‘A critical need’: Former San Jose Mayor talks congressional bid

Feb. 19, 2024, 9:14 p.m.

This interview is part of a series with candidates for California’s 16th Congressional District.

Stanford Law School lecturer and former mayor of San Jose Sam Liccardo is running as a Democrat in the crowded open primary to replace Rep. Anna Eshoo, who has represented the district including Stanford for the past 16 terms. The top two candidates in the March 5 primary will advance to a general election on Nov. 5.

Liccardo grew up in Silicon Valley and attended Georgetown University, Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School. He worked as a federal and local prosecutor in California before being elected to the San Jose City Council in 2006, where he served for two terms. Liccardo went on to win the contested election for mayor of San Jose in 2014. During his eight years as mayor, he focused on addressing homelessness, clean energy, tech growth and pension reforms. His courses at Stanford Law School focus on urban issues and housing policy.

The Daily spoke to Liccardo about his experience as mayor, how Congress can support local communities and his message for Stanford students.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Why are you running for Congress?

Sam Liccardo (SL): As a large city mayor, you spend dozens of hours on Capitol Hill advocating for resources and policy for your community. What I routinely found is I was telling members of Congress, particularly outside of our Bay Area, about the urgency for Congress to get moving on issues like homelessness and the high cost of housing.

[There] was a sense that those were local issues. Congress didn’t believe that they should be addressing them with federal policy. In my year teaching at Stanford, it became increasingly apparent through my own research and through discussions with colleagues that issues like homelessness are national crises — they’re not local. It’s a national crisis and deserves a federal response.

There’s a critical need for the federal government to step up to be a better partner with local communities. This housing crisis is not just affecting the unhoused. We know it’s affecting every student at Stanford. It’s affecting every employer in Silicon Valley struggling to hire a workforce here. It is a crisis that’s affecting every major metro in the United States. It is long since time for Congress to lean in. That’s why I’m running. I want to get Congress moving on issues like climate change, like affordable housing, like homelessness and on issues of personal safety.

TSD: Given that you’ve spent most of your career in city government, what do you anticipate as the challenges of serving at the federal level if you’re elected? What are the major differences?

SL: When you’re a mayor of a large city, people expect you to respond. They hold you accountable. When there’s an encampment down the street, when there’s a burglary next door, you hear about it as a big city mayor every time you’re going to Safeway or you’re at the gym. People reasonably expect that you’re going to be responsive. You don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘We didn’t get anything done because of that other party.’

Over the last year, [this has been] the least productive Congress in the last half-century. It’s a pretty low bar over the last half-century, so that is quite an astounding accomplishment. We critically need a Congress that understands the accountability that mayors understand. It’s simply not good enough to point the finger at the other party —we actually have to get things done.

It means we have to talk to people who disagree with us, we have to listen to them. We have to forge coalitions among people who may disagree on lots of other things, but that’s our nation’s work. That’s what Americans are expecting Congress to do, but have increasingly lost hope that Congress can ever do that. It’s critical to have elected officials in Congress who understand what it means to be accountable. Frankly, mayors understand better than anyone, particularly mayors of large cities.

TSD: If you’re elected, what would be your main policy priorities?

SL:  Homelessness, housing, the high cost of living…with a whole set of specific policies around everything from pharmaceuticals to insurance to utility costs. Fourth [is] crime and safety. The fifth is around climate and the environment. 

People might dismiss [those] as local issues, but… there are many ways in which Congress can change policy that can dramatically help local communities that are struggling in those areas. Virtually every major metro is struggling in those areas. It’s not a novelty or something unique about the Bay Area.

Secondly, we need to identify ideas that we can accomplish within our budget. We need elected officials running with ideas that don’t add to that burden, rather than pie-in-the-sky ideas that sound good on campaign mailers but actually can never get accomplished.

TSD: What are the major accomplishments that voters should know about from your time as mayor? What regrets do you have, if any, with the benefit of hindsight?

SL: When you’re mayor, you make many decisions every day. There are always mistakes and I certainly didn’t always make the perfect decision. But when I was in office, we learned. We learned how to respond better, how to marshal resources more cost-effectively. Through a lot of hard work and learning, by the time I left office in 2022, we left San Jose with the lowest homicide rate of any major city in the country.

We had reduced street homelessness by 11% that year. And I passed a $30 million surplus onto my successor, which generally doesn’t happen much in government. We [also] reduced greenhouse gas emissions community-wide in the city of San Jose by 36%. 

TSD: How confident are you feeling in your chances of winning this primary? You raised over $1.6 million in the last quarter. Can you tell me about your campaign strategy and fundraising strategy?

SL: First, about the campaign, I’m a big believer in Andy Grove’s mantra, “Only the paranoid survive.” I’m racing hard, head down and sprinting to the finish on March 5. Any candidate who isn’t is certainly not going to have a chance to win. This is a group of very competent, good people and good candidates. I’m going to be working very hard in the next three weeks, just as I have been.

The campaign strategy has been predicated on doing something different than the standard campaign, bumper-sticker approach of simply trying to trigger voters on either the left or the right to respond to dog whistles that we hear too often in the national political debate.

What I think is productive in our political discourse is when we actually talk about solutions and debate whether those solutions are the right ones for the challenges we’re facing. That requires a specificity that you typically don’t hear out of candidates. It requires a certain level of pragmatism that you often don’t get out of candidates, because pragmatism is required in a divided Congress. You actually have to reach across the aisle. You need ideas that don’t simply appeal to [Democrats], but appeal more broadly.

And fundraising, you asked me. I have a very strong base in tech support. That’s not a secret. As mayor of San Jose, we had a lot of partnerships with tech. So, many of those tech leaders certainly came out to support me, and I’m grateful they did.

TSD: Representative Eshoo has been in Congress for 30 years. She was elected at a time when women were a very small percentage of Congress. What would replacing her mean to you?

SL: I actually worked as a volunteer on Anna Eshoo’s campaign in 1992 when she won. [There was] a strong sense that women weren’t feeling heard. I feel as though we have revisited that in an even more profound way with the overturning of Roe v. Wade. There’s an appropriate urgency to ensure that this Congress is much more responsive to the imperative of reproductive rights and other critical issues to women than we’ve seen in the Supreme Court, or from the last presidential administration.

TSD: What do you have to say to the Stanford community? Do you have a message for students specifically?

SL: My year on the Farm was incredibly rewarding. I had great pleasure in getting to know and teaching brilliant students and working with brilliant colleagues.

What I’d say to students on the Stanford campus, [which] I know won’t be a big secret, is get involved. You have no idea how impactful you can be until you actually take the step to get engaged. Obviously, as a candidate, I’d love to have folks engaged in volunteering on my campaign, for example.

This is a critical seat to advocate for the many issues that are top-of-mind for so many students on the university campus. Congress needs to focus on issues like homelessness and the lack of housing affordability. [I’ve talked] to lots of students. There’s plenty of frustration that more isn’t being done.

The most obvious way for people to get involved is to vote. I was a college student; I was a graduate student too. I know you generally tend to vote in your own home district. But I encourage folks, if they want to have a voice here, register and vote here. Young people vot[ing] at much lower percentages than older people is exactly why you hear politicians catering to older generations and demographics and not heeding enough the voices of those who are going to bear the burden of poor decisions around things like climate change and education. So anyway, I’m done preaching.

George Porteous ’27 is the Vol. 265 President and Provost beat reporter and a news staff writer. He is from New York, NY, loves acting, and plans to study History and Creative Writing. Find him on X @georgedporteous. Contact George at gporteous ‘at’ stanforddaily.com

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