As Santa Clara surges toward this fall’s midterm elections, a relatively new councilmember hopes to unseat the mayor in one of the most contentious races in the city.
Mayor Lisa Gillmor, who has served as mayor since 2016, faces a fierce challenge by Councilmember Anthony Becker, who was elected to his District 6 seat in November 2020.
The two have long had a challenging relationship, finding themselves at odds over the San Francisco 49ers’ management of Levi’s Stadium, the council’s level of transparency with the public, and the large financial contributions made to independent expenditure committees set up by entities like the 49ers to support Becker or a development company backing Gillmor.
As a result, the two often butt heads during city council meetings, with Gillmor accusing Becker of losing his temper behind closed doors and Becker alleging that Gillmor has been dishonest about his character.
Meanwhile, two new challengers have entered the race for a seat on the city council. Christian Pellecchia, the former board chair of the Silicon Valley Central Chamber of Commerce is running against Councilmember Karen Hardy, and longtime resident Larry McColloch, is contesting Councilmember Raj Chahal.
Candidates in all three races said the dysfunction on the city council and a lack of transparency on councilmembers’ decisions compelled them to run.
Gillmor brings years of experience to the position as she was first elected as a council member 30 years ago, but Becker insists more experience isn’t always better. He promises a “night and day” change from how Gillmor has managed council business, saying that the city is long overdue for a changing of the guard.
“My opponent has been in office since 1992,” said Becker, who is serving his first term on the city council. “That is basically when I was six years old – I just turned 37 this year, and I think it’s time for fresh, new leadership that’s going to take our city into the future.”
His priorities, he said, are increasing government transparency, advocating for affordable housing, reducing unnecessary spending, and improving the quality of life of Santa Clara’s residents.
Becker also pointed to the city’s nearly $26 million deficit at the start of the current fiscal year and past spending of $6 million to fight a lawsuit over the California Voting Rights Act as examples of “failed leadership” that he wants to change.
“I don’t want to hog all that power, because I am just one vote on a city council of seven members,” Becker said. “As mayor, I won’t try to control the city council — I don’t see that as my priority and I don’t see that as my agenda. I see taking care of Santa Clara residents as my priority and my agenda.”
Gillmor, a fourth-generation Santa Clara resident whose day job is as a real estate broker, was first elected to the city council in 1992, serving two stretches on the city council from 1992 to 2000 and 2011 to 2016. She said she hopes to lower the cost of living in the city, push for affordable housing, improve access to a wider variety of transportation options, and address homelessness by connecting unhoused Santa Clarans to mental health resources and shelter.
She describes her lifelong involvement with Santa Clara as a strength that puts Santa residents first instead of entities like the 49ers, which she said had an outsized influence on some council members’ actions, including Becker’s.
Gillmor maintains that Becker and other members of the council “always put the team first, in every decision and every concession to the team.”
Since the settlement agreement that allowed the team to continue to manage the publicly-owned Levi’s Stadium, the 49ers have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into committees supporting Becker’s bid for mayor.
Becker has maintained he wasn’t aware of the contributions ahead of time and hasn’t “taken a dime” from the team. But, Gillmor said, the contributions leave Becker and other council members who received financial support from the team “beholden to them” instead of everyday Santa Clarans.
“Never in the history of Santa Clara has one special interest like Jed York put in millions of dollars to invest in a candidate,” Gillmor said. “Councilmember Becker has approved every 49er concession that Jed York has requested. What he says and what he does does not add up.”
Meanwhile, Becker criticized Gilmore after Related Santa Clara — a developer spearheading the construction of a mixed-used development near Levi’s Stadium — set up an independent expenditure committee to support her re-election, pouring $100,000 into the war chest.
“That contribution is a small fraction of what my opponent is receiving from the 49ers,” Gillmor said, adding that she didn’t know about the contribution before it was made.
Both Becker and Gillmor expressed concerns about the city council’s reputation, acknowledging the tension.
Becker hopes to reduce the tension within the council by creating open lines of communication, encouraging members to compromise, pushing aside “toxic energy” and remaining civil in the face of disagreements.
Although the management of Levi’s Stadium is top of mind, both candidates want to make sure the council doesn’t forget about other important issues.
Gillmor emphasized the importance of the city’s general fund, saying that concessions made to entities like the 49ers reduce the amount of money available for city services, including police and fire services, public transportation, and resources for unhoused Santa Clarans, like access to food, showers, laundry services and mental health services.
“I don’t think my opponent has the experience to recognize that this is what it is,” Gillmor said. “I think that’s where experience comes in as a mayor — I understand that as a new council member, the learning curve is huge … especially for a city that has a $1.3 billion budget and owns an NFL stadium. The learning curve is huge for our city, and I don’t see my opponent seeing the big picture.”
But Becker maintained that the litigation between the council and the 49ers was costing the city too much money, and that the council can now direct more attention to issues like building more affordable housing, addressing the high cost of living, investing more in infrastructure and housing the homeless.
“The 49ers are going to be here for 40 years, we have to find a way to make it work, and we’re going to make it work transparently,” Becker said. “The stadium should not be the forefront of all our issues — it should be getting back to what we used to focus on in Santa Clara before the stadium got here.”