Sam Liccardo
BURRITO POWER Former San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo chows down at Great Bear Coffee prior to a Los Gatos hike with his wife. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

While the primary race for second-place in the 16th Congressional District has been nothing short of riveting—with Assemblymember Evan Low and Supervisor Joe Simitian separated by a single vote at times—less attention has been paid to the top vote-getter, 53-year-old Sam Liccardo, who grew up in Saratoga.

On March 24, the Los Gatan caught up with the former San Jose mayor at Great Bear Coffee, just after Palm Sunday mass and before hitting the trails with his wife, Jessica García-Kohl.

“The only way you win these campaigns is with a village,” Liccardo said, after grabbing a decaf coffee and a green chili and cheese burrito. “I had friends of my mom’s who are in their 80s who were volunteering, too.”

As mail-in ballots continued to trickle in, Liccardo was safely maintaining a more-than 8,000 vote lead over second place.

It meant that while Low and Simitian had been forced to ponder a recount, he’d been able to turn his attention to the General Election in November. He’d also had a chance to reflect on what led him to this point.

After graduating from Bellarmine College Preparatory, a private Jesuit school, Liccardo moved east to study political science and economics at Georgetown University.

He jokes that because it’s also a Jesuit school, it meant he wouldn’t get “excommunicated” for not going to Santa Clara University, (another Jesuit school) which “everyone” in his family had attended.

But his interest in the political scene began a few years earlier.

Liccardo with his wife Jessica García-Kohl, who comments, “I’m fully on board and supportive of his journey.” (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

“I caught the DC bug when I was an 8th grader,” he said, recalling a visit to see Congressman Norman Mineta (who the San Jose airport is named after) in Washington. “He was sort of a larger-than-life figure for us.”

So, while in college, Liccardo interned in Mineta’s office.

He remembers working the phones, helping to build a coalition to right the wrong of sending Japanese-Americans to concentration camps during World War II.

“We were still calling up offices trying to ask for support,” he said. “I was a very minor bit player in that.”

It was a much less polarized time on Capitol Hill. Liccardo explains that Mineta, a longtime friend of his dad’s, had forged an alliance with staunch Republican Alan Simpson to pass the legislation.

“It was a defining moment for me to see, this is how Congress can work,” Liccardo said. “Republicans and Democrats can work together.”

Passionate about international development issues, Liccardo ended up volunteering with a Jesuit group in Dangriga, Belize, teaching and running sports camps for youth.

He says he was struck by how impoverished the residents there were, despite the beauty of the countryside—and the wealth of export crops.

“You’d see kids with vitamin deficiencies,” he said. “And yet…there were miles of orange groves.”

He wanted to keep working in international outreach, but a debilitating illness put him on the sidelines.

“I contracted a parasite when I was in Belize and I couldn’t really shake it,” he said. “So, I went and volunteered on a campaign—and it happened to be Anna Eshoo’s. It was her first successful campaign.”

Of course, he’s now in the running for Eshoo’s job.

Liccardo says he learned plenty, as well, while working for his dad’s law firm, suing companies like Dow Chemical and Dow Corning.

coffee sip
Sipping decaf. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

“As a 21-year-old, it was a great education for me,” he said, adding he got to see how when government officials don’t hold companies’ feet to the fire it can result serious health consequences for the average person—like when silicone implants break down in the body because regulators hadn’t gotten their hands on key toxicity research. “We knew that these studies existed, but nobody at the FDA had been asking the right questions to get them.”

After graduating from Harvard Law, he figured he’d follow a suggestion given by Alan Dershowitz in a campus lecture, and become a prosecutor.

“Your job is literally just to do justice,” said Liccardo, explaining his thinking. “When the evidence is not sufficient to convict, you have a legal and moral obligation to dismiss.”

He soon found himself in San Diego as an assistant US attorney in the Southern District of California, targeting human smugglers and drug traffickers. But he eventually soured on the gig.

“I decided I was not going to spend my life being a soldier in the war on drugs,” he said, alluding to a scenario where a desperate mother gets sent to jail for agreeing to drive a sketchy vehicle across the border to make a few hundred bucks.

That’s why he transitioned to a deputy district attorney role in Santa Clara County, leading a group that prosecuted internet crimes against children in the heart of Silicon Valley, he said.

Liccardo says this experience would stand him in good stead as Congress debates whether to update Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and other digital laws.

“The person in this role needs to be both a champion for the innovation economy and someone who can discern the best approach to regulating a fast-changing set of technologies,” he said. “I would be providing a bridge, literally inviting members of Congress to the Valley.”

Liccardo was actually living in Los Gatos at the time, in an apartment off Oka Road.

“It’s basically the cheapest place to live in Los Gatos,” he said. “Los Gatos has always been a wonderful place for me to come with friends.”

His mom actually grew up in Los Gatos.

“Her family lived here because they could not afford to live in San Jose, which tells you how dramatically things have changed,” he said, adding they took in older women boarders and had a goat in their yard for milk.

As so often happens to Liccardo, Mike Oliver, a Saratoga resident who volunteered for his first mayoral campaign, briefly interrupted the interview to say hello.

“He had a lot of young people who were helping him,” Oliver told the Los Gatan, reminiscing about that political drive.

Liccardo says as he knocked on 2,500 doors over the past few months, he heard similar refrains about homelessness, the high cost of childcare, expensive utility bills and crime.

“People were tired of hearing that congress wasn’t getting anything done,” he said.

His wife, sporting a fancy leather cowboy hat from Colombia, waited patiently for her husband to finish up with this reporter so they could have some time to themselves.

“My true feeling is, as a wife, this is the last job I would want him to pursue,” she said. “But as a constituent, I feel we need more of what he has to offer. So, I’m fully on board and supportive of his journey.”

Minutes later, they were off to hit the trails above Los Gatos.

Previous articleLos Gatos High track and field team unleashes fast times, long jumps, big throws
Next articleLos Gatos High boys lacrosse team aims for PCAL Gabilan Division championship
Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].


  1. Wow. Los Gatos stumping for liccardo. Is this paper owned by the Cerritos? Bunch of con. Luckys wife is a realtor making money off home sales and works for housing authorities…. Total mob family.

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here