Matt Mahan is calling for a revolution in San Jose. His platform in the mayoral race, “a revolution of common sense,” mantras to bring accountability back to city government.
Since 2021, Mahan has been San Jose’s District 10 councilmember. Even though he has only been in office for a year, he says what he has seen has propelled him to run for mayor.
Mahan grew up in Watsonville and commuted four hours a day to Bellarmine College Preparatory on a work-study scholarship. He later studied politics, philosophy and economics at Harvard, also on a work-study scholarship. At both Bellarmine and Havard, he honed his leadership skills by serving as student body president and organizing student movements.
After college, Mahan taught at Joseph George Middle School in Alum Rock School District with Teach for America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to closing the equity gap in education.
In 2008 Mahan joined Causes, a startup Facebook app that allowed followers to raise awareness and funds for nonprofits. Bankrolled by Facebook co-founder Sean Parker, Causes reached more than 190 million users in 150 countries. In 2011 Mahan became the company’s COO and, a year later, the CEO.
In 2014 Mahan co-founded Brigade with former members of Causes, including Parker. The non-partisan Brigade worked as a platform for voters to advocate for political candidates. Brigade unfortunately did not see the same success that Causes did. Its engineering team was acquired by Pinterest in 2019 and the rest of the company’s assets (which included Causes) was acquired by Countable Corp.
“I was done commuting to San Francisco and while Pinterest is a great company, I wasn’t too excited about their mission. So while most of my team ended up there, I decided to run for city council. A council seat opened up and I spent nine months knocking on 10,000 doors personally.”
Running in 2020, Matt Mahan beat Helen Wang and Jenny Higgins Bradanini in the primary for the council seat with more than 60% of the vote. Knocking on all those doors while campaigning, Mahan heard one question over and over again: Where does all the money go?
“I am concerned with the direction our city is heading in,” said Mahan. “You can see that in terms of sprawling homeless encampments, concerns about public safety, blight and trash, lack of affordability, high cost of living particularly due to housing—the list goes on and on.”
To Mahan, the biggest issue, and where the others stem from, is how the city is governed. The fix would require a total reset of current strategies—and how city government operates.
“I think we have gotten very complacent in government. I call it a culture of complacency. If you watch our council meetings, we kinda just talk about the same things over and over again. We will have 10 to 20 items on an agenda. Everything is kinda perfunctory. We just vote on things.”
This culture of complacency isn’t malicious or even intentional, but just a result of constantly hearing no. Mahan is clear that it isn’t one councilmember’s fault.
“All of my opponents are good, hard-working people; I believe they are in it for the right reasons. I also have to say, three of them have been in elected office for a long time. I think collectively 34 years. This culture of complacency is very subtle and insidious and it comes from getting beaten down when you have been in office and hearing all the reasons things can’t be different.”
Mahan believes his experience in the government and business sector can allow him to bring accountability to the city and finally end what he sees as an overwhelming complacency. This means making sure the city sets reasonable objectives.
“The reason I am so big on this is that I came from a world where I met with my executive team every quarter and I went into a board meeting and everything was about setting and meeting goals. I acknowledge we were not gonna be perfect. We would miss goals and make mistakes, but that was all part of the learning process. We actually embrace failure for opportunities to learn. Our mantra was ‘fail fast.’”
These targets would be measured by the city auditor and data would be made available on common measurable factors. Mahan gives the examples that he heard most often from the citizens he campaigned for: road pavement conditions, park index score, number of people living on the street, homes built, and crime rate.
“In government, we never seem to fail because we almost never set goals that are sufficiently concrete or tied to a date or outcome we can be accountable for. We have these meetings where everything is on autopilot and we talk about the same issues endlessly. Every six months we get a status report, which is a little show and dance where we talk about all the nice efforts we made. We don’t really talk about outcomes in the community. We vote to accept the report and then we carry on for another six months.”
If city officials don’t meet expectations, Mahan encourages no increase in wages for those making decisions: councilmembers, the city manager and the city manager’s senior staff.
Mahan believes in standard goals for all cities to meet. The “carrot” in this system would be receiving more support from the county and state. The key, he explains, would be data visibility and moral persuasion to convince other counties to publish their own data. The state could then allocate funding based on how well a county performed.
“The truth is San Jose has just half of the county’s population but has 60 to 70% of the homeless population. We have the vast majority of affordable housing, transitional housing, many of the services and most of the shelter beds. I am all for San Jose continuing to invest, but we need regional and statewide solutions.”
On its own, San Jose is not equipped to handle the massive influx of houseless people from other counties, in both resources and strategy. Mahan believes that the strategy for controlling the houseless issue can be broken down into three steps.
The first step is considering how to build cost-effective shelters. The current method is too costly and can take upwards of five years to complete.
“Yes, we need to house people—that should be the first prong in the strategy—but we should be using prefabricated modular units on government-owned land. They come off the assembly line at $30,000 apiece. Even if we build a lot of common space, parking, and do the site preparation and have on-site security, put in electricity, running water, private bathrooms, you can do it for $100,000 a unit, not $800,000, and you can stack them.”
The second step is establishing better services, like job training, job placement, family reunification and more reliable health services.
“We need to go from 13 beds per hundred thousand for behavioral health to 50 beds, and we have the money to do it. We just have to prioritize it over other things.”
Mahan’s last step is making sure people are making use of these solutions.
“We cannot have everything be voluntary. I am not talking about criminalizing homelessness. I do not believe someone should go to jail for being homeless. What I do believe is that when safe, secure individual shelters are provided and people have that option, I think they either need to use it or we should be willing to enforce anti-camping laws by not allowing any encampments to exist forever. We can pick people up with their belongings, bring them to a navigation center or transitional housing site and give them the option of safe, secure shelter.”
“For folks who refuse—perhaps because they are very, very addicted to methamphetamine, for example … or perhaps they are severely mentally ill—we need to have other safe spaces like these treatment centers, where they can go and be evaluated and get care. I just don’t buy that it is so important to protect people’s civil liberties such that they can die talking to themselves in the gutter.”