Everything* You Wanted to Know About This Year’s Sunnyvale City Council Election But Were Afraid to Ask
This is Part 1 to a series I’ll be doing on my endorsement series for the issues facing Sunnyvale residents this year. Part 2 is my endorsement of Gustav Larsson over Henry Alexander for Seat 1. I also wrote an addendum for that race, addressing his opponent’s claims regarding crime. Part 3 is my endorsement of Glenn Hendricks over Josh Grossman for Seat 2, and Part 4 is my endorsement of Mason Fong over John Cordes for Seat 3.
Before launching into those, though, I realized that it would probably be good to give an overview of how our Council elections work and the broad state of this year’s election.
Sunnyvale is the second largest city in Santa Clara County, with approximately 150,000 residents, and the third largest city on the San Francisco Peninsula, after San Jose and San Francisco. The city has a seven person city council. Unlike most city councils in California, Sunnyvale’s councilmembers are elected at-large to numbered seats. That means there are no districts; every councilmember represents and is elected by the entire city.
In most cities with at-large councils, including Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Cupertino, candidates running for council compete for a common pool of votes. This is a voting system known as plurality-at-large-voting; each voter gets N votes, where N is the number of seats up for election, and the top N vote-getters win.
In Sunnyvale, by contrast, each candidate must decide what seat they’re going to run for. This means that incumbents can be directly challenged, but also leads to a jockeying for seats, as each candidate must decide which seat they’re running for (sitting councilmembers, however, are not allowed to change seats).
Sunnyvale shifted away from odd year council elections in 2016, giving councilmembers sitting at the time an extra year on their terms. Our elections are now every even year, with three seats going up during midterms and four during presidential elections.
A Shift to Districts?
Under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), at-large elections are generally disfavored, and numbered-seat at-large elections especially so. This is because such voting systems tend to dilute minority influence. Until this year, the City of Santa Clara had a very similar system to Sunnyvale’s. The Asian Law Alliance sued under the CVRA, since despite having a population that’s approximately 40% Asian American, the city hadn’t elected a nonwhite councilperson for decades. As a result, the city was forced to switch to district elections.
Sunnyvale currently has an all-white council, and our population is also approximately 40% Asian. We’ve only elected two Asian American councilmembers in our history, Dean Chu and former Mayor Otto Lee — though Mason Fong, running for Seat 3, would be our third. More on that race later! As a result, city staff decided there was a very good chance that we’d be next, and decided to prepare a process for us to begin reconsidering our voting system. An initial council meeting considering this question was held earlier in September. It does seem likely that district elections are in our future, but for now, we continue with the at-large system.
Assuming that we’re not forced to act sooner by a lawsuit, any change to our voting system would likely take effect in 2022.
State of the Race
This year, we have two incumbents running for re-election. Councilmember Gustav Larsson is facing a challenge from Parks and Recreation Commissioner Henry Alexander III for seat 1. Mayor Glenn Hendricks is facing a challenge from Housing and Human Services Commissioner Josh Grossman for Seat 2. Councilmember Jim Griffith in Seat 3 is termed out. Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission Chair John Cordes is going up against Mason Fong, Chair of the Library Board of Trustees.
The thing to understand about Sunnyvale’s council race is that it does not break cleanly into left-right fault lines. Grossman has attempted to paint his race against Hendricks as a battle between left and right, but Hendricks is a very liberal Republican, who’s pushed through local gun control ordinances and supported increasing the minimum wage. Meanwhile, Cordes, Fong, and Larsson are all solidly on the left.
The real fault line, as in many cities in the Bay Area, is around growth.
Roughly speaking, Grossman and Alexander represent an anti-growth or “residentialist” faction. They’ve received the backing of our sole “slow growth” councilmember, Michael Goldman, and they’re campaigning heavily on the issue of rent control for the mobile home parks. They’ve also been highly critical of the pace of development and the purported influence of developers on city government. Grossman has also received the backing of Better Cupertino leader (and Cupertino City Council candidate) Liang Chao and Cupertino Councilmember Steven Scharf. Alexander’s website does not list endorsements, but he and Grossman have been campaigning heavily together.
Hendricks, Larsson and Fong represent the pro-growth faction. They’re strongly backed by Sunnyvale’s business community. All are consistently pro-growth, though Hendricks has generally preferred to keep growth on a slower pace than most of his colleagues. Hendricks is also the sole Republican in the race. They also have the strong backing of the regional political establishment, with a raft of endorsements from neighboring mayors, councilmembers, and assemblymembers.
John Cordes sits somewhere between these two factions. He’s loosely aligned with the residentialist faction, having also made rent control for mobile home parks a major portion of his platform. Unlike Grossman and Alexander, however, Cordes has been a consistent advocate for new housing, especially infill development. He’s been a consistent advocate for the environment and for getting people out of their cars. He’s been endorsed by Goldman, Scharf, and Chao, however he also has a number of endorsements from the regional political establishment.
Alexander was involved with the failed Measure M in the 2016 campaign, which would have required almost any sale or lease of public lands to go to the voters. Measure M was also championed by Councilmember Goldman, who was able to ride the initiative to a very narrow victory for his current seat. Grossman and Cordes have stated that they thought Measure M was too broad, but would support a ballot proposal such as Santa Clara’s Measure R, which required a 2/3 referendum vote for sale or disposition of parkland but was considerably more narrowly worded.
Political Organization Endorsements
The various political organizations in the South Bay have scattered their endorsements pretty thoroughly. Unsurprisingly, the Santa Clara County GOP has endorsed Mayor Hendricks. The South Bay Progressive Alliance has endorsed John Cordes and Josh Grossman. The Santa Clara County Democratic Party voted to endorse Fong, Larsson, and Grossman. The Dean Democratic Club of Silicon Valley endorsed Mason Fong and Gustav Larsson (the latter just this past Monday). The Silicon Valley Young Democrats has also endorsed Fong, while remaining silent on the other two races. Finally, near and dear to my heart, the Democratic Club of Sunnyvale voted to endorse Gustav Larsson for Seat 1, to dual endorse Mason Fong and John Cordes for Seat 3, and not to endorse any candidate for seat 2.
Larsson and Fong have received the endorsements of the South Bay Labor Council, which dual endorsed Hendricks and Grossman. Meanwhile, both Grossman and Fong have received endorsements from SEIU 521. Despite being a Republican, Hendricks has attracted endorsements from most of the Democratic establishment in Sunnyvale and Mountain View. Larsson, Fong, and Hendricks have received endorsements from BAYMEC, the main Santa Clara County LGBT political organization. The Santa Clara County League of Conservation Voters has endorsed Hendricks, Larsson, and Cordes. Meanwhile, South Bay YIMBY endorsed Larsson, dual-endorsed Fong and Cordes, and declined to endorse either Hendricks or Grossman.
Surprising probably no one, I’m going to be voting for Councilmember Larsson, Mayor Hendricks, and Mason Fong this year. Stay tuned for the next article, where I’ll dive into the state of the race for Seat 1, and talk about why I think Gustav Larsson deserves to be reelected.
Part II, my endorsement of Gustav Larsson for Seat 1, is posted here.