Seat 3: Representation Matters

This is Part 4 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. Part 3 is my endorsement of Mayor Glenn Hendricks.

Seat 3 is the hardest decision facing progressive urbanists in Sunnyvale. We’re blessed with that rarest of situations in American democracy: a race between two genuinely excellent candidates. This is an open seat, as Councilmember Jim Griffith is termed out. Running to fill his place are John Cordes, long-time resident, environmental activist, and chair of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission, and Library Board of Trustees Chair Mason Fong, an up-and-coming Millennial who at the ripe old age of 27 has already worked as a staffer for Congressman Mike Honda, Congressman Ro Khanna, and San Jose City Councilmember Chappie Jones.

Vote for Mason. Don’t judge him for his ties.

I know both John and Mason, and I respect them both tremendously. They are both members of Livable Sunnyvale. Both have solid progressive and urbanist chops. They’re strongly committed to building new housing and getting folks out of their cars. I’m not the only person to have remarked that I wish we could have both of them. But ultimately I have to pick one, and on net, I believe Mason is the candidate that better fits Sunnyvale’s needs right now.

The Coalitions

The Bay Area’s progressive establishment is split on the race, though most of the more important institutions have aligned behind Mason. The Democratic Club of Sunnyvale voted to dual endorse both Mason and John, while the Santa Clara County Central Committee voted to sole endorse Mason. Asm. Kansen Chu has dual endorsed, and Congressman Khanna has likewise maintained a friendly neutrality toward both campaigns, giving both John and Mason glowing quotes. Interestingly, both candidates

Unsurprisingly, most of Sunnyvale’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission (full disclosure: I was recently appointed here) have aligned behind Cordes, who besides being the commission’s chair is also an avid cyclist with a really cool recumbent bike. In addition, he’s received endorsements from SJ Mayor Sam Liccardo, the South Bay Progressive Alliance, and former Sunnyvale Mayors Jack Walker and Julia Miller. Impressively, he also managed to snag an endorsement from progressive Senate challenger Kevin de Leon. A dedicated environmentalist, John has unsurprisingly received the backing of the Santa Clara County League of Conservation Voters.

John’s endorsers include a number of people whose opinions I respect very deeply, folks like Planning Commissioner Danny Howard (whose Greater Sunnyvale blog is indispensable), Planning Commissioner Carol Weiss, and Livable Sunnyvale founder and president Sue Serrone. All three are sterling progressives and indefatigable proponents of housing construction. But it gives me serious pause that he has the backing of Michael Goldman, Steven Scharf, and Liang Chao. Everything I said about them in my endorsement for Mayor Hendricks still applies.

John hopes to win by building an unlikely coalition between the urbanists and the residentialists, despite the fact that these two factions are normally opposed. By emphasizing his support for MHP rent stabilization and his desire to slow new office construction, John clearly hopes to appeal to the residentialists enough that he can convince them to accept housing growth. Meanwhile, he hopes that his consistent support for housing construction, infill development, bicycling infrastructure, and green transit will appeal to the urbanists — many of whom are not thrilled at office construction either, as adding more jobs in the midst of a housing crisis seems to be a recipe for making the crisis worse.

While John has gathered considerable support from local progressive officeholders, Mason definitely has the edge when it comes to institutional support. He’s backed by the Silicon Valley and Peninsula Young Democrats and the Santa Clara County Democratic Party. He’s been endorsed by State Senator Jerry Hill, Asm. Mark Berman and Evan Low, four different county supervisors, and half a dozen former mayors of Sunnyvale. He also has the backing of BAYMEC (Santa Clara County’s main LGBT political organization) and various Asian-American organizations.

Mason is running with the backing of the more traditionalist urbanist coalition. He’s been prominently supported by Councilmember Gustav Larsson, who is probably the single strongest pro-housing voice on a very pro-housing council and who helped launch Mason’s campaign. Like Larsson and Hendricks, he’s backed by the Public Safety Officers’ Association, and he’s received enthusiastic backing of both labor and Sunnyvale’s business community.

Interestingly, he’s also the only candidate in any of the council races this year to receive the endorsement of the Sunnyvale Employees Association, which speaks for city workers. This is natural — his day job is as a civil servant in San Jose, so he’s intimately familiar with and sympathetic toward the issues facing civil servants trying to make a living in one of the most expensive regions in the country. He’s also received the strong backing of a number of other regional labor unions, which have been strong proponents of housing growth. Not only is the housing crisis hitting their members hard, housing construction brings valuable, good paying construction jobs.

Experience and Policies

Despite their age and residency gap, John and Mason have comparable amounts of experience — though in different areas.

John’s lived in Sunnyvale for 20 years, he’s served on three different city commissions and the boards of numerous activist organizations, and he ran for council in 2016. He knows the city well, and probably edges out Mason when it comes to knowledge on bicycling infrastructure and environmental policy. He’s served on our Climate and Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commissions for years, as well as the Safe Routes to School Coalition. That experience would serve our city very well, especially when it comes to our bicycle infrastructure, which could really use some love. And it plays into the way he does things. Unlike Grossman, Cordes prefers to see mobile home park rent stabilization implemented by ordinance rather than referendum, recognizing that the referendum approach would be terribly risky.

But when it comes to the big picture of city government, Mason comes out ahead. Yes, he’s 27 years old, but his qualifications and experience are already impressive. First, Mason did his bachelor’s degree in Urban Planning. A huge part of that is traffic management and street design — key to addressing our city’s traffic woes. It also gives him a solid understanding of city planning and zoning policy. And while nothing can compete with 20 years of living in the city, Mason does know the city. He’s lived in both north and south Sunnyvale, and as chair of the Library Commission he’s worked hard with the community on the branch library in Lakewood Park.

Mason’s experience as an aide to Congressman Mike Honda and Congressman Ro Khanna is also very valuable. Currently he’s working as an aide to San Jose Councilmember Chappie Jones, for whom he’s drafted legislation and makes policy recommendations. Jones and Honda have both strongly endorsed Mason, even introducing him at various campaign events. Mason’s staff experience gives him very valuable understanding of how city staff works, which is key to getting anything done in city government, especially under a council-manager system.

When I was 27 I was mostly playing video games and yelling on Twitter. Of course I’m still doing that.

That experience is also key to regional work — and most of the issues facing Sunnyvale today, from traffic to airplane noise to rent, are regional. The housing crisis does not start and stop at city boundaries. Much of the traffic afflicting our city is pass-through traffic — the inevitable result of our neighbors adding jobs without adding housing. Then there’s the perennial fight to get the VTA to pay attention to the north county, not just San Jose. Mason’s worked closely with the VTA in his capacity as a member of a Councilmember Jones’ staff; he would represent us well on the VTA board and provide valuable insight and connections to help Sunnyvale get our fair share of transportation resources.

Sunnyvale has traditionally not received the sort of attention or held the sort of regional influence as some of our neighbors, despite being the second largest city in Santa Clara County and the largest city between San Jose and San Francisco. Mason’s regional connections and his understanding of cross-governmental collaboration will be key to helping us rectify this, and making sure that Sunnyvale gets a fair shake at the county level.

Finally, while John has made a big issue of slowing office development, it’s not clear that this is entirely the right approach for Sunnyvale. Sunnyvale has some solid transit resources in the form of the VTA light rail and the Caltrain; it makes sense to build offices along those lines. What we need to be doing, and what Mason understands how to do, is to ensure that the city extracts as many concessions and benefits as possible for office development — especially in terms of contributions to affordable housing. He will make sure that growth and development work for the good of our city.

Mailers and Flyers and Photos, oh my…

It would be remiss of me to complete this editorial without addressing the issue of Mason’s Lakewood Mailer. Early in October, Mason sent a mailer to the Lakewood Village neighborhood that incorrectly included a photograph of Congressman Ro Khanna in a row of his endorsers. As I mentioned earlier, Congressman Khanna has maintained neutrality in the race, despite making friendly noises toward both John and Mason.

To put it mildly, I was not happy when I heard about this. It was a serious screw-up on Mason’s part. It was also, however, an accident, and one for which Mason has taken responsibility and apologized publicly on Facebook, and reiterated it at the League of Women Voters candidates forum. That statement rings true. This is not the sort of thing that anyone would ever do deliberately, for the very simple reason that it would immediately be discovered and called out, and then you end up having to make an embarrassing and painful mea culpa.

I have done a lot of writing in my life, and while I can’t think of any incident where I made a slip-up quite this bad, the thing with proofreading one’s own work is that after a while, your eyes start to glaze over things. You know what you meant, and so you see what you thought you said. That’s why you always have someone with fresh eyes proofread things — preferably multiple someones. Always. I suspect that’s a lesson Mason will never forget.

Unsurprisingly, John’s supporters are unsatisfied with Mason’s apology. They quite rightly point out that pretty much any public statement he makes will not reach everyone who received the mailer; the only way to do so would be to send out a correction mailer, which Mason’s elected not to do.

John and his supporters are also upset about two other mailers, sent earlier in the camppaign, where he included a positive quote from Congressman Khanna and photos of him with the Congressman. Their argument is that, taken together, these mailers were deceptive, and intended to imply to voters that Khanna had endorsed Mason when he has not. But Mason had explicit permission from Congressman Khanna to use that quote in a mailer. The part to me where Mason made an error in judgment was in running photos of himself with the Congressman. In general one should not run a photo of anyone in campaign literature without explicit permission. This is a venial sin, not a mortal one, and it’s one that I do not expect to see repeated.

Now, I’m biased. I support Mason, so I’m pretty inclined to view all of this in a forgiving light. But I can say pretty confidently that if the roles were reversed I would feel the same way. People are not, for the most part, going to be deciding who to vote for based on Congressman Khanna’s perceived preference. They’re going to do so based on their understanding of the issues.

Frankly, I’ve found the whole discourse around the mailers to be distracting, dispiriting, and distasteful. I’m irked to see a race between two excellent urbanist candidates with great ideas for the future of our city reduced to arguing about mailers. Ultimately, I don’t think this kerfuffle matters for the future of Sunnyvale. I think outgoing Councilmember Griffith summed the matter up well on Nextdoor:

I’m pretty sure I understand what went wrong with Mason’s flyer, but that doesn’t mean he handled it correctly, but he’s following up properly… I understand why I made a pretty big mistake in my own campaign, but that doesn’t mean I handled it correctly, but I think I followed up properly. These things happen, and they’re not substantive. They’re just “gotcha politics” that don’t have the slightest bearing on the future of Sunnyvale. And everyone saying “this one matters but that one doesn’t” is just being partisan.

Jim’s right. None of this matters. What matters is which candidate better suits Sunnyvale’s needs right now. With two strong candidates, that is a very close call.

What Sunnyvale Needs

One key and delicate issue in this race is that of diversity. Mason would bring some important and deeply valuable diversity to our council. He would be the only non-white city councilmember in a city which is approximately 40% Asian and 20% Latino. He’s also made promoting diversity by having the city actively celebrate our different communities and cultures a major part of his platform. Currently, we do very little along those lines.

Mason would be the only Millennial on our council. He would be the only career civil servant on our council. Perhaps most importantly, he would be the only working-class member of our council. Mason earns about $54,000 per year; he’s paying $1,200 a month plus utilities in rent for a bedroom in a house he shares with four other people. It’s a nice house. It’s roomy. It has a big yard and a wonderfully strange miniature spiral staircase in the living room. But, well, paying a quarter of one’s income to live with four roommates is not exactly the future most of us dream of.

More than anyone else I’ve met who’s involved with Sunnyvale city politics, Mason’s future is circumscribed by the housing crisis. The center of his campaign and his platform is simple: he wants to be able to live here! Whether he will be able to raise a family in Sunnyvale, whether he will be able to live in Sunnyvale or even the Bay in the long term is highly dependent on whether we address the housing crisis. He gets the housing crisis in his gut, and when he speaks about the need for housing he does so with true passion.

Diversity matters. Representation matters. Lived experience matters. Those of my friends who are voting for John would, I think, agree with this. I think they’d also agree that Sunnyvale needs more diversity on its council, and that there’s something that’s just not right about having a whites-only council in a majority-minority city. But I want to be clear about this: it is a scandal that a city as diverse as Sunnyvale has an all-white council. It is a scandal that we have only one woman on our council. It is a scandal that we have no Millennials on council. Redressing this demographic imbalance in our government has to be a major priority for our city.

In contrast, John is explicitly running on the fact that he’s retired. At the Livable Sunnyvale Candidate forum, he stated: “I have the time to dedicate. I’m a retired person. I’ve been attending meetings like you cannot believe to be your city council person.” Now I have nothing against retired people. I hope to one day be one myself — though considering what’s being done to our social safety net that seems increasingly unlikely. But John would be the fourth on our council, out of seven (the other three being Mayor Hendricks, Councilmember Goldman, and Councilmember Melton).

Personally, I want to see more representation for people who have to work for a living on our Council. I want people on our Council who understand the housing crisis personally. I want people who know what it means to have one’s choices and futures constrained by the rent. I want people on our Council who understand the issues young people trying to build a career in this Valley are facing. In short, I want our Council to look like Sunnyvale.

It’s also worth noting that Sunnyvale has a part-time council, which does not actually have enough duties to merit being a full-time job. There’s one council meeting every two weeks, attendance at your assigned committee meeting once a month and other civic events, meeting with constituents and city officials, and your packet reading. This should in general be doable in under 15 hours a week.

That time commitment is reflected in the salary for Sunnyvale councilmembers: about $29,500 a year. You can’t live in Sunnyvale on that salary. If we want full-time councilmembers, the solution is not to institute a de facto wealth test where we favor retirees because they have free time. It’s to make the council a full time position and pay councilmembers accordingly. Personally, I don’t think that’s necessary. A part-time council is more than enough for our needs, and voters should not be dinging candidates for having a day job.

Now some have regrettably charged that those of us who back Mason are doing so solely because he is Asian. This is nonsense on stilts. When considering my vote, I weight diversity as being roughly the equivalent to a substantial issue. Diversity comes into play when the qualifications and positions of the candidates are similar — like with John and Mason. Both are urbanists, both have substantial experience in government, both are advocating for policies I substantially agree with. It’s more than just a tie-breaker, but it’s not enough to swing my vote if I don’t believe a candidate is qualified or if I believe their policies would be destructive.

Take, for instance, my endorsement of Gustav Larsson over Henry Alexander III. Alexander would improve diversity on Council, both by being our only African American councilmember and by being our only councilmember with a background in Parks and Rec. But the policies and the ideology he advocates for are so awful as to be disqualifying. Combine that with the fact that Gustav Larsson has been fantastic and my decision was a no-brainer.

Now, even setting aside the issue of diversity, I think Mason edges out. Many of my pro-housing friends will, reasonably, disagree with me on this. And they have good reasons for feeling that way, despite also valuing diversity. Some might say, “We value diversity, but we also want mobile home rent control.” Or, “John is better on cycling or on environmental issues” (I think that’s probably true). Or, “John will do more to slow down office growth” (also true, but not necessarily the right strategy).

All of those are good reasons to back John. But here’s the thing: there will always be good reasons to vote for the older white guy over the newcomer. He’s got experience, gravitas, a long record of activism. He’s got some policy positions that you like. But ultimately, if you want diversity on council, at some point you have to actually vote for it.

The Takeaway

Mason reminds me of someone.

John and Mason would both make excellent councilmembers. I honestly wish they hadn’t run against each other. Regrettably, though, we have to decide between them. And while it’s a very close decision, I’m convinced that Mason would better serve Sunnyvale’s needs right now. He’s got the kind of experience and policy expertise necessary to get things done, and the cross-governmental connections to help Sunnyvale finally start punching its weight at a regional level. He’ll bring some badly needed diversity to our city council. And like someone else whose story has resonated in recent years, Mason is young, scrappy, and hungry. It is extraordinarily rare to find such a combination of youth, passion, and experience. That combination is exactly what Sunnyvale needs.