Cupertino Mayor: “Build the Wall”
And San José will Pay for It
Most of you know that my primary interest is in Sunnyvale local politics. Over the next few days, though, I’m going to be broadening my horizons a bit, and looking south to Cupertino.
Why? Well, Cupertino plays host to what is by some measures the richest corporation in human history — a corporation whose “spaceship” campus sits literally across the street from Sunnyvale. What happens in Cupertino affects not just Sunnyvale and its other immediate neighbors, but the entire region. Given Apple’s extraordinary wealth and power, one could go so far as to argue that Cupertino’s local politics rise to the level of national concern (God help us all).
Over the years Cupertino has been an extremely difficult neighbor for the City of Sunnyvale. While Sunnyvale has been consistently building both market rate and affordable housing, Cupertino has struggled tooth and nail against the construction of new housing, instead fighting hard to preserve a dead mall. After last year, when Cupertino’s then Mayor Darcy Paul used his State of the City address to declare that housing “circumstances are not dire”, I was convinced that the city had reached rock bottom.
Boy howdy was I wrong. Last week, Cupertino Mayor Steven Scharf used his state of the city address to wisecrack that Cupertino would be building a wall, and San José would pay for it — and Sunnyvale too for that matter.
Yeah. About that.
Let’s back up a second and talk about how Cupertino has found itself in this deeply unenviable situation.
Last November, a slate dominated by Cupertino’s NIMBY faction — the surprisingly ferocious Better Cupertino — swept to victory, winning two seats outright. Darcy Paul of “not dire” fame was reelected. While not a BC member, he received their support after his vote against the proposed Vallco Specific Plan. Cupertino Union School Board trustee Liang Chao, one of the founders of Better Cupertino and new statewide NIMBY organization Livable California, won the second seat. Outside of fighting tenaciously for Vallco to remain a mall, Ms. Chao is best known for having helped to kill an LGBT-inclusive sex ed curriculum. Meanwhile, BC partisan Jon Willey edged out incumbent and inclusive housing advocate Savita Vaidhyanathan by under fifty votes.
One of the two seats not up for election in 2018 belonged to Steven Scharf, an outspoken Better Cupertino supporter and local gadfly elected in 2016. Scharf was another cofounder of Livable California. Rounding out the roster is then-Vice Mayor Rod Sinks, now the only remaining moderate on the Council.
Like many small cities, Cupertino has a rotating mayorship. Traditionally, the current mayor is succeeded by the current vice mayor. The new council’s first action? To elect Steven Scharf as mayor, and Liang Chao as Vice Mayor. Good night and thank you, Rod Sinks.
Which brings us to Mayor Scharf’s State of the City speech last week. I sat and listened to the whole thing — what I do for you, dear reader. Some of the lowlights include a misleading rant on the CASA Compact; advertising his pet group, Livable California; and accusing Nextdoor of censorship (they banned him years ago for maintaining a collection of sockpuppet accounts). He also announced that Cupertino has engaged a PR firm and are working to engage lobbyists, to protect them from the blowback their NIMBYism is rightly provoking throughout the region.
He even — and I wish I were making this up — made a joke about sending a nurse to the ER when she asked him about Vallco. It’s always inspiring to see politicians joking about beating women and threatening violence against their constituents for asking questions.
You’ve heard about the wall along our southern border. This is the wall around Cupertino. We have a big problem with all these Teslas coming through our city from Saratoga, and other people from other cities, so we came up with this proposal. San José will be mainly paying for it. It’s not going to come out of our own taxes.
Last year, when I spoke at the Vallco redevelopment public hearing, I said that Better Cupertino wanted to “pull up the drawbridges, chop down the ladders, and build the wall” to keep people out of their city. And it’s true: Better Cupertino’s politics is fundamentally exclusionary. But I never imagined that their elected officials would be so extraordinarily foolish or insensitive as to suggest actually building the wall — even in jest.
Cupertino is home to what is by some metrics the wealthiest corporation in human history. Its average single family home is now worth over 2 million dollars. San José, meanwhile — named for Saint Joseph the worker — maintains some of the last affordable neighborhoods in the entire Bay Area. According to the 2010 census, 33.2% of its population is Hispanic or Latinx. Cupertino’s Latinx population comprises only 3.6%. Cupertino sports a median household income of over $150,000, while San José’s is only $97,000.
Those working class neighborhoods in San José? They’ve been rapidly gentrifying. That’s in large part due to cities like Cupertino adding jobs without adding the necessary housing to support them. This has turned Cupertino into one of the most expensive cities in the country — it’s the posterchild for exclusion.
And Cupertino’s proud of that. After all, Cupertino is the kind of place where a high school student comes to city council to speak against building apartments, because “there will be more lower income people living in our city” and “this would mean that we would have uneducated people living in Cupertino”.
So when the mayor of one of the wealthiest and most exclusionary suburbs in the country jokes about building the wall and having its poorer, heavily Latinx neighbor pay for it, that leaves a really foul taste. It analogizes just a bit too well with Donald Trump telling Mexico that they will be paying for his wall. Context matters.
Mayor Scharf and his defenders will surely say that this is “just a joke”. But here’s the thing: jokes are never just jokes. And that’s especially the case when it’s the kind of joke that makes people say “But it’s just a joke”.
The function of the just-a-joke is always to offer a kind of plausible deniability to the maker. We’ve seen this consistently since 2015, when Donald Trump rode down his golden escalator to announce his campaign, declaring that Mexican immigrants were murderers and rapists. He built his campaign on the basest forms of racism and sexism. He has traded in anti-Semitic tropes and threatened violence against journalists. And whenever anyone calls him on any of his disgusting behavior, the answer always seems to amount to, “What, can’t you take a joke”?
Trump’s wall actually functions similarly to the just-a-jokes that he loves so much. Its purpose is not — and never has been — to stop smuggling or to keep undocumented immigrants out. After all, most smuggled goods and undocumented immigrants enter legally, through designated ports of entry.
Rather, Trump’s wall is primarily a rhetorical fortification, a symbol of who is and is not welcome in the United States. The wall was conceived as a dogwhistle to white nationalists. It is intended to stigmatize, insult, and dehumanize Latinx people in the United States. His taunt that “Mexico would pay for it” was a deliberate slap in the face of Mexico and people of Mexican heritage, specifically designed to play for the support of the white nationalists and Know Nothings that form his base.
Even unbuilt and unfunded, the wall fulfills those roles.
That alone is reason enough for the wall to be no joking matter, and it’s why people are extremely disinclined to accept “but it was just a joke” as a justification. Even if it were, it’s the sort of sufficiently thorny issue that a wise politician would leave to the professional comics.
Now, I can’t speak to Mayor Scharf’s intentions, but one can certainly read it as functioning in Trumpian, “half-joke” fashion — that is, as a dog-whistle. Whether Mayor Scharf intended his remarks that way or not, the dogs heard. Look at the comments section on that Mercury news piece:
When reached by the Mercury News for comment, Mayor Scharf’s response boiled down to “haters gonna hate”.
Which, fine. But setting aside that whole thorny, inconvenient business of human decency, Mayor Scharf’s joke was also monumentally foolish. San José is a city of over a million people. That’s more than half the population of the entire county. Last night, San José city councilmembers Lân Diệp, Magdalena Carrasco, Dev Davis, Raul Peralez, and Sylvia Arenas posted a photo each holding a sign stating that their district won’t pay.
Mayor Scharf’s Better Cupertino pals have been consistently irked by high density apartment and hotel development in West San José. Well, he just torched any negotiating chips he may have had over those.
Cupertino has a population of about 61,000 people. Unlike Sunnyvale, Cupertino contracts with the county for police, fire, and library services. As a result they are far more dependent on the county than cities like Sunnyvale and Mountain View, which provide their own services. And unlike the Caltrain corridor, they are entirely dependent on VTA for public transit. After last week, any San José politician — at the city or county level — would surely be tempted to respond to any request from Mayor Scharf with “…and how’s your wall coming?”
What, Mr. Mayor? Can’t you take a joke?