SANTA CLARA — Although they may be struggling to notch victories on the field these days, the 49ers apparently found the right playbook for the game of politics by helping three relatively unknown candidates likely pull off a stunning upset in the Santa Clara City Council race Tuesday night.
If the election results hold through — 62% of votes had been counted as of 5 p.m. Wednesday — the team will have dealt a major blow against Mayor Lisa Gillmor by possibly breaking up the council majority she has long wielded against it.
And it could signal the beginning of a new relationship between Jed York’s football team and the council, who have battled each ever since Levi’s Stadium was built several years ago and the 49ers tried to buy out adjacent soccer fields for parking.
Whether that will change how the stadium is managed or lead to the lifting of a weeknight curfew that has discouraged high-profile entertainers from playing there remains to be seen, although interviews with two of the candidates suggest a thaw is definitely on the horizon.
A political action committee sponsored by York spent $3 million on four candidates it claimed would bring needed diversity to the council.
Gillmor did not return an email, text or voicemail seeking comment for this story, but she has publicly blasted the team for trying to buy council seats to loosen restrictions on stadium curfew hours and possibly decrease rent owed to the city.
In interviews Wednesday, two of the candidates seemingly headed for council seats said they didn’t ask for York’s help.
“We are certainly not going to make any deals with the 49ers that are not more beneficial for Santa Clara. If I’m on any team, I’m on team Santa Clara,” said Kevin Park, a candidate in District 4 who was leading Councilwoman Teresa O’Neil, a Gillmor ally, by almost 15 points.
“I have been very critical of the stadium and the giveaways to the 49ers,” added Suds Jain, a city planning commissioner who had about 62% percent of the vote over Gillmor’s choice, Bob O’Keefe, in District 5.
“I’m not by any means a sports fan. When this campaign started, I didn’t even know who the quarterback was,” Jain said. But he acknowledged occasionally having coffee with Rahul Chandhok, the team’s head of public affairs, and said the team knew he’d likely run for election this year after failing in 2016.
Jain and Park both said the 49ers are simply tired of being blocked at every turn by Gillmor and her allies on the council — O’Neil, Kathy Watanabe and Debi Davis, who initially supported the team and the stadium deal but for years have voted in lockstep with Gillmor against the team’s interests.
“They flipped completely 180, and now they’ve become so hostile to the 49ers, the 49ers are like, ‘I’ll bet on anybody but these guys,’ ” Jain said.
“(York) is not buying seats, he is getting rid of the problem,” Park said. “He doesn’t own the replacements. We are not owned by Jed York.”
He said York is “willing to take a chance on a new set of people who will be at least open-minded and fair.”
In addition to Park and Jain, another 49er-backed candidate, Planning Commissioner Anthony Becker, held a five-point lead over Gillmor’s choice, Robert Mezzetti II, in District 6. Becker declared victory on social media Wednesday.
Watanabe, who was supported by Gillmor and the local police union and police chief, appeared headed for re-election with an almost 8% lead over Harbir Bhatia, who was also backed by York’s PAC, Citizens for Efficient Government & Full Voting Rights.
The 49ers did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment Wednesday but have previously told this news organization that York’s motivation was to diversify the city council.
“Mayor Gillmor is once again supporting a slate of all White candidates while she spends millions of dollars in taxpayer money to upend voting rights to dilute minority representation,” Chandhok has said, referring to the city’s court battles to avoid district elections.
Park and Jain both said one of the key reasons they ran for council multiple times is because they are frustrated with what they framed as Gillmor’s giveaways to developers.
But they agreed the team should be able to talk with council members civilly, like it does with council members Raj Chahal and Karen Hardy, who also have criticized the 49ers but often cast dissenting votes against Gillmor’s majority.
“This asset is not going away,” Jain said of Levi’s. “It’s a 40-year relationship. If you’re not talking with your partner in a 40-year relationship, that’s bad.”
They both acknowledge that York’s backing of them could give some people the wrong idea.
“Let’s be honest, Jed York is not a neighbor, he’s not necessarily a friend, he’s a businessman,” Park said. “And the 49ers, they’re a business. I don’t think any businessman or business puts down any money if they don’t expect to get some kind of return on that money.
“… Of course I understand the optics of this, and in a lot of ways I can’t help but feel a little upset with the amount of the spending the 49ers did on my behalf. Because even if they meant well, it does color my campaign when I was trying to run a clean grassroots campaign,” Park said.
On the other hand, he added, “the 49ers have been paying their rent. Could they pay more? Yes. Will we try to get them to pay more? Yes. Are we just going to ask them for more without offering them things in return? The short answer is no,” Park said.
“We need to hold up our part of the bargain as well. We need to provide the parking,” Park said.
Jain said if a promoter wanted to put on a three-day concert at the stadium over a Thursday through Friday, the city should consider loosening the 10 p.m. curfew to earn itself more money.
“I’d be very comfortable relaxing the curfew on that Thursday. It’s potentially $500,000 a show for the city. If we relax the curfew three or four times a year, we could be making a lot of money,” he said.
“Lisa Gillmor is just willing to burn the place down. She doesn’t want Jed to make any more money. I think we’re in profit-sharing mode,” he said. “The more money they make, the more money we make.”