.Sylvia Arenas and Johnny Khamis Race for Supervisor Position

Where the District 1 supervisorial candidates stand on the issues

As the election draws nearer, candidates for Santa Clara County Supervisor for District 1 outlined their plans to counter homelessness, address mental health and substance abuse issues, and address crime in South County. 

Sylvia Arenas, the District 8 representative on the San Jose City Council since 2016, has also served on the Evergreen Elementary School District Board of Trustees. Arenas is endorsed by congressional reps Zoe Lofgren and Anna Eshoo, as well as State Senator Dave Cortese, and current Santa Clara County Supervisors Cindy Chavez and Susan Ellenberg. The South Bay Labor Council branch of the AFL-CIO and the Santa Clara Democratic Party also endorse her candidacy for supervisor. 

Opposing Arenas is Johnny Khamis, who also sat as a San Jose council member. He was elected in 2012 and served through December of 2020 as the District 10 representative on the San Jose City Council. Khamis is endorsed by the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau, the police associations in both Morgan Hill and Gilroy, and the San Jose Mercury News. Khamis has also earned the endorsement of outgoing San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and District 1 Supervisor Mike Wasserman, and current Gilroy Mayor Marie Blankley. 

In this nonpartisan race, the candidates are running without specifying an official political party affiliation. 

Though both candidates recognize homelessness as a key issue facing District 1, Khamis’s approach to ending homelessness stems from his experience in the financial sector, whereas Arenas approaches the issue of homelessness in debates as part of the county’s continuing social and emotional recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, which affects women and families as vulnerable population subsets. 

In an Oct. 9 forum and debate between the candidates that can be viewed on YouTube, Khamis argued for using creative financial solutions as well as removal of certain tax regulations to increase available housing in Santa Clara County. Rather than building additional housing, Khamis suggested the county use available funds to buy existing properties as affordable housing. 

He referred to “millions of dollars we have that we can use immediately to buy apartment complexes and turn them into workforce housing.”

Khamis also advocated for removing regulations surrounding alternative dwelling units, or ADUs, often referred to as “in-law suites”—a tactic Khamis says he has already seen success with while he was on the City Council.

“I believe in reducing costs, reducing taxes, reducing regulations,” Khamis said.

Arenas focused on addressing the loss of 2% of Santa Clara County’s population. The larger issue, Arenas argued, is that due to the wealth gap in Santa Clara, working-class families simply cannot afford to live here. She favors addressing wage inequality and lack of opportunities for low-income families, rather than creating additional housing in the area.

“The reason that a lot of folks can’t afford homes is the high cost of living,” Arenas said in the same Oct. 9 debate.

“We need to be offering programs so that they can have first-time homeownership, create a pipeline towards college education and skilled training.”

Arenas said her strategies for homelessness prevention involved investing in community solutions and programs that create educational and employment opportunities that could lead to permanent housing and homeownership. 

Both candidates agreed that building housing in green spaces like Coyote Valley or former industrial areas was not a viable solution, and that limiting Santa Clara County’s urban sprawl benefits the health of the environment as well as the health of residents.

Both candidates also agreed that while working-class families struggle to make ends meet in Santa Clara County and especially in the city of San Jose, an even more pressing issue is street homelessness. According to Santa Clara County’s last Point In Time Count, 10,028 people are homeless in Santa Clara County in 2022. Of those, 7,708 are living unsheltered on the streets.

Khamis referred to the homelessness situation in the county as a “crisis.”

“The county is calling it a crisis. And we’re not treating it like a crisis. We need to act,” Khamis said at a forum hosted Sept. 28 by the League of Women Voters.

Khamis advocated for using the new CARE court initiative signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom, an initiative designed to move those with severe mental illness or substance abuse disorder away from the carceral system and conservatorships and into mental health and substance abuse treatment. However, disability and mental health advocates and human rights advocates charge that the CARE Act is simply a new form of forced treatment and carceral discrimination against disabled and mentally ill individuals, largely people of color. 

In addition to calling for use of the CARE Act, Khamis said the county needs more mental health treatment facilities, and could use existing and underutilized facilities like the DePaul Center in Morgan Hill to facilitate inpatient treatment and get mentally ill unhoused people off the streets. 

“The majority of the people who are on the streets, according to the records here, are mentally ill or drug addicted. And if we’re not creating mental health beds, and hiring more people who are in that industry, we’re never going to solve our problems right now,” Khamis said in the forum moderated by the League of Women Voters. 

Arenas called the CARE Act “very misleading” and argued that without addressing cycles of family poverty, people would continue to slip through government and community safety nets and into homelessness. 

“CARE court doesn’t change conservatorship. It’s very misleading,” Arenas said in the Oct. 9 open forum. “It’s one tool in the toolbox, but it’s not the silver bullet. If we had one, we’d have already used it.” 

On the topic of substance abuse and mental health, Arenas blamed the defunding of mental health systems and substance abuse treatment centers under the Reagan administration, and said saving money in the short term would “actually incur debt in our future generations,” and warned against being penny-wise and pound-foolish in terms of investing in community mental health response and disrupting cycles of family poverty.

“It’s not about saving money, but about saving lives and making sure that we invest in our community, and making sure that our crime, the mental health system children and families are able to stay in San Jose,” Arenas said. 

Khamis emphasized the need for discipline in spending. “We need to look for ways to operate efficiently. Last year alone we ended up with 102 million extra in mental health moneys,” he said. “These are issues that I think we need to spend our money wisely. I’m not talking about saving money, I’m talking about spending the money that we have and getting results for the money that we have.”

Discussion of drug use turned to discussion of crime and law enforcement. According to Khamis, who is endorsed by two police officers associations, “The justice system has gone too far to the side of the criminal.” 

Khamis referenced Propositions 47 and 57, which downgraded certain crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, saying, “these laws have made us less safe.” 

Khamis advocated for hiring more law enforcement officers within the Sheriff’s Office, and endorsed Kevin Jensen as his choice for future Santa Clara County Sheriff.

In order to prevent recidivism, Khamis stated the current system of offering re-entry job training and resources only after inmates are paroled is insufficient.

Training for inmates is now after jail and it’s voluntary,” Khamis said. “We need to train inmates before they leave jail—that way we can incentivize early release.”

Khamis said using completion of training programs as incentive for early release would increase the number of incarcerated people taking advantage of training programs, developing skills for reentering society, and lowering recidivism.

In terms of crime prevention and prosecution, Arenas said that to address petty theft and burglary she’d like to re-establish the robbery unit, and address gender-based violence in the county. 

During the pandemic shelter-in-place order especially, the county saw an increase in intimate partner violence, dometic assault, and sexual assault. Arenas said the county needs to address gender-based violence.

“Sexual assault has been on the rise for 10 years,” Arenas said. “The greatest number of those that are impacted are not in the ‘me too’ movement, because they’re under the age of 13.”

Regarding the proposed new jail in Santa Clara County going back to bid after a close vote by the Board of Supervisors on approving the project, Khamis said he would like the project to move forward, while Arenas said she understands the board “taking stock” before investing heavily in the new jail system. 

“This thing was approved 14 years ago and funded with $80 million by the state of California to improve the living conditions and [add] 200 mental health beds and include an entire floor to help people gain skills so that when they’re out they can have a better reintegration,” Khamis said in the League of Women voters forum. “I don’t understand why they’re going out again, it’s no wonder that nobody wants to bid on our projects.”

Arenas agreed that jail conditions need to be improved and offer more mental health services, but she was more understanding of the move by the board to return to discussions on the jail project before moving forward. 

“You know, we have to find a way to move both our system further toward treatment and at the same time allow for our jails to be a safe place for those who are incarcerated and those who work there,” Arenas said. “As I take a look at what the board is doing, they’re taking a moment to actually take stock of where they’re going to head before they actually put all of this money into only the jail system.”


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