.Matt Mahan’s Journey to Mayorship

An outsider runs against the political establishment

On a surface level, Matt Mahan’s image coincides with trappings of wealth and influence. He went to elite schools like San Jose’s Bellarmine College Preparatory and Harvard University and has ties to technology industry luminaries like Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker, as well as the support of San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. His political adversaries have tried to frame him as a “Republican” out of step with progressive San Jose.

His origins, however, don’t suggest a silver spoon upbringing or conservative roots, though that hasn’t stopped competing interests from running against him as if he were a fourth-generation member of the Bush family. Even though he’s declared himself a pro-choice Democrat, mailers by the labor-aligned independent PACs suggested he might not be a reliable ally on reproductive rights.

Mahan called the political hit a “distraction” to draw attention away from the political establishment’s failed policies on homelessness and public safety. Calling attention to those failures have cast him as an outsider running against the establishment and have likely cost him endorsements from officeholders, including his council colleagues, who have thrown their wholesale support behind the candidate most closely aligned with the valley’s political leadership.

Mahan’s campaign released a poll this week showing that while opponent Cindy Chavez enjoys much higher name recognition and a 1 point lead amongst likely voters, 25 percent of the electorate is still undecided and shares Mahan’s view that San Jose is not headed in the right direction.

He’s always been a bit of an outsider. The mayoral candidate grew up in the Santa Cruz County agricultural town Watsonville in the 1980s and ’90s. Although his family owned the house in which they lived, they could be described as working class—as were most of their neighbors in the mostly Latinx community of 52,000. His mother taught at a Catholic school in Salinas, and his father was a union letter carrier. 

“I remember waking up at the crack of dawn, and farm workers were already out there working,” Mahan says. “That always left an impression on me.”

Because both parents worked, his mother would drop Mahan off at school early. Mahan recalls that one of the teachers, Mr. Washington, would let Mahan and his sisters into his classroom before school started. After school, he took his sisters to the public library to do homework until they could be picked up. 

“Even though we didn’t have much money, my parents were incredible in being proactive and getting us into different activities that weren’t too expensive. One time, they even got […] my sister and I enrolled in an after-school art program. That stuff makes a big impact on you when you’re a kid. You remember those things, and they build confidence and interpersonal skills.”

Beyond art, Mahan had a love of sports. In his childhood and teenage years, Mahan played basketball, soccer and wrestling. He carried his passion for soccer into his later years as a soccer coach at Joseph George Middle School while working as a teacher for the nonprofit Teach for America.

“That was a weird thing. For a kinda shy kid as I was growing up, through sports and great mentors, teachers, family friends, playing team sports and individual sports like wrestling all helped build confidence and my interpersonal skills.”

“What I love about Watsonville is that it has that small-town feel where everybody knows everybody and it has incredible access to nature. Where we lived on the outskirts of the town, we had access to a creek on the hillside and I spent much of my childhood outside. I have a great love for nature.”

Despite the beauty of the surrounding area, life in Watsonville had its challenges.

“It is a small town, with a strong sense of community, primarily agriculture—people work hard. It has that small-town culture. On the other hand, it struggled quite a bit. We had a high unemployment rate, high crime rate, a lot of gang activity and a lot of violence. It ended up being that two people in my neighborhood were drug dealers.”

Mahan stops to reaffirm his fondness for Watsonville. His mom still lives there, and he regularly visits; as a teenager, however, he felt some growing pains.

“When you turn 13 or 14, you start to wonder about your place in the world, and it … felt kinda restraining at the time. I don’t mean anything negative. … It is just the nature of a small agricultural town.”

BELLARMINE

His parents always striving for the best for their children’s education, Mahan was encouraged by his family to take the entrance exam to Bellarmine College Prep, an all-boys Jesuit school. Bellarmine since its inception in 1851 has provided students with the highest academic support resulting in 98% of students moving onto a four-year university and an average ACT score of 31. Mayors Tom McEnery and Sam Liccardo are Bellarmine alumni and have endorsed Mahan for the city’s top position.

“I will never forget, my dad took me over and we got lost in East San Jose and barely made it in time for the test. I was late and everyone had already gotten started. I remember walking in and sitting down. They were all San Jose residents and knew each other. I was one kid from Watsonville that came in late to take the test.”

After a grueling examination, Mahan was accepted into Bellarmine but faced the realization that the entrance exam was just the first test. The next hurdle was figuring out how his family could afford the private-school tuition. Luckily the answer came in the form of a 200-hour work-study scholarship.

“They gave me this great deal. If I came during the summers and worked with the maintenance crew, they would pay my tuition,” said Mahan. “Then the rest of the year, I was just any other student there to get an education, and I did. Bellarmine is a very special place with a great sense of community and tradition.”

During the summers before each school year, Mahan worked with the maintenance crew watering plants, landscaping and joking with the permanent crew members, who welcomed him warmly.

“When I showed up on day one, the only people I knew were the grounds crew.”

Now able to attend Bellarmine without worrying about tuition, he still faced a four-hour round trip bus ride on Highway 17 each day of the school week.

“My dad would get me up in the dark at 4:45 in the morning and I would be so tired he would pick me up off the bed and put me on the cold floor just to wake me up.”

Early mornings and long bus rides resulted in an early appreciation for caffeine. Despite being a self-described awkward kid and, for all purposes, an outsider, Mahan found himself not only welcomed at Bellarmine but also able to attain a leadership position. It is easy to imagine seeing Mahan as the student body president at Bellarmine as a small preview of his later political career. A sentiment shared with Katie O’Keefe, a close friend to Mahan and his family, who took early notice of his leadership skills.

“You kind of think ‘big fish, small pond,’ but every time he moved ponds, he is the big fish,” said O’Keefe when describing how Mahan adapted after stepping into Bellarmine.

O’Keefe first met Mahan while she attended Presentation High School, an all-girls Catholic school in San Jose. She met Mahan along with the man who would become her future husband at a school mixer. Mahan and the O’Keefe family are still close friends. Her first impressions of Mahan were in stark contrast to how Mahan thought of himself.

“Matt has always been impressive. When you met him, you knew he was going to do great things.”

This stands in contrast to Mahan’s self-described shyness—especially when O’Keefe describes student body president Mahan’s responsibilities.

“Since it was an all-boys school, it didn’t have cheerleaders, so they had yell leaders. So at football games he would be out there riling up the crowd, wearing these rugby polo shirts, and if the team scored they [Mahan and other yell leaders] had to do push ups.”

Being student body president was not always shaking hands and being a pep leader. Sometimes it was talking about uncomfortable topics or standing up for others.

“Being in an all-boys Catholic high school at that time, talking about homophobia wasn’t the most comfortable thing, but it was important to me. Two of my best friends there were not fully accepted by many of my classmates,” said Mahan.

Mahan used his platform to disclaim bigotry through speeches in front of classmates and faculty, and in a column for the school newspaper.

“That was where I became interested in social justice. I ended up getting involved in student government. I pushed the campus to move away from sweatshop labor for its apparel.”

COLLEGE AND BEYOND

Mahan, who valued academic achievement, knew just which university he wanted to attend.

“Every day when I would wake up on the cold floor, looking up at the ceiling, I had a picture of Georgetown on the ceiling, because that was my dream for years was to get into a great university. Because I wanted greater opportunities. I didn’t want to live paycheck to paycheck like my parents did.”

While his eyes were on Georgetown, O’Keefe recalls, that is not where he ended up.

“He really wanted to go to Georgetown,” O’Keefe says, “but he reached for the stars and got into Harvard. He was in shock and awe when he got in.”

Mahan traveled to the East Coast with a friend visiting with his family. He took the time to visit both Georgetown and Harvard before arriving at his final decision. 

“I kinda fell in love with Cambridge and Harvard because it is a place driven by ideas and people interested in thinking about what’s right, should be, and what the future is like. Sorry, I guess you can call me a big old nerd.”

“I saw a lot of my core views challenged in a really productive way,” said Mahan. “I kinda see myself as a centrist or a moderate who tries to take what is most true of the progressive and conservative traditions in our country—because Harvard and my interactions with fellow students and professors made me realize that no ideology has a monopoly on the truth.”

Harvard at this time turned out to be a powder keg of innovation mixed with opportunity. Mahan succeeded in his economics program and became student body president once again. While later graduating magna cum laude (and also meeting his future wife), he also rubbed some influential elbows. 

Mahan arrived at Harvard precisely at the same time as Mark Zuckerberg. 

“He and Mark [Zuckerberg] lived in the same dorm,” said O’Keefe. “I think for some of the reasons he got into tech later was because he was offered the opportunity to help with the original Facebook. He turned it down because he wanted to do the class president thing. He was constantly volunteering, working on political campaigns, and then it [Facebook] took off. 

A 2005 article in the Harvard Crimson noted Mahan’s disillusionment with Harvard’s career track system. “They’ll, you know, live in a beautiful suburb where they never have to confront homelessness and poverty, and all end up in the same retirement home where they’ll play golf until they die,” he was quoted as saying about his classmates.

The article also noted his volunteer work with Democratic nominee John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and his activism with the campus’ Black Men’s Forum president to create a fund to protest Harvard’s investment in a Chinese state energy corporation linked to Sudanese genocide.

Two years later he volunteered for two weeks as an early supporter of Sen. Barack Obama’s nascent presidential campaign. “I was in Iowa in 2007 before the caucuses and spent two weeks knocking on doors and getting people out in the snow. … It was freezing cold. I’ll never forget how cold it was.”

Mahan also became a public school teacher at Joseph George Middle School on San Jose’s East Side, and a “card carrying member” of the teacher‘s union. “He didn’t regret [not joining Facebook] because he had that North Star, more just like it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our generation to be part of something like that. So when the apps started being created for Facebook, it was originally Causes he worked for.”

Co-founded by Sean Parker and Joe Green, Causes created a social platform for users to share fundraisers and raise awareness for nonprofits. The app aligned with what O’Keefe describes as Mahan’s “North Star” of social justice. Mahan eventually became the company’s COO and then its CEO. The experiences Mahan picked up at Causes allowed him to extend his business ventures with his old dorm mates into Brigade, a successor social advocacy platform that was later sold to Pinterest.

This incursion into tech eventually did come to an end and Mahan turned his eyes back to his ultimate goal: becoming mayor of San Jose. Mahan’s political career is still very fresh, having first been elected only two years ago, a small time in comparison to his opponent Cindy Chavez, who has been a dominant figure on the local political scene since the 1990s.

“I always thought it would be the best job in the world. I am more into action and getting things done. You get to champion initiatives and push the bureaucracy to deliver results. I like the idea of trying to organize people around solving problems,” says Mahan.

“The city [San Jose] has given me incredible opportunities. I just fell in love with it when I came here. Maybe it is a little bit of nostalgia from my youth, but I came here in the ’90s and it just felt like a city on the rise.”

Only time and the voters will tell if he will reach that North Star.

“Matt has always wanted to be mayor of San Jose. It wasn’t a stepping stone; it was specifically for San Jose,” says O’Keefe. “I think growing up in Watsonville, San Jose was the big city, and he wanted to be part of it.”

Chris Corona
Chris Corona is the Assistant Editor for Metro Silicon Valley. Born and raised in California, he has called the greater Bay Area home for the last five years. Chris has covered news in Santa Cruz and San Jose since 2018.

17 COMMENTS

  1. What a great, informative article! I knew from the beginning that I really liked Matt and his ideas, and now I know a little more about the why of the attraction. Much has been negatively said about the Mayorship being a stepping stone for Matt. That is perfectly OK with me if it turns out to be true! The better job he does as our Mayor, the better his credentials will be to go onward and upward. Matt has my confidence AND my vote!

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes
    • Hi Laurie, thank you! I am glad you enjoyed the article! I made sure to ask Mahan if he had plans beyond becoming mayor and he seemed insistent that he was always aiming just for Mayor of San Jose. Of course things can always change, but that seems to be the finish line!

  2. Thank you Metro Silicon Valley and Chris Corona, for a balanced and truthful article and reporting, rather than the lies spread about Matt by his opponent and her supporters in order to influence the election by spreading inflammatory vitriol.
    Matt worked in my office as an intern when I was the Santa Clara County Counsel and he was in high school, and he also interned in the office of a Supervisor during the summer. Even as a high school student he was immersed in public policy, and understood the importance of serving the people in the County. It is so important to elect people of integrity.

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes
    • Ann- I couldn’t agree with you more. The argument that some have posed, that none of his colleagues support him, speaks more to the issue of accountability, or lack thereof. His opponent and colleagues on the Council have had longer to be held accountable for the state of the county and city as it is today, regarding the unhoused, crime and blight. Those are issues that resonate with me. I think it’s time for a change, not status quo.

      • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes
    • Thank you for the kind comments Ann! This was a fun article to write. You’re right, it is easy to see how even his time at Bellarmine prepped him for public policy.

  3. Matt Mahan is amazing. He’s my Councilmember here in district 10 and I have been inspired by him. He came into office and started making a difference right away. His “Chat with Matt” Zoom meetings twice a month are especially appreciated. I’m thrilled he’s running to be Mayor and am definitely voting for him! He’s super smart, compassionate, and hard-working. He makes local government feel more accessible and like we actually matter because we are all really the government! He loves public service and it shows. Thanks Matt!

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes
  4. An entire article on Mahan and not a peep about his voting record, the policy directions he has promoted, the policy directions he has thwarted, the policy perspectives he has introduced. What kind of reporting leaves out the most important thing from the point of view of the people who live under the governance system of which Mahan (and Chavez) is a part? The cover of Metro says “The Disruptor” but not a word as to what or who Mahan is disrupting. This piece of fluff could have been enhanced by including Mahan’s favorite dessert recipes at least.

    For those interested in something more akin to journalism, I can offer these modest contributions:
    https://www.sanjoseinside.com/news/mahan-announces-mayoral-run/#comment-1707165

    https://sanjosespotlight.com/san-jose-councilmember-raises-concern-with-survey/#comment-64357

    https://sanjosespotlight.com/legal-questions-raised-about-san-jose-mayor-sam-liccardo-role-in-political-action-committee-pac-fundraising-campaign-contributions-donations-fppc-election-2022/#comment-96063

    https://sanjosespotlight.com/legal-questions-raised-about-san-jose-mayor-sam-liccardo-role-in-political-action-committee-pac-fundraising-campaign-contributions-donations-fppc-election-2022/#comment-96099

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - No
    • Great for you to provide more resources on his actual platform that other sources are doing. I get your discontent, but why would this website just spout the same things everyone else is writing. I like the fresh take of who this person actually is. And as the title suggests it’s about his journey…

      I also recall reading a piece I think the same writer did focusing more on his platform during the first election with the other candidates, but sure those sources you proved do just as good for relaying his policy. Maybe get off your horse and take the stick out while you’re at it with your “ReAL JoUrNaLiSM”: https://www.metrosiliconvalley.com/matt-mahan-campaigns-for-culture-change/

      • Please sign me up for the newsletter - No
    • Hi Salem,

      I am sorry the article was not to your liking. This cover piece was more focused on the character of the candidate. I recommend reading these articles I did on each of the candidates about their platform if that is more what you are looking for. I hope you stick around reading our articles and keep an eye out as we explore deeper into both candidates.
      https://www.metrosiliconvalley.com/matt-mahan-campaigns-for-culture-change/ (I think you will enjoy these stories more!)
      https://www.metrosiliconvalley.com/cindy-chavez-is-running-on-experience/

    • I kind of agree – there was nothing in the article about why he feels San Jose is going in the wrong direction.

      • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes
  5. I really enjoyed this piece. It’s great to understand the human component of a political candidate—where they come from, who they are, what motivates them. Matt seems like an obvious choice to help us move away from historical policies that have been poor choices for the county and city.

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - No
  6. Great article Chris. Matt’s experience growing up in a rural community then going to school in San Jose, along with his teaching and start-up experience, surely give him a wide appreciation for people from all walks of life and the tools to make change in San Jose – which is definitely needed. San Jose faces some very tough problems and we need a disruptor like Matt to make the big sea changes necessary for our Valley of Heart’s Delight to continue to thrive.

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes
  7. We are ready for Change and accountability at city hall!!
    Let’s Go Matt Mahan

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes
  8. The article was interesting about his journey and family life. He is not some man running for public office but a man of good character. Good choice for Mayor. He will work hard for San Jose.

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes
  9. Matt has my vote too. I don’t live in D10 but I have attend many of his meetings and was impressed from the beginning at how organized he is and the follow up he actually does to get residents their answers. He doesn’t talk politics but precise answers to the questions asked. I was truly disappointed with a debate with the original group of Mayoral candidates with Cindy Chavez. Her vague answers without facts were so disappointing especially f try on a person who had so much experience. What had she been doing all those years at the County. Matt out shined her and evidently others thought so too. What was the County doing with such poor leadership? Go Matt and get the City of San Jose on the map with your innovative ideas and plans.

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes
  10. Matt has my vote!! I don’t live in D10 but I have attended many of his meetings and was impressed from the beginning at how organized he is and the follow up he actually does to get residents their answers. He doesn’t talk politics and that is so refreshing but he gives precise answers to the questions asked. I was truly disappointed in a debate with the original group of Mayoral candidates with Cindy Chavez. Her vague answers without facts were so disappointing especially for a person who has so much government experience. What had she been doing all those years at the County. Some answers were so vague & short I was shocked there was no conclusion. Matt out shined her and evidently others thought so too. What was the County doing with such poor leadership? Let’s get Matt voted in as Mayor and get the innovative ideas started and not the same old political comments we always hear.

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Latest Giveaways

Tickets to Elton John

Win tickets to Elton John at Levi's Stadium on October 8. Drawing October 3, 2022.

$25 to 71 Saint Peter

Win a $25 gift certificate to 71 Saint Peter in downtown San Jose. Drawing Ocober 12, 2022.
spot_img
10,729FansLike
8,469FollowersFollow
Metro Silicon Valley E-edition Metro Silicon Valley E-edition