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District elections bring big changes to local government

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District Elections Bring Big Changes to Local Government

San Mateo County, long a bastion of an unchanging governmental environment, has plunged into the most radical change to occur since the formation of the county 165 years ago.

In a breathtakingly brief period of time, 11 of the county’s 20 cities have changed or are in the process of changing how they elect their representatives, moving from at-large, where every council member is elected citywide, to by-district, where voters in a specific district elect only their representative. Add in the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, which switched to district elections in 2012, and the growing number of school districts making the transition, and it is safe to say a revolution is taking place in local government.

This story was originally published in the October edition of Climate Magazine. Click here to read the full digital publication.

The consequences of this sweeping change to district elections  are only beginning to reveal themselves, but it is safe to say there will be unexpected results and it is likely the political landscape is changed forever. It is boom times for the law of unintended consequences.

“There is no going back,” said Jim Hartnett, a former Redwood City mayor and multi-term member of the Redwood City Council. “Whether people like it or not, it’s not going back.”

This change was forced on nearly every jurisdiction. Attorneys throughout the state have been sending letters to cities and school districts that elect representatives citywide or district wide,  asserting that they are in violation of the California Voting Rights Act. The threshold for proving their case is fairly low. Historic voting trends merely have to show that minority candidates for any office—city council, U.S. senator, lieutenant governor—routinely were unable to elect persons from the same ethnic minority, essentially disenfranchising minority voters. Courts have interpreted the CVRA broadly; challenging the law has been expensive and unsuccessful.

Most Cities Comply

More than 100 cities have received a CVRA letter, and the vast majority have opted not to fight. Every city in the county that has received a letter has chosen to comply with the demand to shift to district elections.

“It’s a legal fact of life,” said Hartnett. “There’s no sense in fighting over it.”

Four cities divided their communities into districts in time for last year’s election—South San Francisco, Redwood City, Half Moon Bay, and Pacifica. Menlo Park was the first city penguin off the ice floe, moving to districts for the 2018 election. A sixth city, Woodside, oddly enough, has had councilmembers elected citywide from districts. The town initiated its own effort to switch to election by district.

Five cities are in various stages of switching to district elections. Millbrae received a CVRA letter on March 8, but has yet to start drawing districts. Burlingame received a demand letter in January 2020, and is deep in a process it has dubbed “5 Districts—One Burlingame.” San Mateo received a demand letter in May and also is in the process. Belmont only recently received a demand letter and has barely begun its discussions. San Bruno decided to start the process without waiting to get the inevitable letter.

All are legally compelled to implement district elections by the November 2022 elections.

Nine cities have no districts and, so far, have not received a letter. Five are among the county’s smallest cities—Brisbane, Atherton, Colma, Portola Valley and Hillsborough—and it appears they are unlikely targets for the ever-eager attorneys. Two of the cities would appear to be likely targets—Foster City and San Carlos.

Two Exceptions

And two cities of substantial size—Daly City and East Palo Alto—may be immune to the civil rights accusations. Both cities are majority-minority communities—more nonwhites than whites. In East Palo Alto, the whole city council, reflective of its community, is composed of entirely of Latino or black members. In Daly City, four of its five councilmembers are minorities (a term that seems increasingly outdated). Three councilmembers are from the city’s Filipino community, which makes up more than one-third of Daly City’s population.

Three cities—Burlingame, San Mateo and Redwood City—have toyed with using the change to consider an at-large mayor. But they have moved on for a variety of reasons—the other district-based councilmembers fear being overshadowed by a citywide mayor; the process of drawing district lines, either for the first time or the second (the county, Redwood City, Menlo Park, South City) is just too much to take on; and it might invite further legal challenges.

The immediate impact of district elections at the city level has been to elect councilmembers who had limited chances of winning a citywide election. Instead, well-established incumbents have been defeated, often in districts small enough for a challenger to knock on every door of every would-be voter. And not to understate this, but because of districts more minorities are being elected than ever—in some instances, breaking up longstanding all-white council lineups.

In Redwood City, political unknown Lisette Espinoza-Garnica, a self-described nonbinary Latinx, who advocated abolition of the police department, parlayed a grassroots campaign and union connections into a win over incumbent Janet Borgens. In Menlo Park, two-term incumbents Kirsten Keith and Peter Ohtaki were defeated by Cecilia Taylor and Drew Combs. Taylor was the first black woman elected to the council and the first from the city’s majority-minority Belle Haven neighborhood in more than three decades. In South San Francisco, district elections had an impact that rippled through the political status quo—then-21-year-old gay Asian American James Coleman, campaigning while attending Harvard remotely, defeated longtime incumbent Rich Garbarino, a widely liked and well-connected figure countywide.

“If South City and Redwood City had not moved to district elections, we almost certainly would have seen the re-election of Rich Garbarino and Janet Borgens,” said a consultant.

“A Perfect Storm”

And if 2020 had not been 2020—marked by a pandemic, a deeply divisive and energized presidential election and the murder of George Floyd by a police officer. “It was a perfect storm for someone to come in and win,” said one veteran political advisor.

In some instances, the district elections allow newcomers to bypass the traditional path to office, including service on a city board or commission, high-profile participation in community events and nonprofits and building a base among a city’s customary political establishment.

This also means a wave of newcomers who do not feel the need to “wait their turn” in running for office, but also face a steep learning curve on such basic topics as how a city works, the budgeting process, issues of citywide importance (land use, in particular) that extend beyond a specific district and the most fundamental city council reality: winning the votes of a majority of council colleagues.

“The downside is that it means electing somebody who has almost no experience at any level —government, nonprofit. The wheels of government run slowly enough when you have people with experience,” said one veteran local government political and public affairs advisor.

District elections also mean a greater expectation that a councilmember will intervene on such nuts-and-bolts matters as a pothole or garbage pickup.

Leveling the Playing Field

This also could strain city budgets and staff, who now must consider how to serve  councilmembers who may want to hold office hours or produce a city-sponsored district newsletter. It has prompted at least one local public affairs consultant to suggest that current city councils need to do a better job of recruiting a diversity of people to boards and commissions, the minor leagues of government service. Cities ought to consider public financing of campaigns to ensure a level playing field for all candidates, the consultant said, and better compensation for councilmembers as district elections are likely to increase the amount of time an officeholder will spend on what is supposed to be a part-time job.

“When you shrink the territory, it reduces a candidate’s cost and increases the value of sweat equity. You increase the competitiveness of the non-establishment type candidate. You need to increase the leveling of the playing field,” said the consultant. “It’s not enough to just make it easier for the incumbent or the angry person to decide to run for office. The city or school district now has to work twice as hard to make sure people are prepared and have the experience they need to effectively govern.”

All of which brings us back to the law of unintended consequences. Or, as district elections sweep through the county, entirely unknown consequences.

The impact of district elections? “It’s too early to tell, ” Hartnett said. “It has to work its way through some election cycles.”

San Mateo begins transition to district elections

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San Mateo to pay $450K settlement related to denial of housing project

San Mateo City Council on Monday committed to transitioning to a district-election system for electing City Council members, prompting the launch of a community engagement effort to determine district boundaries.

The city recently became the latest California jurisdiction to face legal action if it did not transition from an at large system for electing City Council members to a district-based version. The current at large system has voters citywide electing all five City Council members, while a district-based election has voters solely electing the councilmember who resides in and represents their designated district within the city.

In late May, the city received a letter from attorney Scott Rafferty stating at large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) as they dilute representation in minority-majority neighborhoods. No cities have successfully defended a CVRA lawsuit brought to mandate district-based elections. Entering litigation comes at a high cost in city funds. Redwood City held its first district elections last year.

“This is perhaps the most important shift in local City Council elections in San Mateo’s more than 125-year history,” said Eric Rodriguez, Mayor of San Mateo. “Listening to and learning from our community is key to this process, and I encourage everyone in San Mateo to get involved in guiding the future of our democracy.”

Along with an outreach program to gather community input, the city has hired a professional demographer to assist in developing a map divided up into council districts. The timeline to get this done is short. The city is legally mandated to hold at least five public hearings and to finalize a map in 90 days. The city intends to request an extension “to allow for more robust public outreach and to incorporate the Census 2020 demographic data that is expected to be released this year.”

The transition to district elections has become increasingly common in the state and San Mateo County, as attorneys have sued local cities and school districts alleging there is evidence of racially polarized voting in at-large electoral systems,” the city said. “While the City does not believe there is local evidence of raciallypolarized voting, under the CVRA, minimal evidence of racially polarized voting can result in a court ordering a change from at-large voting to district-based voting.”

To learn more and follow the process, visit the city’s new District Elections web page here.

Applicants sought to serve on Redwood City 11-member redistricting committee

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District Elections Bring Big Changes to Local Government

Redwood City residents are being sought to serve on the 11-member Advisory Redistricting Committee (ARC), which is tasked with helping to determine district boundaries for City Council elections following the 2020 Census.

Applications are due by 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, June 6. After they’re reviewed for eligibility, the City Council will hold interviews and then make appointments at its meeting June 28. The committee will meet about 15 times throughout the process, which must be completed no later than April 17, 2022. Visit here to apply.

Members must be residents of incorporated Redwood City, eligible electors throughout the duration of their term, and the City Council expressed a desire for the committee to reflect the diversity in the community, and that its members be fair-minded and committed to ensuring fair representation, city officials said.

Committee members can expect to work with one another to learn about “learn about the legal requirements and best practices for redistricting, to engage the public in providing testimony on communities of interest, and to create draft maps to be considered by the City Council,” officials said.

“An ideal candidate may have knowledge or experience in, though not limited to, the following areas: data and analysis, GIS and mapping, Redwood City’s diverse communities, working collaboratively to achieve a common goal, and community engagement strategies,” the city said.

Those not permitted to serve on the committee are elected officials of the local jurisdiction, a family member of an elected official of the local jurisdiction, an elected official’s staff member, or paid campaign staff of an elected official of the local jurisdiction, the city said.

In March 2019, Redwood City became the latest California jurisdiction to transition from an at-large to district based system for electing City Council members under threat of legal action. While at-large elections allow voters of the entire city to elect the seven councilmembers, a district-based system has voters voting solely for the councilmember who resides in and aims to represent their particular district of the city.

A District Elections map was subsequently adopted comprising of seven districts, and the first district election was held Nov. 3, 2020, with four district seats on the ballot. Now, the city is legally mandated to undergo a redistricting process based upon new 2020 U.S. Census demographic data. In April, the City Council voted to form ARC.

Belmont Mayor Charles Stone’s support grows in bid for county supervisor

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Belmont Mayor Charles Stone this week announced a growing list of endorsements in his bid for District 2 County Supervisor in San Mateo County—a seat that opens in 2022 due to term limits.

Along with California State Treasurer Fiona Ma, Stone has received recent endorsements from San Mateo Mayor Eric Rodriguez, President of the San Mateo-Foster City School District Board Kenneth Chin and former Belmont Chamber of Commerce President Mary Parden.

A county native and a graduate of Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, Mayor Stone is the parent of two daughters in local public schools and serves as board chair of the San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans). He is also an active school library, classroom and foundation volunteer, as well as a youth sports coach.

“As County Supervisor, I’ll continue to champion healthy, safe communities where every senior gets vaccines, medications, and care when they need it; affordable housing for our workforce and future generations; and a functioning public transit system that reduces congestion and provides efficient mobility options,” said Stone.

In endorsing Stone, Chin championed him as one who would “bring a much-needed parent perspective to the Board of Supervisors.”

Rodriguez pointed to Stone being “the best representative for San Mateo’s interests locally and regionally,” while Parden touted his ability to “lead the fight to provide the support we need as our local businesses and families recover from the fiscal and health impacts of COVID.”

To date, Stone has raised more than $80,000 for the June 2022 Primary Election. Lean more about Stone’s campaign for county supervisor here and/or contact him at charles@stoneforsupervisor.org.

Photo of Charles Stone being sworn in as Belmont mayor by his daughters in December courtesy of Charles Stone for County Supervisors.

Political Climate with Mark Simon: Redwood City election was transformative

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These citizen 'extras' play key roles in Redwood City government

It is likely that decades from now, 2020 will be seen as a year when everything changed in Redwood City politics. Perhaps more than any election anywhere – here or across the country – the outcome of the Redwood City Council election was transformative, as sweeping as it was swift.

For the first time, a majority of the council represents the full spectrum of the city’s residents — four seats held by people of color with the return of Jeff Gee and Alicia Aguirre and the arrival of newcomers Michael Smith and Lissette Espinoza-Garnica. And, in the case of the latter two, it’s the first time the council has had two members who openly identify as gay or nonbinary.

It would not have happened without the city’s move to district elections. In a citywide race, Gee might not have not run – a decision he made in the last citywide election in 2018 — and it’s impossible to imagine Espinoza-Garnica winning citywide.

This has caused grumbling among the mainliners of the status quo, of course. There has been some online complaining from the usual suspects that the city should have fought the threatened lawsuit that prompted the creation of districts and cleared the way for the election of Smith and Espinoza-Garnica, each of whom represents minority-majority districts, and Gee, who represents a district that is substantially Asian-American.

This is what happens when the establishment loses power to a new reality, and my response to the complaints is: Tough.

We have just elected the first woman Vice President, the first South Asian-American Vice President, the first African-American Vice President. Change is coming to America. Too slowly, for some, too radically for others, too frighteningly for still others. But inevitably.

Kamala Harris represents a rising generation of young and younger Americans who will be diverse in background and ethnicity and who will see their world and the future in different ways that will break the longstanding white male dominance of this nation.

Redwood City is at the cutting edge of that change – ahead of California, ahead of America. The move to district elections, regardless of why or how, was the right thing to do.

PRACTICAL POLITICS: Two of the city’s contested seats went as could have been expected. Gee, long a denizen of Redwood Shores, easily won a new term on the council in the face of a credible challenge from Planning Commissioner Nancy Radcliffe. And Aguirre, deftly deploying all the advantages of incumbency, staved off a vigorous challenge from retired police officer Chris Rasmussen in the Farm Hills district. It is likely Rasmussen will remain a force in the community and this race may well set him for another race in the future.

The stunner was the defeat of incumbent Janet Borgens in Friendly Acres by Espinoza-Garnica. Borgens deep ties to the area looked like enough of an insurance policy against an unknown, inexperienced challenger in Espinoza-Garnica. But the pandemic clearly crimped Borgens’ campaign effort, while Espinoza-Garnica charged ahead, raising money and identifying and getting to the polls a new wave of voters. It is worth noting that turnout in this district was half that of the other districts – to the benefit of the challenger.

The new majority promises to be fascinating to watch. Espinoza-Garnica is a full-throat progressive who advocated abolishing the police. With housing and development still the dominant issues, voters elected councilmembers who were the object of dismay and unhappiness by the no-growth element of the city.

This ought to be fun.

SPOILERS: By the way, there also are those who say Mark Wolohan took votes away from Rasmussen and helped Aguirre win and, similarly, Isabella Chu took votes from Borgens and helped Espinoza-Garnica win. How do we know it’s not the other way around and Rasmussen prevented Wolohan from winning? The answer is that we don’t and to label Wolohan and Chu as spoilers is to a disservice to their candidacies.

CH-CH-CH-CHANGES: It was a meaningful election for Rainbow politics. In addition to Smith and Espinoza, another openly gay candidate, James Coleman took out well-regarded incumbent Councilman Rich Garbarino in South San Francisco. … The ease with which appointed incumbent Councilwoman Amourence Lee turned back challenger Lisa Diaz Nash also speaks to the changing politics dynamics in San Mateo. Nash was heavily backed by development interests who saw Lee as a too-progressive outsider. Measure Y, the extension of San Mateo’s height limit, was losing as of this writing, but it was still too close to call and if it passes it will have a razor-thin margin – another sign attitudes are changing in San Mateo.

WELL, NO, NOT QUITE: In my last pre-election column, I made a number of guesses, and, boy, was I wrong – particularly about how well Espinoza-Garnica would do, the Lee-Nash race and the race for a San Mateo County Community College seat between incumbents Maurice Goodman and Dave Mandelkern, won by Goodman. I said Joe Biden would win a landslide and that it would be evident on election night, although I did hedge that one a bit.

The normal post-election news media analysis would be to say these outcomes were a surprise. But just because it’s a surprise to me doesn’t mean it’s a surprise to the candidates.

Yes, some races are still too close to conclude. But look at the trend lines. If the other guy’s lead is growing, that’s a bad sign.

MOVING ON: The ideal outcome of 2020 would be for everyone to take a deep breath, let it out slowly, take a look around and get new bearings.

I’d like to see those in the political arena engage each other over honest differences and stop this constant wave of suspicion and cynicism that seems to dominate our public discourse.

What brings this to mind was a late complaint from the Yes on Y forces in San Mateo that a mobile vote center had been placed at Hillsdale Shopping Center, which is owned by the Bohannon Company, a major backer of rival Measure R. “Is this one more thing that big money can buy in this election?  Shameful!” went the complaint. Well, it didn’t work, as Measure R was thoroughly trounced. Hillsdale Shopping Center is a community gathering place, which is where a mobile vote center should go. The dang thing wasn’t plastered with Yes on R stickers. It just sat there, like the inanimate object it was.

Not every action warrants outrage or suspicion. Really.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Climate Online. 

Political Climate with Mark Simon: My best election guesses

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Major League Baseball pitcher Joaquin Andujar once famously offered this pearl of wisdom: “I only have one word to say: Youneverknow.”

He’s right. Youneverdo. Especially, right now, in this unique, frustrating, tumultuous and chaotic year. Decades from now, we will tell young people about 2020 and they won’t believe us.

Anyway, we’re hours away from the first election results and, in the end, no one knows what will happen. Including me. Still, as a designated pontificator, I’ll offer up my best guesses. Then, I’ll add a little more about why this election, perhaps more than any other, is the most unpredictable at every spot on the ballot.

BUT FIRST, A SLIGHT DETOUR: And the first thing I’m going to do is back off on the rhetoric about unpredictability. There are some things we know.

Joe Biden will win the Peninsula, the Bay Area and the state. It is, as they say at the sports books, a mortal lock. The only question is whether his total will be at 70 percent.

All that I’ve learned about politics in more than 40 years reporting on it at the national, state and local level also tells me that Biden will win big, perhaps a landslide and that it will be abundantly clear on election night. Still, the specter of bad polling in 2016 looms over any prediction that can be made and sows deep doubts about any judgment. As Congresswoman Anna Eshoo said to me the other day, “I feel like I’m driving around with the emergency brake on.”

Still, as I started to say before I interrupted myself, there are some sure things: Congresswoman Jackie Speier will get 70 percent in her re-election campaign because she always does and there’s no reason to think otherwise this time. Eshoo should hold off the frantically weird challenge from Democrat Rishi Kumar. And Josh Becker will win the 13th Senate District seat with similar ease, an outcome that was guaranteed when he drew a Republican opponent out of the primary.

ON THE LOCAL BALLOT: Back to my best guesses. Let’s start with Redwood City, not only because it’s the city’s first foray into district elections, but it’s also what I get paid to do. Yes, I get paid. Sometimes I just have to pinch myself.

For all the hoo-ha that attended the City Council’s tortured path to new districts, it looks as though the three contested seats are going to go to two incumbents and a pseudo-incumbent.

In District 1, Redwood Shores, Jeff Gee has been off the council for only two years. He raised the most money, had the deepest roots in the district, and, it could be argued, has been working the Shores for decades. There are definite anti-Gee (zero G?) forces in Redwood City, but district elections have diminished their impact. Planning Commissioner Nancy Radcliffe ran a credible campaign, hampered, perhaps, by her having moved into the district only a little while ago. Gee is a virtual incumbent, and voters need a compelling reason to vote out someone they have elected before. This race was never about that.

In the other two races, the same political reality prevails – two incumbents and no compelling groundswell of dissatisfaction about either of them that could be harnessed into an upset defeat. And, yes, I know neither Janet Borgens nor Alicia Aguirre is technically an incumbent – each was elected citywide and now they’re running in districts under the label “councilmember.” But this is a political column and, in that context, they have all the advantages of incumbency. Each of them could have faced difficult challenges because of the move to district elections. That’s not how it has played out.

District 3, Friendly Acres, where Borgens is running for re-election, is one of two new majority-minority districts, 70 percent Latino. She could have drawn a well-established, well-known Latino opponent who might have mobilized the community. But the reality is the historic political disenfranchisement of this part of town meant there was no bench of high-profile challengers from the Latino community. Absent that, Borgens’ long and deep ties to this district should see her through. She did draw two of the most interesting opponents. Isabella Chu, a leader of pro-growth Redwood City Forward, turned the usual campaign rhetoric on its head and advocated more height, more density and in more places. There was a fearlessness about this all-out, all-in campaign. Lissette Espinoza-Garnica was just as forthright as the most progressive candidate on any ballot in the county. Espinoza-Garnica’s affiliations with labor, the LGBTQ community, the Latinx community and the Democratic Socialists aligned with Bernie Sanders resulted in a competitive campaign treasury. Espinoza-Garnica could finish second in this race.

District 7, Farm Hills, is another example of the consequences of district elections. Aguirre is the only Latina on the council, and she lives in a district that is 70 percent white. In former community police officer Chris Rasmussen, Aguirre drew a more classic opponent – someone whose work made him a high-profile figure throughout the city. Rasmussen has ties to a core group of residents unhappy with a changing city, and who are credited with the defeat of another incumbent a couple of elections ago. Aguirre’s low-key style also made her appear vulnerable.

Rasmussen started fast and Aguirre started slow. He was up early with campaign signs, he raised a healthy campaign treasury, and he was active online, posting a particularly impressive life-story video that was notable for the passion he holds for the community. But Aguirre has been on the council since 2005 and has built deep and close ties to the county’s leading political figures. She won the endorsement battle going away and she raised a wholly competitive amount of money. Her own campaign message was that the city needs experienced leadership at this moment of multiple crises. Rasmussen’s message that it’s time for new leadership seems to have gotten less traction in this district. Mark Wolohan, the third candidate, has been a fresh and earnest voice in the district and demonstrated a grasp of key issues and some new ideas about how the city should go forward. But he self-funded his campaign and raised no money. In a non-pandemic environment, where candidates could directly engage voters, it might have been a different campaign for Wolohan’s decidedly outsider approach, but this is the season we’ve been given.

SAN MATEO: It says here that first-term incumbent Diane Papan should win and be the top vote-getter in a three-candidate race for two seats. A late infusion of independent expenditures on Papan’s behalf probably helps seal the deal. The race between appointed incumbent Amourence Lee and Lisa Diaz Nash is a tossup. The sense of it is that Nash comes out on top, also aided by more than $30,000 in late, independent money. If Lee loses, it looks like it will be because Nash was able to marshal the forces that are unhappy with a changing San Mateo. But Lee is a new face from an historically underrepresented part of town and she could benefit from a wave of new voters showing up this year because of the presidential race.

There are two ballot measures, R and Y, addressing height limits in San Mateo – Y put on by initiative and R by the city council. I think both are going to lose, putting the issue back in the hands of the city council. Really, that’s where this kind of complex land-use policy decision should be made. Thirty years ago, the first height limit was a reaction to a city council that had approved a massive project on El Camino, “going off the rails,” as one long-time observer said. The city is different, the electorate is different and the council has a dramatically different sensibility about reflecting a community consensus.

ELSEWHERE: The Caltrain sales tax measure, RR, must be close in private polling if San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine thought it worthwhile to loan $500,000 of his own money to the Yes campaign at the last minute, sending a meaningful signal to some late, big-bucks donors.  I think it wins, getting 67-69 percent of the vote. … At the San Mateo County Community College District, where three seats are being contested, John Pimentel should win over Lisa Hicks-Dumanske, aided considerably by a campaign that will exceed $200,000, almost all of it his own money. Lisa Petrides should win her race against Eugene Whitlock, who dropped out of the race amid lingering controversy over his $2.3 million settlement against the district. Still, he remains on the ballot, which means he could win, which would be both weird and would invite months of litigation. Incumbents Maurice Goodman and Dave Mandelkern are running against each other and it looks like Mandelkern should win, if only because he’s a more frenetic campaigner. … In Millbrae, incumbents Gina Papan and Ann Schneider should win but the race for a third seat clearly is between Anders Fung and You You Xue and it’s impossible to call that one. It has been nasty with a wave of campaign complaints filed by a Xue campaign aide. … In Belmont, incumbent Davina Hurt and appointed incumbent Tom McCune should win easily. The group of Belmont residents who dominated city politics for many years keep looking for someone to break the hold of the current majority, but it’s a different era now and it may be time to move on.

I COULD GO ON: But honestly, there are just too many races to track effectively. And all the preceding notwithstanding, this year is the most unpredictable since Harry Truman defeated Thomas Dewey in 1948, when San Mateo County’s population was about 235,000. To give that a little perspective, according to the most recent report, there are 440,005 people registered to vote in Tuesday’s election in San Mateo County.

And that last number is why this election is so up in the air, particularly at the local level.

The current registration is nearly 20 percent higher than the 2016 presidential election. Data analysts say the biggest jump is among young voters, minority voters and people who simply didn’t vote in 2016. In other words, it is an electorate of new voters, which means that their voting habits are untested. Incidentally, San Mateo County’s registered voters are 54 percent Democratic, 26 percent who express No Party Preference, and a paltry 14 percent Republican.

At the same time, local elections have been merged with statewide elections. As I’ve referenced throughout this column, there will be thousands of voters who are showing up at the polls– waiting four years to run to the polls – to vote in the presidential election. How will they vote? No one knows. They are not steeped in local elections. By the time they get to the bottom of the ballot there will be more than a few shrugs.

The best guess is that they will tend toward incumbents unless they’ve been given a compelling reason to oust an incumbent. Really, none of these races has been an all-out attack on an already-vulnerable incumbent.

While there may be significant upheaval at the national level, here at home, even as change continues to sweep across the Peninsula, it looks like the status quo will hold for one more election.

*The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Climate Online. 

Political Climate with Mark Simon: Local elections reveal a more progressive generation is on the rise

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If, as Joe Biden says, the soul of America is on the national ballot, you could make a case that the local election is entirely about trust – trust that local government will act for the broadest well-being of the community while walking the maze of highly localized neighborhood interests and well-funded business interests.

Up and down the Peninsula, there is an unprecedented number of contested races for office. A striking feature of that lengthy lineup is that incumbents are being challenged at every level, an indication that there are those who think the public has lost some measure of faith in the people currently running our cities and schools.

Many of those challenges can be tied directly to a wave of political reform that quietly has been washing over the Peninsula in the form of district elections and campaign spending caps, and which lowered the threshold for challengers. Overlaid on those reforms is a pandemic and a year of social change, as we confront our vulnerabilities and dark chapters in our history, all of which provides an emotional context for an insurgent candidacy.

All of which has led us to now and local races replete with challengers who represent a new diversity – candidates who are young, LGBTQ, minorities and female. A critic would call them inexperienced. They might respond that they are not tied to the old, ineffectual ways.

Many of them are politically quite progressive. And that hints of further political change in a region already very liberal. Meager labels aside, this much is clear: The next generation is coming. As a rule, they are dissatisfied with the job done by the folks currently in charge. As Bob Dylan wrote in another era of upheaval and division, “The old order is rapidly changing.”

On the Peninsula, all issues begin and end with land use. In the past, right up to this election cycle, land use has been about growth, development and profit. Land use will always be the central issue, but this new wave of candidates hints of such debates occurring in the context of fairness – how land use policies perpetuate everything from who lives where to economic equity and police-community relations.

So, what about Tuesday’s election? Will these changes result in a surprising upset in one of these elections? Not this time, I think. But most political careers start with an early loss. The foundation has been laid for more challenges and, in the end, some measure of success.

To quote Dylan again, and from the same song:

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

FOLLOW THE MONEY: With the final days of the 2020 campaign at hand, last-minute money has begun pouring into campaigns, and no special interest has been more active than those associated with pro-development and growth.

It confirms that amid a pandemic, disputes and discussions over race and a tumultuous presidential contest that could set the direction of our country for a generation, the dominant issue on the local ballot – in any race – remains development. If money is the mother’s milk of politics, real estate is the midwife.

In the hot, hot, hot race for the San Mateo City Council, the California Apartment Association has taken a big swing at influencing the final outcome. In the last several days, the CAA has dropped more than $31,000 in late independent expenditures on behalf of Lisa Diaz Nash, who is challenging appointed incumbent Amourence Lee and incumbent Diane Papan for one of the two seats up on Tuesday. The CAA also spent more than $14,000 on Papan’s behalf.

The odd person out is Lee, whose progressive politics clearly make the CAA folks more than a little uneasy.

In the Redwood City, the CAA, which plunged into the 2016 election with all the energy of a misguided missile, has kept a much lower profile. Still, real estate never stays on the sidelines and a partnership of like-minded entities have plunked down about $2,000 for Jeff Gee in the Redwood Shores-centric District 1. In District 3, one of two majority minority districts, challenger Isabella Chu’s enthusiasm for building more, taller and more densely, got the attention a couple of development backers to the tune of another $2,000.

The big bucks also have been rolling in late for Councilmember Alicia Aguirre, running in the Farm Hills District 7, including $1,000 from California Realtors, $1,000 from the Harbor Village Mobile Home Park and contributions ranging from $100 (former county Supervisor Adrienne Tissier) to $500 (Assemblymember Kevin Mullin).

In the last days of the campaign, the fundraising leaders in the respective districts are Gee, Councilmember Janet Borgens and Aguirre. … Michael Smith, running unopposed in District 4, raised more than $15,000 for his non-campaign. He used the money to repay the $4,000 he loaned the campaign at the outset, and made a $250 contribution to Jaime Harrison, the Democrat challenging Sen. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina and $200 to Mike Espy, running for the open Senate seat in Mississippi.

NOT SO GRAND OLD PARTY: If you’re looking for the height of cynicism, look no further than our home state, where the decrepit Republican Party has been putting out phony ballot collection boxes. Party officials offered up some argle-bargle for why they did it, but all it sounded like was the noise adults make in a Peanuts movie.

Within a few years after I cast my first vote, I was covering Peninsula politics for local newspapers. Peninsula politics included smart, thoughtful, principled, pro-choice, pro-environment Republican candidates and officeholders – such impressive figures as Becky Morgan, Tom Campbell, Pete McCloskey and Ed Zschau. Reagan-style conservatism began the process of driving away moderate Reeps in the name of political purity. Trump-style whatever-ism has just about finished the job, helped considerably by the boneheads who think phony ballot boxes is a clever trick.

It’s a loss. They were good people and we were all better served by two vibrant and vital political parties. Instead, what we are facing in the next few election cycles is a hard-charging progressive wing of the Democratic Party, pushing candidates further and further toward political purity. It’s a shame that the one lesson progressives learned from conservatives is to behave more like them.

ANATOMY OF A CAMPAIGN CLAIM: Reading a flyer from Uber and Lyft in support of Proposition 22, the biggest-spending campaign in California history, even I couldn’t help but notice the front-page headline: “The vast majority of app-based drivers say yes on 22.” Out of curiosity and unrelenting political geekhood, I dove into the Yes on 22 website to find the source of this statement. In there, I also saw this: “A new independent survey released this week found that 60% of California app-based drivers support Prop 22, while only 23.6% oppose.” All I could find was some information from a blogger named Rideshare Guy, who asked his readers to respond to a survey on Prop. 22. The result was the information cited in the flyer. What the flyer doesn’t tell you is that Rideshare Guy got 619 responses. The Yes on 22 website says there are 116,000 app-based drivers statewide.

Photo by Kelly Lacy from Pexels

Political Climate with Mark Simon: Notes, quotes and dust motes

in Featured/Headline/PoliticalClimate by

Notes, quotes and dust motes: 

WHO’S WHERE AND WITH WHOM: As campaign mailers begin showing up, you know, in the mail, their most prominent feature often will be endorsements from elected officials whose support carries meaning and influence. 

In down-ballot elections such as the three contested district city council elections in Redwood City, which are coming during one of the most energized political years in memory, there will be many voters who are unfamiliar with the candidates. All of which makes endorsements likely to be more critical than ever. 

Year after year, private polling shows that the most impactful endorsement is from Congresswoman Jackie Speier, whose popularity and reputation can sway voters. Right behind Speier are Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, state Sen. Jerry Hill and Assemblymen Kevin Mullin and Marc Berman, followed by current and former members of the Redwood City Council and current members of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors. 

In the competition for names, Councilmember Alicia Aguirre, seeking re-election in District 7 (Farm Hills, west of Alameda de las Pulgas), has done well – getting the Royal Flush of endorsements: Eshoo, Speier, Hill, Mullin, and Berman, as well as all five Supervisors, and four members of the city council, Diane Howard, Shelly Masur, Janet Borgens and Giselle Hale. Aguirre also got endorsements from the San Mateo County Democratic Party and the county’s Central Labor Council. 

Aguirre’s endorsement list is a demonstration of the power of incumbency, although, since this is the first district election, she technically is not an incumbent. Nonetheless, the impact of her 15 years in office is not lost on her principal opponent, former Redwood City police officer Chris Rasmussen, whose own list of endorsements suggests he has been focusing on other areas. His prominent supporters include former Councilman Brent Britschgi, and a slim lineup of current officeholders, including San Mateo County Harbor Commissioner Nancy Reyering and Pacifica Councilwoman Mary Bier. Rasmussen is endorsed by two former police chiefs, one from Atherton and one from Hollister. It has some significance, I suppose, that two other Redwood City councilmembers stayed out of this race, while endorsing in others – Ian Bain and Diana Reddy – but it’s hard to read too much into that. 

Aguirre’s other opponent, Mark Wolohan, has a handful of endorsements, none of them officeholders, and all of them personal, including Gary Riekes, founder of the Riekes Center, where Wolohan works, and local history and community activist and Climate contributor Jim Clifford. 

In similar fashion, (non)incumbent Councilmember Janet Borgens racked up a big lineup of endorsements in the race for District 3 (Friendly Acres, southern Redwood City) – Speier, Hill, Mullin and Berman. She also got endorsements from four of the county supervisors, with only Carole Groom staying off, and three Redwood City Council colleagues – Bain, Howard and Reddy. 

Borgens challenger Isabella Chu lists no endorsements on her campaign website and Facebook page. And the third candidate, Lissette Espinoza-Garnica lists only one officeholder, Santa Clara County Board of Education member Peter Ortiz, but she does have endorsements from SEIU Local 2015, a highly active union in Silicon Valley, and Planned Parenthood’s Peninsula chapter. 

The endorsements in District 1 (Redwood Shores), however, suggest, a race that might be closer than originally thought.  Former Councilman Jeff Gee has endorsements from Speier and Mullin and former City Council colleagues Jeff Ira and John Seybert, but no endorsements from current councilmembers with whom Gee served. His opponent, Planning Commissioner Nancy Radcliffe, has been endorsed by five councilmembers – Aguirre, Howard, Bain, Borgens and Reddy – and all the county supervisors but Dave Pine. 

As a footnote, Radcliffe’s campaign has been saying she will be a “fresh and honest voice,” and that her endorsers support her, “Because her character and integrity are unmatched.” Asked if she was implying a lack of integrity or honesty in her opponent, Radcliffe said no, indeed. Those were just some words her campaign team thought would reflect well on her, she said. 

WHEN THE GOING GETS WEIRD: As baseball great Satchel Paige* said, “The social ramble ain’t restful.” Neither is social media, which often can be a bit of a ramble. A recent posting on Next Door by the aforementioned Councilwoman Hale urging Latinos to participate in the 2020 Census apparently was removed – or it wasn’t – after some people objected – or they didn’t – that it constituted self-promotion. In other words, it’s a little hard to tell exactly what happened, but some people objected to Hale’s post and it was taken down by someone, and no one can agree by whom.  

They do agree one of the people objecting was Johanna Rasmussen, wife of the council candidate, who was singled out, at least in part, because she is the wife of the council candidate, in addition to being his campaign treasurer. She said in an interview, that she and 18 other “leads” on Next Door voted on the Hale posting. Rasmussen said there were objections to a “series of posts” by Hale that amounted to self-promotion, and “I was one of the votes to remove it.” Except nowhere in the Next Door policies is there any ban on self-promotion. And wandering into the thicket that is Next Door, I was assailed with a variety of opinions about Hale, my own inquiries and my skills as a reporter. Anyway, Rasmussen lately has been referring people to the city attorney. 

Yes, Hale is young and from the social media world, having had a pretty good job at Facebook, and that combination means she posts a lot on social media. In this regard, she is well above average. She also prevailed upon Assemblyman Mullin to carry a bill modernizing the laws governing public meetings and public official communications to reflect the changes wrought by social media. And, clearly, the frequency with which Hale posts annoys some people, although some of those people seem annoyed by her mere existence. On the other hand, there’s a fine line between letting people know what’s going on and making sure they know it’s you telling them. Ah, it is a brave new world. 

SPENDING, LTD.: The real reason Johanna Rasmussen called me was to respond to a brief note in another column that Chris Rasmussen had declined to accept the newly installed spending limits enacted by the city council in mid-March. On his website, he explains it at length. First, a spending limit puts him at a distinct disadvantage when taking on a 15-year incumbent with heightened name recognition and political connections (see above, endorsements). Secondeven the smallest mistake of a misplaced nickel or dime can result in “penalties quite harsh for first-time candidates who may inadvertently make a very minor mistake,” he wrote. That’s exactly what was concerning Johanna Rasmussen, who said she has never been a campaign treasurer before. “We didn’t feel it was worth the risk,” she said. And both she and Chris Rasmussen said they expect to be in the range of the spending limit anyway – around $25,000. 

CLARIFYING: Recent stories about the council races prompted two of the candidates to ask for clarification of comments attributed to them. I don’t think I misquoted them, but, what the heck, why not? 

Isabella Chu was comparing how city departments justify their budgets to the way grant applicants have to justify their requests and said the same level of scrutiny ought to be applied to the city. And, as a non-Latinx, she said she believes she can understand the concerns of that community, but she will “partner with organizations and individuals who have deep roots in the community. I would be arrogant to imagine I fully understand their experience and I would need to work hard to make sure I do.” 

Mark Wolohan said his plan for addressing the city’s significant budget shortfall includes reexamining the city’s policy of using the Utility Users Tax solely for capital projects and see if some of those funds can be redirected to operating expenses. He said the city should hold off on any capital and equipment improvement projects and should cut employee salaries only as a last resort. He said he expects the economic downturn to increase demand for city services and increasing taxes will only aggravate the problems facing business. 

Finally, he said, I do think the police are a necessary entity and I do not support notions of abolishing the police. However, there definitely are critical changes that must be made to create more equity, transparency, and accountability, and a citizens oversight committee can be a good start. 

*Yes, I quoted Satchel Paige in a column in August. I’ll probably quote him again. 

Contact Mark Simon atmark.simon24@yahoo.com. 

*The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Climate Online. 

Political Climate with Mark Simon: 3 in race to rep District 3 on Redwood City council

in Featured/Headline/PoliticalClimate by

The race for the District 3 seat on the Redwood City Council may put to test the longstanding political truism that all politics are local.

It is one of two districts that are minority-majority – 71 percent Hispanic. It is the home neighborhood of Councilmember Janet Borgens, raised in East Palo Alto and a resident of the district for 37 years. She notes that she is not Hispanic, but argues she is deeply ingrained in the community and that her own working-class background has kept her in touch with the challenges and concerns of District 3 residents.

“This is the kind of community I was raised in. I may be White privilege, but I wasn’t raised White privilege. … My community has known what I’ve been doing for many, many years and they’ll either want that to continue or they won’t,” she said.

She is being challenged by two candidates who contend that the district residents want more bold and non-establishment leadership.

Isabella Chu, a Stanford public health researcher and founder of Redwood City Forward, has been a high-profile advocate for dramatically more housing in the city. “We need more housing,” she said. “It should go all over the city. Yes to higher density. Yes to more height.” Like Borgens, Chu is not Hispanic. “I don’t think you have to be Latino to understand them and to represent them,” she said. Her goal, she said, is to “disrupt the status quo.”

Lissette Espinoza-Garnica is a professional caregiver, self-designated as nonbinary gender and the only Hispanic in the 2020 city council race seeking an “Hispanic” seat. They grew up in Redwood City and North Fair Oaks and moved to the district’s Friendly Acres as a child. “I’ve grown up here. It’s not Jim Crow era segregation, but it’s still very segregated – where the wealth is, where the people of color are,” they said. The answer is to completely remake the status quo. “I see that the people running right now are very much establishment … I’m running because it’s a crisis and I really want to ensure security for my community, especially those who have been neglected for so long.”

District 3 is at the southern edge of the city, bounded by Woodside Road, Maple Street, Bay Road and Broadway. It includes the neighborhoods of Friendly Acres, Stambaugh-Heller and Redwood Village. Forty-six percent of residents are immigrants, 65 percent speak Spanish at home and 40 percent say they speak English “less than very well” – all categories that are the highest in the city. Forty-two percent of households have an income under $50,000, and renters outnumber homeowners almost 2-1.

If the fundamental political question is who best represents the residents of District 3, the fundamental policy question is housing. All three candidates agree that the district struggles with housing insecurity, overcrowding and housing costs that force multiple families to live together, or that force them to leave the city.

Chu wants sweeping changes to the city’s housing policies and practices. “Our built environment looks like it did in the 1950s. In the last 70 years, Redwood City has tripled in population,” Chu said. “I’m willing to see our neighborhoods adapt to the 21st century. Homeowners should be able to change their homes, have smaller setbacks” and additional stories. “Things have changed. The buildings have stayed the same.”

As an example of the kind of sweeping change she would support, Chu said the 17-story proposal for Sequoia Station, at El Camino Real and Jefferson Avenue, “is extremely modest. Come on, it’s 2020, we’re in Silicon Valley. … This is some of the most valuable land in the world. If the city had been allowed to develop organically, based on need, we’d have a ton of high-rise buildings. … most residences would be 3-5 stories.”

The city’s “shortness of buildings” is “emblematic of tremendous resistance,” she said. “There’s an idea that because a small group of people is very vocal and good at wielding power that they’re the majority. … Half the city’s population is renters. The other half own homes – 25-30 percent would be happy to add on to their homes, 25-30 percent just wouldn’t care.”

Espinoza-Garnica supports a corporate “head count” tax to raise revenues to build more housing, including public housing and more low-income housing. “It’s not enough to have only market-rate housing. We have to have secure housing, mixed, subsidized housing and definitely provide housing for all,” Espinoza-Garnica said. That includes workforce housing so “the people who work here are able to live here.”

Borgens said, “Housing needs to be built where the need is. … Look in my district, you have 3-4 families living together. Build affordable, for-sale housing in any district across town. If we can help our most vulnerable communities buy housing, that’s housing security.”

She envisions a broad range of housing – duplexes, triplexes, small units that can be added to a second story or a backyard. “Build housing where it’s needed and my district needs it,” she said, and the specific need is for family-oriented housing. “Why do we think low-income people all want to be crowded together in a high-rise apartment building?” she said. “I don’t support public housing. I support mixed housing – mix all levels of income together.”

Perhaps more than in other districts, the issue of policing is of paramount importance in the tight-packed, minority-minority District 3.

“I’m an abolitionist,” said Espinoza-Garnica, “and this platform is looking to defund the police so they’re not required to respond to the community as much anymore.” If the money spent on policing was spent on more and improved housing, higher employment, universal child care, rapid rehousing of those who lose their homes to economic difficulties and essential support services, it would reduce crime and reduce the need for police presence in a community that feels estranged from law enforcement, they said.

“I’m for descoping and divesting and defunding the police and try to limit the amount of interaction of police with residents,” Espinoza-Garnica said. “Policing is inherently racist, corrupt and is only there to punish people for being poor, black, brown, and having to survive a capitalist system. I’m all about defunding the police in order to address ways to reduce harm.”

Defunding the police is a means to end “centuries of anti-Black racism and oppression of gender and the working class” and bias toward “high-earners, business owners, land owners.”

Borgens said, “I am not a defund the police [supporter], but I understand that is the wrong phrase. I do support revisiting how we provide policing services and if those services are best served by an adding on in the mental health component.” Her focus is on transparency and cracking down on police officers who repeatedly use excessive force, but she wants to see how a citizens oversight commission might be structured before taking a position.

“I have no problem holding our police accountable and if a citizens oversight committee is the right way to go, I’m not against it. If you’re following the rules, there’s no reason you should be concerned about oversight,” she said.

“We have to weed out the bad apples.” Borgens said. “We can sit here and say with naivete we don’t have any bad apples, it’s been dealt with in-house.”

Chu said a number of police duties should be reassigned or reinvented. Traffic enforcement can be fully automated, for example, which would eliminate what she called “income bias.” The social responsibilities handled by the police – mental health issues, homelessness, domestic problems – can be handed off to the state or the county and more effectively managed by agencies designed for those purposes. “I’m perfectly willing to look at what (police) do, whether it should be done by an agent of the state and whether it can be done more cost effectively,” she said.

Chu said she supports more citizen oversight and more transparency, including tracking how police personnel are deployed. “Most police have nothing to fear from that. If they’re policing fairly, not hurting people, they have nothing to fear,” she said.

The issue likely to dominate the attention of a new council almost immediately, however, will be the city’s large budget deficit, driven by the economic disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and associated loss of sales tax revenues and local business declines.

Responding will require more efficient use of available resources, Borgens said, citing as an example how the parks and recreation services were reinvented during the shelter-in-place requirements. She said there is likely to be a hiring freeze, although she said, “I don’t think any of our police and fire are overstaffed. Both can come to the table.”

Corporate partnerships to support some essential services may be a constructive next step, along with the possibility of finding a way to tax revenues generated in online sales, she said.

Chu said the city needs to do more to measure the effectiveness of its spending and to require city departments, in essence, to apply for their funding and justify their budgets.

“Are we getting the most value,” Chu said. The city is going to have to look for additional sources of revenue, she said. And her proposals for greater housing density allows more concentration of city services, which can save money.

Espinoza-Garnica’s view on the budget stems from a fundamental conviction that the city needs to be radically changed. The budget is a statement on the city’s priorities, they said, and the focus should be on affordable housing for all and making sure every resident is making a living wage.

“We need to reprioritize the budget to think about the most vulnerable,” Espinoza-Garnica said.

Contact Mark Simon at mark.simon24@yahoo.com.

*The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Climate Online.

Stanford faculty resolute in criticism of White House advisor’s national COVID strategy

in PoliticalClimate by

A group of approximately 100 Stanford faculty members are holding firm in their convictions criticizing White House Coronavirus Task Force senior adviser Dr. Scott Atlas’ controversial views on the pandemic, despite recent legal threats from Dr. Atlas’ lawyer.

Dr. Atlas, the former chief of neuroradiology at Stanford Medical Center and a Hoover Institution senior fellow, was appointed a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and senior advisor to President Trump in August. On the heels of an Aug. 31 report by the Washington Post that he embraced a controversial herd immunity strategy to combat the pandemic, Dr. Atlas drew intense criticism from colleagues.

Dr. Atlas denies recommending herd immunity as an option to the task force or the president, per a report in The Stanford Daily. Nonetheless, the same report said he has repeatedly upheld the strategy as one of the best ways to “eradicate the threat of the virus” in Hoover Institution virtual policy briefings, in an April op-ed in The Hill and in his remarks in May to a U.S. Senate committee.

In their initial letter addressed to colleagues and dated Sept. 9, the Stanford faculty member collective stated in regards to Dr. Atlas that “many of his opinions and statements run counter to established science and, by doing so, undermine public-health authorities and the credible science that guides effective public health policy.” The letter went on to provide five statements, drawing upon global data, offering their collective guidance on effective public health policy regarding COVID-19.

On Sept. 23, a new letter, signed by an even larger group of 105 doctors, scientists and health experts, reiterated their concern in the wake of receiving a letter threatening legal action from Dr. Atlas’ attorney. The letter demanded the Stanford collective issue a press release retracting their statements, claiming they falsely portrayed Dr. Atlas’ views and were defamatory. Despite the alleged threat, however, the growing group of medical experts say they will remain resolute in their collective criticism of Dr. Atlas.

“We believe that his statements and the advice he has been giving fosters misunderstandings of established science and risks undermining critical public health efforts,” the group said in the Sept. 23 letter. “Today, we stand by our Sept. 9 letter and reaffirm our concerns. In addition, we are deeply troubled by the legal threats that Dr. Atlas has made against us in an attempt to intimidate and silence us in the midst of a pandemic, as we speak out on important public health issues.”

The group added, “We stand together and we reiterate clearly and with great affirmation that public health policy must be guided by established scientific principles and not opinions, especially ones that could harm individuals and the health of our nation.”

Photo credit: White House

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