Silicon Valley Organization under fire for 'blatantly racist' attack in race for SJ City Council

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- An attack ad that has since been removed from The Silicon Valley Organization (SVO) website is being called "blatantly racist, inappropriate and unacceptable" by the organization itself.

The SVO was formerly called "The San Jose/Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce" and prides itself on being the region's largest and oldest Chamber of Commerce.

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According to its website, "We Attract, Uplift And Protect Our Members Through Networking, Advocacy, Community Engagement, Economic Development And Political Action."

However, the ad included a photo that showed a group of Black men, rioting in the street with the question, "Do you really want to sign on to this?"

The attack ad was seemingly meant to sway voters away from San Jose District 6 Council Candidate Jake Tonkel.

"It was an attack on me in this race," Tonkel told ABC7 News. "But at the end of the day, it was an attack on people of color, and our political discourse, and that should not be tolerated in any way."

Tonkel is running against incumbent Dev Davis, who has since renounced the organization's endorsement. She told ABC7 News, she's even written a check to the NAACP in the amount of contributions she's received from the business group.

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"I think it should be very clear to people that neither candidate in this race is racist, or will tolerate any kind of racist behavior," Davis shared. "I think my opponent would agree, we are here to support our entire community, especially our Black and Brown community that have had particular struggles."

In a release out Wednesday, The SVO Executive Committee of the Board of Directors wrote:

"An image was recently posted on The SVO website that was blatantly racist, completely inappropriate and unacceptable. We are horrified by this image as it does not represent the values of the organization, the leadership, the Board of Directors or our members. For that, we apologize. There is no excuse. The Board of Directors is moving quickly and effectively to understand how this could have occurred, and to ensure it never happens again. We understand that swift, effective action is required so that the other positive work and community support of the SVO is not impacted."

Referring to immediate actions, the release said President and CEO of the SVO, Matt Mahood, has been placed on administrative leave. Additionally, "a qualified third-party investigator" has been hired to investigate the incident and "to determine how and why such an image was posted."

Lastly, "all activities of the SVO political action committee (PAC) are suspended effective immediately."

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The Board of Directors wrote that these steps are the first of many by The SVO.

"It's an organization that has continued to muddy the waters and try and misrepresent folks and ideas within our political discourse to push their own agenda," Tonkel told ABC7 News. "And everyone is coming to the table, saying that's entirely unacceptable."

He continued, "I'm grateful that Councilmember Davis has certainly denounced the hateful imagery, but at the same time, they already spent a half million dollars to lie about my campaign. They did it in the primary for other candidates for city council that they did not like, they did it in 2018. They have a pattern that shows that they should not be allowed to be respected within the policymaking community and within the electoral community either."

Civil rights and religious leaders across the South Bay gathered outside San Jose City Hall on Wednesday. They pointed to what they also consider to be a pattern of racist behavior by The SVO, and added more needs to be done.

"We're going to continue calling on executives or other groups that belong to SVO to step away until it's just a weakened company altogether," Rev. Jethroe Moore II, NAACP San Jose-Silicon Valley President told ABC7 News.

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By Wednesday, at least two prominent SVO PAC Board of Trustees members resigned- both with the California Apartment Association.

In a letter addressed to several SVO leaders, Joshua Howard and Anil Babbar wrote:

"For nearly twenty years, the California Apartment Association has been a member of the Silicon Valley Organization PAC dating back to when it was known as COMPAC.

We are disappointed in the inappropriate and blatantly racist imagery that was posted on the SVO website. This action and its message were never discussed or vetted by SVO PAC members. It does not reflect the values of our community or that of the California Apartment Association and it's goals of promoting all local, state, and federal fair housing laws for all residents without regard to color, race, religion, sex, marital status, mental or physical disability, age, familial status, sexual orientation, or national origin.

After careful consideration and reflection, we are resigning from the SVO PAC Board of Trustees effective immediately."

Valley Water's CEO, Rick Callender, also sent out a release, Wednesday afternoon.

Callender wrote, "As an African American CEO, I am disgusted, hurt and deeply offended by The Silicon Valley Organization's (SVO) racist attempt in a political campaign to use a civil rights era picture of African American men to stir up racial fear and hatred."

"Using these images to suggest there should be something to fear or distrust or other stereotypical issues associated with African American men should not be allowed in political campaigns, in the community, or from those who purport to represent us as industry associations," he continued. "This is not about the election cycle; this is about trying to incite people to be fearful of me, an African American man, in my own community, which I live and work."

According to Callender, after more than 44 years of membership in the SVO, he is rescinding Valley Water's membership and removing its representation from the SVO Board of Directors.

"We must hold those in power accountable and demand equality for all," his release concluded.

"I do think it's really important that the Silicon Valley Organization steps up and makes a meaningful donation to social justice organizations in Silicon Valley," Tonkel told ABC7 News. "Particularly, I would love to see on the equivalent of what they've spent attacking the two candidates that they poured so much money into- which by now is probably about a million dollars. I think that would be the beginning of building trust for their organization among our community again."

The SVO will hold a press conference on Thursday, October 29th at 10am.
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