A ONCE-POLITICAL powerhouse for business interests in San Jose is looking to return to its former glory — and soon it will pick a new CEO to help it get there.

The San Jose Chamber of Commerce is close to selecting its next permanent CEO after former president and CEO Derrick Seaver resigned in August. Toni Mirenda, former senior executive at Blach Construction, has served as interim CEO but his gig is set to be up in the next few weeks.

Several influential business leaders familiar with the hiring process told San José Spotlight there are two finalists for the CEO role: Nick Adams, president and CEO of NINICO Communications, and Leah Toeniskoetter, founding director of SPUR San Jose, a senior manager at Deloitte and daughter of prolific developer Chuck Toeniskoetter.

Adams and Toeniskoetter beat out several well-known business politicos including former San Jose Councilmember Johnny Khamis, former Vice Mayor Chappie Jones and Silicon Valley Business PAC Director Victor Gomez.

Gomez, a lobbyist and former chief of staff at San Jose City Hall, previously helmed the chamber’s political action committee (PAC) in 2015-17 before he left to launch Silicon Valley Business PAC in 2018. This group aimed to fill a void in the city’s political landscape after the chamber of commerce dissolved its PAC amid backlash for racist ads in 2020.

“Ever since that happened, I don’t think anybody has really pushed the organization in a way where it’s advocating for the needs of the business community in San Jose,” Gomez told San José Spotlight. “There’s been this huge void, so I hope and expect that whoever ends up in this position does grab the bull by the horns and elevate the work that they’re doing in advocacy for the business community.”

Business and politics

It’s a concern others have shared. While the business community agrees about the importance of revitalizing the chamber by reestablishing its PAC and rallying around local businesses, there are disagreements over who should lead.

Two local lobbyists criticized Adams and questioned his integrity, calling him “slimy” because of his ties to infamous former eBay executive Steve Wymer, who was accused in a heinous stalking and harassment campaign while at the tech giant. Despite his past, Wymer wielded troubling influence at City Hall with former Mayor Sam Liccardo and even secured a spot on Mayor Matt Mahan’s transition team.

Adams did not respond to requests for comment.

Nick Adams, Matt Mahan and Steve Wymer pictured in a screenshot of the Willow Glen Times March 2023 issue.

Adams, who is not a registered lobbyist, is being accused of lobbying elected officials on the 18th floor — including the mayor’s office — to benefit his clients, sources told San José Spotlight. San José Spotlight verified the claim in at least one instance.

This is problematic because backdoor lobbying to influence city officials or policies are not disclosed as is required for registered lobbyists — meaning the public is left in the dark.

“Nick is the kind of guy that a lot of business leaders don’t really feel like he’s trustworthy,” one lobbyist told San José Spotlight on condition of anonymity, due to not being authorized to speak on the matter officially. “I just don’t know a lot of people locally that like him.”

But apart from these ethical concerns, the lobbyist says the chamber needs to refocus on its goal of advocating for businesses before it attempts to relaunch a PAC. Membership was at an all-time low following the 2020 scandal, with hundreds of local leaders leaving the group. There were no more than 300 members when Seaver was CEO, he previously said, but under his guidance that number grew close to 800. Before the scandal the chamber had 1,500 businesses.

“I have clients waiting on the sidelines that will not join the chamber until they know that it’s a business advocacy organization,” the lobbyist told San José Spotlight. “And you have essentially picked the top two people that don’t know anything about advocacy.”

Contact Jana at jana@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @Jana_Kadah on X, formerly known as Twitter. Editor’s note: Victor Gomez sits on San José Spotlight’s board of directors.

This story originally appeared in San Jose Spotlight.