Political Climate by Mark Simon: Council race will be costly, rough

in Featured/Headline/PoliticalClimate

The flurry of activity in the Redwood City City Council race at the start of February has settled down a bit, but some would-be candidates are still contemplating their options.

Veteran Planning Commissioner Ernie Schmidt, who ran unsuccessfully for the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors in 2012 and for the city council in 2013, said he is “50/50 about running this time.” He sounds like he’s leaning toward passing this time and running in 2020, when term limits and higher ambitions among current council incumbents may mean more open seats.

As for 2018, it will be the first council election to be part of the statewide general election, which means much bigger turnout and a base of voters well beyond the number who participated in prior elections, and these voters will have to be contacted. Add to that the noise and attention of a statewide ballot that includes races for governor and U.S. senator, and a local candidate will struggle to be heard.

Schmidt estimates a campaign for city council this year will be the most expensive ever. Do I really want to spend 90 grand?” Schmidt said.

Then there’s the expectation among many that this council race will be distinctly contentious as some of the most controversial issues play out between hardened camps.

“It’s such a weird climate,” Schmidt said. “The race is going to be very noisy. I don’t know if I have ear muffs strong enough for all the noise.”

EXPECTATIONS: Schmidt’s reference to the political climate is accurate: In talking with a number of candidates, it is clear the expectation is for a rough campaign.

That’s one reason my debut column expressed disappointment and impatience with an anonymous complaint filed at the state Fair Political Practices Commission against incumbent Jeff Gee. Since that appeared, I’ve been told that all complaints to the FPPC preserve the anonymity of the complainant, even if that person identifies himself or herself to the FPPC.

Well, that’s not true. Complainants have the option of remaining anonymous. In fact, they have to take an affirmative step to preserve their anonymity. That was the case in this complaint filed by a self-described “concerned citizen of Redwood City.” The same complainant later says, “I am filing this complaint anonymously as I am concerned for my job if named.”

Of course, we have no way of knowing if any of that is true, nor are we able to assess the motives of the complainant.

The timing is significant: the complaint was filed on Dec. 29, 2016, when it still looked as if Gee would be on the ballot in 2017. Was it filed for political mischief and to burden Gee with a political wound at a critical time? Is that fair or accurate speculation? Who knows? The complainant knows, and he or she is welcome to call me up and straighten me out if my speculation is off-base.

NEW FACES: I had a chance to talk to several of the new names emerging for the 2018 council race, one of whom, Giselle Hale, is the most recent to enter the race, doing so today via a Facebook announcement.

Christina Umhofer described herself first as a “lifetime resident” of Redwood City and as someone who believes in actively engaging in the issues that concern her. “If I’m going to have a criticism, I should put myself in the role of doing something about it.”

In prior publications, she has been labeled a “residentialist,” a label she said “other people have put on me.”

The issues of the campaign, she said, will be rent control, growth, parks and open space and infrastructure.

She understands “we have to grow in order to survive and thrive. …I think we could pause for three to six months and see what our city and residents need. We have afforded ourselves the opportunity to pause for a few seconds.”

As a property owner – Umhofer’s family owns a long-established auto garage – the economic growth has benefited her property values. But Umhofer said there have been unreconciled impacts on roads and sewer systems and not everyone has benefited. She said she wants to understand what else needs to be done for the whole of the city’s residents.

Rick Hunter answered questions via email and said the major issues facing the city are “severe budget difficulties, the affordable housing crisis and jobs/housing imbalance and the balance between quality of life and growth.”

With a decades-long record of civic activism as a volunteer and as a member of city and school commissions and foundation boards, “It’s the right time to use my experience to help guide the city through the next very important period.”

A CPA with an MBA from UCLA, Hunter said his background in finance and accounting will be valuable “In making difficult budget decisions as the city faces a growing problem with unfunded pension liabilities.”

As for Hale, her Facebook announcement began with a Valentine to the city: “I love you Redwood City.” She said she is running “because I will work to ensure residents and families of all ethnic and economic backgrounds can live in Redwood City and not just make it here – but thrive.”

Her local experience includes a seat on the Planning Commission and a board member on the Redwood City Education Foundation. A product director for Facebook, Hale’s activism includes Democratic campaign work on behalf of President Barack Obama and Congresswoman Anna Eshoo and the leadership council for the National Partnership for Women and Families.

She said she is concerned whether Redwood City can remain family-friendly. She was prompted to ask: “Why not me, why not now?”

“It is becoming unsustainable to raise a family in Redwood City,” she said, noting that her school-age children have seen the families of friends move out of the area because of the cost of living, particularly housing.

“We need to decide how that’s going to play out,” Hale said. “We’re raising the first generation of children who won’t drive cars.”

Like other candidates, Hale said the next step is to spend time talking to fellow residents, understanding their concerns and working together to learn how to address them.

“Any candidate who is running is out listening right now,” Hale said.

Mark Simon can be reached at mark@climaterwc.com.