The Silicon Valley Organization — the South Bay’s largest Chamber of Commerce — shared on Tuesday investigation findings into a racist attack ad posted to its website but did hold anyone accountable.
Instead, SVO executive board member Kevin Surace said the third-party investigation found that the ad was a result of “a lack of communication and breakdown in process between many people” and “did not uncover any specific intent to post racist material or stoke racial divisions.”
“There was an approval process that was not followed,” Surace said. “It was truly a horrifying mistake. Mistakes happen — I know that — but it doesn’t make it better for the community.”
The rest of the investigation results will be made public in the coming weeks, Surace said.
The ad under scrutiny was an image of Black men in South Africa in a haze of tear gas, insinuating that it would be San Jose’s future if City Council candidate Jake Tonkel was elected.
It was posted on Oct. 26 and taken down within a day after it was brought up to now-resigned organization CEO Matt Mahood.
Despite the quick action, the attack ad and SVO faced significant backlash. More than 25 South Bay leaders denounced the organization and 4 percent of the chamber’s 12,000 businesses cut ties, as did dozens of nonprofits and community organizations.
Tonkel’s opponent, Dev Davis, who won the race, also denounced the image and donated her $1,200 campaign contribution from the SVO to the NAACP.
Most recently, the SVO dissolved its PAC, which funded attack ads and sent mailers opposing Tonkel and other labor-leaning candidates around the South Bay, a day before last week’s elections.
“There was an approval process that was not followed. It was truly a horrifying mistake. Mistakes happen — I know that — but it doesn’t make it better for the community.”Kevin Surace, SVO executive board member
“On many levels, the chamber, the foundation and the SVO’s reach across the community has been exemplary,” Surace said. “The PAC was not, and it distorted the views of the organization as a whole, it distorted the community’s perception of the organization as a whole and it’s gone and that’s a first step.”
In addition to the dismantling of its political entity, SVO created a Diversity and Inclusion advisory board composed of members such as Shiloh Ballard from Silicon Valley Bike Coalition, San Jose State University professor and founder of the campus Human Rights Institute Bill Armaline, and Darlene Tenes from CasaQ, a Hispanic lifestyle company.
“It is fabulous they got rid of the PAC,” Tenes said. “We don’t need to be political right now in this time in history with the pandemic amongst us, with all the small- and medium-sized businesses hurting so much. We need to come together. We need to heal.”
A wake-up call
Tenes, who was a member of SVO a few years ago, said she joined the diversity advisory board because the “chamber needed to wake up,” and said that more outreach to immigrant-owned and small businesses is an essential part of rectifying its mistakes.
The SVO is also holding a nationwide search to find a new CEO and hired Glenn Perkins of Renaissance Executive Forums as the new board chair starting in 2021.
“Something wrong was done but it’s time for us to go forward and fix it,” Perkins said, adding he hoped to work with current and old members to heal the hurt caused by the racist ad.
However, the October attack ad is not the first incident that has come under community criticism for implicit racism and misleading content.
Several local South Bay candidates, including newly-elected San Jose Councilmember David Cohen and Santa Clara council candidate Harbir Bhatia said in a Nov. 2 news conference that they were subject to racist attack ads this election cycle by the SVO.
In February, SVO’s PAC darkened the face of San Jose Councilmember Sylvia Arenas in a campaign ad and did the same to Sergio Jimenez in 2016.
The group faced similar allegations when it doctored an image of council candidate Kalen Gallagher in 2018 to make it look like he was flipping off the camera.
“There is recognition from staff and membership that this is not about an isolated incident … but indicative of a culture that created campaigns that became divisive, deceptive and detrimental to our community as a whole,” Surance said. “This is a multi-year effort and we are just getting started.”