SAN JOSE—Watsonville native Matt Mahan is on the ballot in San Jose and could become the mayor of Northern California’s largest city if voters select him in the two-way race.
The mayoral candidate grew up on the outskirts of Watsonville in the 1980s and ’90s, just off Amesti Road near Pinto Lake. His mother taught at a Catholic school in Salinas, and his father was a letter carrier in Pebble Beach.
“I remember waking up at the crack of dawn, and farm workers were already out there working,” Mahan said. “That always left an impression on me.”
Mahan, a first-term San Jose City Councilman elected in 2020, faces off against Cindy Chavez, a longtime Santa Clara County politician that has previously served on the San Jose City Council and as the city’s vice mayor and as well as a county supervisor, a position she has held since 2013.
Mahan’s campaign released a poll recently showing that while Chavez enjoys much higher name recognition and a one-point lead amongst likely voters and 25% of the electorate is still undecided.
“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,” Mahan said in the lead up to the June Primary, saying that San Jose politicians’ “culture of complacency” is the biggest issue the state’s tech hub faces.
Mahan’s mother, Susan, still lives here and he regularly visits the Pajaro Valley.
Mahan said he built some early awareness of local politics reading the Pajaronian.
His parents encouraged Mahan to take the entrance exam to Bellarmine College Prep, an all-boys Jesuit school that most South County natives will know as Watsonville High School’s bitter rival in soccer. After a grueling examination, he was accepted 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 in which he spent the summers before each school year working with the maintenance crews watering plants, landscaping and joking with the permanent crew members.
“When I showed up on day one, the only people I knew were the grounds crew,” he said.
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,” he said.
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 as the student body president. The position was not always about 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,” Mahan said.
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,” he said. “I ended up getting involved in student government. I pushed the campus to move away from sweatshop labor for its apparel.”
At Harvard, Mahan said he had many of his “core views challenged in a really productive way.”
“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,” he said.
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 at the same time as Mark Zuckerberg.
“He and Mark [Zuckerberg] lived in the same dorm,” Mahan’s longtime friend Katie O’Keefe said. “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.
Mahan volunteered on Democratic nominee John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and his activism on campus included supporting the 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 after graduating from Harvard he volunteered for two weeks in Iowa as an early supporter of Barack Obama’s nascent presidential campaign in 2007.
He dipped his toes into the tech industry in 2008 when he joined Causes, a social platform for users to share fundraisers and raise awareness for nonprofits co-founded by Sean Parker and Joe Green. 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.
“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,” he said. “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,” O’Keefe said. “I think growing up in Watsonville, San Jose was the big city, and he wanted to be part of it.”