Seat 2: Left vs. Right? Not so fast…

This is Part 3 in my series on Sunnyvale’s 2018 Election. Start with Part 1, my overview of the race, if you haven’t read it yet. Part 2 is my endorsement of Councilmember Gustav Larsson. I also wrote an addendum for that race, addressing his opponent’s claims regarding crime. Part 4 is my endorsement of Mason Fong over John Cordes for Seat 3.

Seat 2 offers a more difficult decision for progressives than Seat 1. Mayor Glenn Hendricks is facing a challenge from Housing Commission Chair Joshua Grossman.

Hendricks is the only Republican remaining on Sunnyvale’s City Council. As such, Grossman has consistently tried to paint this race as a battle between left and right, an attempt to flip the last seat on Sunnyvale’s Council from red to blue. He’s draped himself in progressive rhetoric and has centered affordable housing and mobile home park rent stabilization in his campaign.

Now, I can hardly fault a Democrat for appealing to his own party. I was initially sympathetic enough that I gave him a $50 donation this spring. At the very least, I figured, it couldn’t hurt to have a competitive race.

I was badly wrong.

The Takeaway: Vote for Hendricks

Ultimately, political party is not the relevant fault line in this race. When you compare Mayor Hendricks’ record with Commissioner Grossman’s platform, record, and public comments, Hendricks is not only far better qualified, his policies are better, and his temperament is far more suited to the role.

Mayor Hendricks is a moderate if not liberal Republican who has been solid on housing, has been a leader on environmental issues, and has consistently demonstrated excellent temperament in his service as councilmember and then mayor — which is why he’s earned the backing of most of Santa Clara County’s progressive politicians and organizations.

Mayor Hendricks doing his best Martin Freeman impression.

Grossman’s tagline claims that he’s “an independent and thoughtful voice for Sunnyvale.” He is neither. His policies are paper thin, and his progressivism is only skin deep. He has consistently shown a lack of concern for policy consequences, preferring populist soundbites and anti-developer demagoguery. He is squarely in the thrall of the so-called residentialist faction and the loudest anti-growth voices in the Valley, whose reactionary hostility toward growth he shares.

So if you read no further than this: vote Glenn Hendricks for seat 2.

The Mayor’s Record

Perhaps the two words that best summarize Mayor Hendricks’ tenure are “good governance”. He is serious about policy and has zero patience for showboating. He is not prone to high-flying oratory or passionate displays. Perhaps that’s why he has excelled in his role as mayor. Sunnyvale has a council-manager system, which means that Mayor Hendricks acts as chair of the City Council and ceremonial head of the city. Other than the power to set items on the agenda, he’s just another Councilmember. But in that role, he’s consistently worked to ensure that Council meetings are run efficiently and that members of the public are heard and treated respectfully.

RIP Glenn’s mustache. We hardly knew ye.

On housing, Mayor Hendricks has preferred growth to come at a measured pace — one that I have occasionally found to be too slow. Hendricks is not anyone’s idea of a YIMBY, and has been leery of tall buildings. He dissented on the vote to adopt the “R+” El Camino Real Specific Plan, instead preferring the “R” alternative — still residential focused, but at a slightly lower density.

However, he is still consistently pro-growth. The plan he backed for the El Camino Real Corridor would still have added thousands of units of housing to the city. He supported the Atria Apartments development (the first issue I ever spoke to council about, and supported liberalizing our ADU policy. This past summer, he backed Councilmember Nancy Smith’s motion to agendize a study issue on a right to lease ordinance, an issue that I’ve advocated strongly for. Meanwhile improving housing and adding density near transit are explicit items on his campaign platform.

That platform is worth reading and compares very favorably to the impressionistic sketch which is Grossman’s. Where Mayor Hendricks has shined is in his focus on bread and butter issues. He’s helped get development on our downtown moving again, and he worked with the county to get our cold weather homeless shelter converted to a year-round program. In the wake of the Parkland massacre, he proposed and drove through a new ordinance raising the age limit to buy centerfire rifles to 21. And his record on the environment is superb.

As a result of this commitment to good governance, Mayor Hendricks is backed by BAYMEC, Santa Clara County’s main LGBTQ political organization. He’s also earned the backing of the Santa Clara County League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club. The South Bay Labor Council has also dual endorsed both Hendricks and Grossman. So too have the most prominent Democrats in Santa Clara Couny: Congressman Ro Khanna, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, State Senator Jerry Hill, and State Assemblymember Marc Berman. This alone should tell you that he is not your typical Republican.

Anti-Growth Policies in Progressive Clothing?

While researching Mayor Hendricks’ stance on the R+ plan, I ran across some comments from Commissioner Grossman at the same August 2017 meeting — long before he announced his run for office. This comment is worth watching in its entirety. Watch the fellow who spoke after him, too — the contrast couldn’t be clearer. In his three minutes, Grossman exhibits many of the themes of his campaign, including his genuine concern for mobile home park residents. But it also shows a serious animus toward growth, one which runs counter to his concern for affordable housing.

Having been here as a child and then coming back in these recent years, I’ve just seen the quality of life and the density in terms of the number of folks that are now in the city and the infrastructure to support it has really grown beyond I think the scope that we’re able to support and maintain a good quality of life… When we have what could be eleven story buildings I think we’re going to end up with an urban core that is not a place where I would really want to live… We don’t have to approve these, we really don’t, and there’s worse things than having to face a lawsuit from a developer. That’s how the law is made.

Those of you reading this in Berkeley, Palo Alto, or San Francisco recognize this brand of “progressive” anti-growth politics. While Grossman has genuine concern for affordable housing and protecting vulnerable residents (as, to be clear, does Mayor Hendricks), his overriding attitude is not that of a progressive but of a reactionary. It is based on nostalgia for a Sunnyvale that existed only for a brief instant, a nostalgia which has flowered into deep suspicion toward change and development.

His website bears this out. Front and center, it states that he’s “Fighting for you — NOT PACs and Developers.” And the first plank on his platform states “Hyper-growth benefits no one in Sunnyvale.” (Current growth is in line with historical trends for the city, and far lower than the actual hyper-growth we experienced from 1950 to 1970.) Further down, “We need push [sic] developers to build schools to support our city.”

Sunnyvale population over time. Source

But even if Grossman could slow or stop development, he can’t stop rising prices — only adding new supply can do that. As a result, the only folks likely to benefit from Grossman’s policies would be longtime homeowners, whose property values would increase as construction slowed. Everyone else would be priced out. This doesn’t seem very progressive to me.

As an aside, it’s worth noting how unconcerned Grossman is about the threat of a lawsuit from developers. Under the Housing Accountability Act, the city would lose a lawsuit if it attempted to deny a housing development without objective grounds to do so, and could be forced to pay attorneys’ fees. The California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund has gotten very good at suing cities under the HAA, which has gained even more teeth since he made these comments, and I’d really prefer that Sunnyvale not end up next on their list. This lack of concern for policy consequences runs like a red thread in his campaign, and it’s one we’ll return to.

Finally, it’s worth taking a look at Grossman’s most prominent individual supporters. First up is Sunnyvale Councilmember Michael Goldman, who has repeatedly argued that adding housing density causes prices to rise.† Then there’s Better Cupertino co-founder Liang Chao, who has fought tooth and nail against development on the site of the deceased VallCo Mall. Rounding out the roster is Cupertino Councilmember Stephen Scharf, the most anti-growth member of their council, who said at a Better Cupertino forum:

“No one owed me a house in Cupertino,” Scharf said at a Better Cupertino forum, adding that his daughter lives in Oakland because Cupertino is too expensive. “That’s all she can afford,” he said. “That’s the way it is.”

Yikes. All three are major players in Livable California, a new, statewide residentialist organization opposed to statewide intervention on housing and in general hostile to development (check out that slideshow).

Populism vs. Policy

Grossman is very good at pushing progressive sounding ideas. But they frequently appear to have not been fully thought through. We’ve already seen a lack of concern with consequences in his comments on lawsuits. That is unfortunately part of a pattern that should give voters serious pause.

Rent Control Redux

Like Alexander, Grossman has made rent stabilization for mobile home parks a central tenet of his platform. He declared that he would not wear a tie (??) until a referendum on MHP rent stabilization had been placed on the ballot. Odd self-sacrificial gestures aside, like Alexander, Grossman has failed to consider the consequences of a failed referendum on MHP rent control.

That’s not a hypothetical, either. In 1993 such a proposition, Measure N, was soundly defeated (see page 91 here). As I stated in my previous article, a council ordinance would be a better way to achieve rent stabilization for the mobile home parks. But such an ordinance could be repealed by Council alone, and as far as Grossman is concerned, the council is bought and paid for by large corporations — and so he’d rather roll the dice.

What’s with the second lapel buttonhole?

Swinging and Missing on Airplane Noise

Unsurprisingly for a challenger, Grossman has come out swinging hard against the Council. Unfortunately for him, many of those punches have whiffed. A good example is on the issue of airplane noise. In recent years flight paths have been shifted over Sunnyvale, dramatically increasing the amount of airplane noise in our city and frustrating many residents. On August 14, Grossman spoke against adopting the recent Memorandum of Understanding on forming an airplane noise round table. He argued that, due to concerns with the drafted bylaws, Sunnyvale should not join the round table.

Grossman complained that any decision would require a 2/3 vote on the round table and that voting is not weighted by population. Every member gets one vote — tiny Monte Serreno gets one vote, and so does Sunnyvale with its 150,000 people. The thing is, as virtually every councilmember pointed out in their comments, San Jose is also on that roundtable, and it has a population of over 1 million people. With proportional representation, San Jose would completely dominate the body. And as every councilmember noted, our only hope to adjust the bylaws is if we are part of the round table. Ultimately, even Grossman’s sole council supporter, Michael Goldman, ended up supporting the Memorandum of Understanding.

Magical BMR Units

Grossman has centered affordable housing in his campaign, and has a policy plank that “25% of all new residential projects [be] set aside as below market rate housing.” This sounds like a great idea. There’s only one problem: people don’t live in a percentage. They live in actual units.

It turns out developers run on very tight margins. The extraordinary cost of land in the Bay combined with rapidly rising construction costs makes it very difficult for projects to “pencil” — that is, for the developer to make back their investment. Raise the required BMR percentage too high and projects no longer pencil. The goal, then, should be to set the inclusionary zoning percentage at the point that maximizes BMR production.

Finding that point requires careful study, but 25% is far on the wrong side of the peak. It would strangle market rate housing production, along with the affordable housing it’s intended to subsidize. What housing could get built would need to be tall and dense, low on parking, more expensive (for the market rate units), and/or subsidized by office space — all things that Grossman and the residentialist faction have firmly opposed. Indeed there is at least some evidence that this has happened in San Francisco.

Now Grossman either understands this or he doesn’t. Given his affiliation with the residentialist faction and his backing by Goldman, Scharf, and Chao, he may well be pushing the 25% BMR proposal as a poison pill, intended to slow or prevent development. Or maybe he’s just pushing it because it sounds great and he hasn’t thought through the consequences. Either way it’s not good, and I’d go so far as to say it’s disqualifying on its own.

As for Sunnyvale’s current policies? We have a 12.5% BMR requirement for for-sale developments, and the city is working to restore the 15% affordability requirement for rental housing now that the “Palmer Fix” has relegalized it (see page 11 here). Mayor Hendricks has been supportive of this.

On What’s Nextdoor

Those of you on Sunnyvale’s NextDoor can read a letter from an attendee to the VallCo Mall discussion two weeks ago which Grossman posted (and presumably agrees with, as the author is one of his endorsers). The author is an ally of Better Cupertino, and her letter was generally if subtly hostile to development on the site. It included the following:

I noted that many (not all) who favored the plan had something to gain: they came from a school district or were employed at a nonprofit that works with folks who need affordable housing and they do not live in Cupertino (or Sunnyvale).

I found it odd that Grossman would post a letter obviously hostile to the VallCo Specific Plan when it will bring 585 units of affordable housing as well as substantial other community benefits for the City of Cupertino. The SB 35 application would bring even more: 1201. For reference, as of last year there were only 262 deed-restricted affordable units in the entire city of Cupertino. In reply, I posted saying I found it callous to reduce the advocacy from the nonprofits fighting for affordable housing to self-interest while ignoring the self-interest motivating homeowners opposed to the project. This did not sit well with some folks, one of whom responded:

Callous? No, what’s “callous” is Mr. NGO [nongovernmental organization] worker collecting taxpayer funds to demand that other people change their communities and lifestyles in order to accommodate a demographic that NGO guy doesn’t want in his own backyard.
We shouldn’t have to choose between corporate strip-mining of our communities vs. NGOs bringing chaos and crime.

Now on Nextdoor, the equivalent of “liking” a post, as on Facebook or Twitter, is “thanking” it, which comes with a nice 😃. As with a Facebook “like”, the meaning of a “thank” can be ambiguous but generally connotes approval.‡ Among those who “thanked” that post? Josh Grossman.

This isn’t some criticism of office space or market rate housing. It’s an explicit attack on affordable housing. Its claim that affordable housing would bring “chaos and crime” is straight up racist and classist. It runs directly contrary to Grossman’s platform planks advocating for affordable housing, and to the progressive values which he’s made central to his campaign. So why “thank” this?

The Elephant in the Room

Now I’m a Democrat. I believe firmly that the Republican Party, as it exists today, is an existential threat to the country and the world. It is assaulting the freedom and dignity of all Americans , but especially those who are not wealthy, white, straight, male, and Christian. I believe the GOP has substantially been taken over by Trumpism and worse.

I’m not a fan of this.

So how can I back a Republican, even for City Council?

Glenn Hendricks is a Republican, yes. But he’s one of the last of a dying breed. He is a moderate if not liberal Republican who is pro-choice and pro-environment, and who has consistently stood against Trumpism. He has maintained a strong record on the environment, on civil liberties, on human rights for sexual, ethnic and religious minorities. And at the local level, party affiliation is far less important than in the state legislature — especially since all six of the other seats on the council will continue to be held by Democrats.

In February of 2017, a few weeks after President Trump took office, he signed a statement of the Sunnyvale’s values as an inclusive city. In June of 2017, he signed a letter to President Trump objecting to his decision “to roll back critically important U.S. climate policies.” Following the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, he opened the August 15, 2017 council meeting with a full-throated condemnation of the racism and white supremacism on display that tragic weekend. This past June, he voted for and signed a statement on behalf of the city condemning the Trump Administration’s family separation policy. He has drawn a bright red line between himself and any association with Trumpism. He’s consistently opposed it, both personally and as Sunnyvale’s Mayor.

Mayor Hendricks is the only Republican I’ll be voting for this election. He may well be the last Republican I ever vote for. But he is not the lesser of evils. On the contrary, he’s been a tremendously positive force for Sunnyvale. He’s proven himself to be competent, compassionate, and committed to making Sunnyvale a better place to live. I’m proud to support Glenn Hendricks for Seat 2, and I’ll be casting my vote for him with a smile on my face.

† This is a straightforward reversal of cause and effect.
‡ That said I definitely dispensed a couple sarcastic “thanks” in that thread.