This essay series is primarily focused on the dynamics between urban politics and powerful companies.

Is San Jose a particularly cyberpunk city? Not really, especially not compared to the metropolises of Tokyo or Hong Kong. If I were to call an American city cyberpunk, San Francisco is closer to the mark, visually. But beyond aesthetics, I find San Jose is worth our attention: a city larger than neighboring SF, home to some of the wealthiest people in the country, and one of the world’s foremost tech capitals.

Part 2 explores the ways in which Silicon Valley companies prioritize regional policy over city policy. You can read Part 3 here.

Introduction

Corporate influence on local politics seems to be a given by both academic and non-academic people alike. The nature of this influence, however, is more contentious. Recent academic literature describes the involvement of private CEO civic associations as declining in major cities, having become more shallow as well as shifting to a regional focus. Amidst the changing landscape of American cities, there is one city booming as a center of industry. San Jose offers a glimpse into an urban political scene dominated by a strong, mostly private-sector, corporate civic association.

Academic Context

Paul Kantor and Dennis R. Judd provide strong scholarly insight on the question, which I used to situate the research. They outline, by introducing the work of author Elizabeth Strom, how peak business associations had been the “center of downtown development” since the 1940s,[1] but in recent decades have undergone changes mostly due to businesses being consolidated, going bankrupt, or leaving the region.[2] Strom argues the downtown is no longer a primary focus of regional interests, overlapping with the changing nature of downtown leadership (with an increasing amount of non-private sector or non-profit organizations taking charge).[3] A narrower focus on specifically corporate civic involvement is provided later by Royce Hanson, Harold Wolman, David Connolly, Katherine Pearson, and Robert McManmon, who claim an increasing disengagement from civic elites despite their historic importance in developing urban areas.[4] Most relevantly, the current state of the pool of corporate executive leaders is described as “shallower, more transient, and less influential.”[5] In fact, the reading suggests that regardless of whether major corporations have increased or decreased in number in a region, the change still occurred.[6] Finally, and most importantly, Hanson et. Al claim the focus of these civic associations have decidedly shifted to the region, and attribute some of this to a lack of CEOs providing a safer space for transient or branch executives.[7]

So what’s the question?

It is from the all the above that I found a good question to explore. From the literature I discussed, one would expect San Jose’s corporate civic association to feature less private-sector influence (specifically less CEO involvement and less CEOs), a largely regional focus, and simply less influence.

However, San Jose’s main corporate civic association is massive, composed mostly of private companies with the CEOs living locally (though influential nonprofits such as universities and hospitals are also members), and very involved in the region, especially in acquiring federal funding. As it is headquartered in San Jose and San Jose is the epicenter of the Silicon Valley, and as the aforementioned context doesn’t accurately describe San Jose’s CEO civic association, it seems reasonable to question if today’s industry-leading city’s CEO civic associations would also be as regionally-focused as Kantor and Judd’s literature claims. Nonetheless, the bulk of the main civic association’s member companies are located in the region surrounding San Jose—Silicon Valley.

Therefore, I found the following question worth investigating: Do today’s industry-leading cities’ corporate civic associations focus on the city over the region?

From the literature provided by Kantor and Judd and basic knowledge of San Jose and the Valley, I thought the split between city and regional involvement should be well proportioned each way: while the region is of course important, the central city is as well. Further, with so many companies located throughout the valley, I hypothesized the regional influences would benefit the region equally rather than certain portions (and therefore certain companies) over others. The research does not quite line up, however, and mostly seems to reinforce Kantor and Judd’s provided literature specifically where the assertions on regionalism are concerned.

Research

Silicon Valley Leadership Group

It is worth first qualifying what the corporate or CEO civic associations of San Jose and Silicon Valley are. Ultimately, there seems to be only one notable corporate civic association in the region: Silicon Valley Leadership Group. Two other institutions were examined—Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Joint Venture Silicon Valley[8]—but they were left out of the evidence due to lack of notable influence or policy-minded civic engagement. SVLG represents more than 400 Silicon Valley employers,[9] which provide a third of private sector Silicon Valley jobs, and output $3 trillion to the global economy.[10] Every notable Silicon Valley company is a member, and there is a long history of SVLG influence on local development. In any case, the research largely centers around the Leadership Group.

Pulling the federal government

Arguably the most notable and eye-catching recent works of the Leadership Group have involved swaying federal decisions and funds in the direction of the Valley. Of these, the two flashiest are the Leadership Group’s coordination with public officials in acquiring a $647 million grant from the Federal Transit Authority to electrify Caltrain’s tracks[11] as well as a $900 million grant from the same agency to extend BART further south.[12] Further extensions into the heart of San Jose, which would complete the project, are in the funding process.[13] Another achievement is SVLG’s success in having a federal Patent and Trademark Office branch established in San Jose.[14]

All three examples involve some overlap between city and region, but can be mostly considered region-oriented. Caltrain’s existing route goes from San Francisco to San Jose, with stops throughout the Valley, and the grant should vastly improve transit throughout the valley. BART’s extension is of course similar, but the final proposed extension would go straight to the heart of downtown San Jose, making a new transit center in San Jose. This can be seen as a region-focused benefit with some direct benefits to the central city. As with the Patents and Trademarks Office, San Jose being the picked location likely has to do with its usefulness as the “center” of Silicon Valley rather than a special interest in San Jose itself.

You can read this in more detail in Part 1.

Involvement in housing

San Jose’s CEO civic association has had notable influences in local housing, with housing being one of the region’s major issues. One notable effort has been SVLG’s establishment and funding of Housing Trust Silicon Valley, which is now one of the nation’s largest housing trusts.[15] Other efforts have been and are being made on housing, as the Group claims credit for supporting the development of over 5,600 homes by advocating to dozens of city councils.[16]

Though not as massive as transit infrastructure changes, the civic association shows clear interest and support in local housing. However, it is very clear that none of this is specifically city-oriented. The entire region is characterized by high housing prices and a shortage of (affordable) housing, and it is the entire region that is being focused on in the Leadership Group’s efforts, without any special attention to San Jose in particular.

Local Transit Tax

Silicon Valley’s corporate civic association has found success in affecting local policies regarding traffic. Recently, the Leadership Group was one of the leading backers behind Santa Clara county’s Measure B,[17] which would have raised the sales tax in the county to provide an addition $6 billion in funding for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority—for a variety of projects (including the aforementioned BART and Caltrain projects) all relating to transit. The measure passed by a landslide 72%, to-date the largest support for a county sales tax increase.[18] In fact, it seems to have been almost drafted by the Leadership Group in conjunction with local public officials, notably the County supervisor, whose support was obtained because of the measure’s fairly equitable spread across the region.[19] The Group has also been polling likely voters in San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties on a further increase in sales tax for additional Caltrain funding, indicating a continued interest in regional transit.[20] San Jose here is a recipient of the Group’s policies as it is a good regional transit center, but it is barely receiving more attention as the regional measures are of greater practical effect to the Group than city ordinances. Measure B is the SVLG’s sixth transportation funding campaign, and it, like the previous five, have all been regional campaigns.[21]

San Jose Airport

In 2015, Silicon Valley Leadership Group sent San Jose’s city council a letter with the signatures of 93 of its CEOs in support of allowing ridesharing at San Jose’s airport (as a pilot program).[22] There is a lack of information regarding the involvement of the Group in the measure; however, they claim it as a major achievement on their site.[23] Subsequent reductions in the regulations of the pilot program have been attributed by traditional cab drivers to influence of the Leadership Group.[24] SVLG also claims responsibility for the opening of more international nonstop flights to San Jose via negotiations with airlines.[25]

These remain the only major instances of city-focused efforts from the Leadership Group. Where the other examples featured San Jose benefitting, perhaps particularly, from region-focused efforts, these examples feature the region benefitting from central city-focused policy changes. Additionally, while it seems the Leadership Group played a large role in the affairs of the airport, there is a lack of substantial evidence beyond what they claim as their achievements.

Conclusions

It is difficult to categorize some of the cited efforts of the civic association as either strictly regional or strictly city, as some overlap. Nonetheless, it is fair to say the evidence shows overall, heavy regional focus. Despite that some of the listed evidence does show energy aimed on the city, even those are very clearly connected to a larger regional effect.

Overall, of major policies pushed and campaigns led by the local CEO civic association in the last couple decades, nearly all have been oriented towards benefiting the region. While Judd and Kantor’s authors’ descriptions of the nature of civic associations is not very accurate in San Jose, their portrait of regionalism is—though not for the reasons they suggest, such as the decline of leading industry, growth of the suburbs, and the aforementioned descriptive factors. However, there does seem to be some confirmation of the original hypothesis in that the regional campaigns were fairly equitable region-wide and not overly unique to one location over another.

All in all, it seems evident modern academic literature is largely correct when it comes to the nature of corporate influence on urban politics: it is largely more focused on the region than the city, but one can still expect an industry leading city’s corporate civic association to have very strong and potentially dominating private sector and CEO involvement. San Jose’s CEOs prioritize the region because their businesses dot the region, not because CEO involvement or population has decreased.

Bibliography

[1] Paul Kantor and Dennis R. Jude, American Urban Politics in a Global Age (Pearson Education Inc, 2006), 35.

[2] Ibid, 36.

[3] Ibid, 43.

[4] Ibid, 61.

[5] Ibid, 66.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 70.

[8] It is worth noting both these groups have strong corporate and some non-profit representation, and indicate more of the trend highlighted by the academic literature—they just lack accomplishments and historic influence. SLVG on the other hand, is as mentioned largely private-sector.

[9] Note: there is a notable contrast between the Leadership Group and the typical civic association portrait as painted by Hanson et. al: many start-ups are included in the Leadership Group alongside massive corporations.

[10] “About Us,” Silicon Valley Leadership Group, 2017. http://svlg.org/about-us

[11] Casey Tolan, “Feds approve $647 million grant for Caltrain electrification project,” The Mercury News, May 22nd, 2017. http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/05/22/federal-fta-grant-caltrain-electrification/

[12] “BART Silicon Valley Project Reaches Largest Federal Funding Milestone in VTA’s History,” Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, March 12th, 2012. http://www.vta.org/sfc/servlet.shepherd/document/download/069A0000001ELYzIAO

[13] “BART Silicon Valley Phase II – Extension to San Jose and Santa Clara Project Profile,” Federal Transit Administration, February 2016. https://www.transit.dot.gov/funding/grant-programs/capital-investments/bart-silicon-valley-phase-ii-%E2%80%93-extension-san-jose-and

[14] “Regional Patent Office for Silicon Valley; Big Win for the Leadership Group and Its Partners,” Silicon Valley Leadership Group, July 2nd, 2017. http://svlg.org/regional-patent-office-for-silicon-valley-big-win-for-the-leadership-group-and-its-partners

[15] “Our History,” Housing Trust Silicon Valley, accessed October 2017. http://www.housingtrustsv.org/about-us/history/

[16] “Housing and Land Use Team,” Silicon Valley Leadership Group, 2017. http://svlg.org/policy-areas/hlut-old

[17] Eric Kurhi, “Stuck in traffic, Santa Clara County voters weigh transportation tax,” Mercury News, October 16th, 2016. http://www.mercurynews.com/2016/10/17/stuck-in-traffic-santa-clara-county-voters-weigh-transportation-tax/

[18] “2016 Measure B,” Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, 2016. http://www.vta.org/measure-b-2016

[19] Silicon Valley Community Newspapers Editorial, “Measure B will help relieve traffic,” Mercury News, October 21st, 2016. http://www.mercurynews.com/2016/10/21/measure-b-will-help-relieve-traffic/

[20] Mercury News Editorial Board, “Editorial: Caltrain tax popular with voters, but getting it on ballot is complicated,” Mercury News, August 18th, 2017. http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/08/18/editorial-caltrain-tax-popular-with-voters-but-getting-it-on-ballot-is-complicated/

[21] Cindy Chavez and Jim Cunneen, “Opinion: Has the Silicon Valley Leadership Group lived up to David Packard’s expectations?” Mercury News, July 21st, 2017. http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/07/21/opinion-has-the-silicon-valley-leadership-group-lived-up-to-david-packards-expectations/

[22] “93 CEOs urge San Jose City Council to find workable ridesharing solution,” Silicon Valley Leadership Group, October 28th, 2015. http://svlg.org/93-ceos-urge-san-jose-city-council-to-find-workable-ridesharing-solution

[23] “Accomplishments,” Silicon Valley Leadership Group, 2017. http://svlg.org/about-us/accomplishments

[24] Ramona Giwargis, “San Jose backs off ride-booking rules at airport,” Mercury News, November 8th, 2015. http://www.mercurynews.com/2015/11/08/san-jose-backs-off-ride-booking-rules-at-airport/

[25] “Accomplishments,” Silicon Valley Leadership Group, 2017. http://svlg.org/about-us/accomplishments

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