she joined the Air Force after high school, then returned to the area to work for the Santa Clara County probation department and the county's Office of Human Relations. She worked for high-tech firms, and later founded a software company, but as previously reported, filed for bankruptcy in 1996. She later returned to high tech before being elected in 2008.
Nguyen's résumé includes a variety of volunteer or part-time jobs, including working as a part-time recreation leader in an after-school program for at-risk youth at what is now the city's Seven Trees Community Center. He said he worked full-time from 2005 to 2007 for a mortgage company in Milpitas that's now defunct. As a volunteer mediator for the county from February 2011 through June 2012, he was paid for only three months, due to a grant. He recently taught criminal justice courses at DeVry University.
Staff researcher Diana Stickler contributed to this report. Contact Tracy Seipel at 408-275-0140.
NAME: Rose Herrera
OCCUPATION: Incumbent District 8 City Councilwoman
CIVIC BACKGROUND: Started Norwood Creek Elementary School PTA; started Involved Evergreen
EDUCATION: B.S. in psychology from Santa Clara University; master's degree in counseling psychology from Santa Clara University
FAMILY: Married; one adult son and two grandchildren; two adult stepchildren
KEY ENDORSEMENTS: San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed; San Jose City Councilmembers Sam Liccardo, Madison Nguyen, Pierluigi Oliverio and Pete Constant; the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce
LOCAL MEASURES: Herrera opposes both Measure A, the county's 1/8-cent sales tax measure, and Measure D, the effort to raise San Jose's minimum wage from $8 an hour to $10 an hour, with automatic future increases.
NAME: Jimmy Nguyen
CIVIC BACKGROUND: Member of the San Jose/Evergreen Measure G Bond Oversight Committee
EDUCATION: Double major in criminology, law and society; psychology and social behavior, University of California Irvine; J.D. University of La Verne School of Law
KEY ENDORSEMENTS: San Jose City Councilmen Xavier Campos, Kansen Chu, and Ash Kalra; Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese; Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith; Local 101 American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
LOCAL MEASURES: Nguyen opposes Measure A, the county's 1/8-cent sales tax measure, but supports Measure D, the effort to raise San Jose's minimum wage from $8 an hour to $10 an hour, with automatic future increases.
Source: Rose Herrera and Jimmy Nguyen