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Political Climate by Mark Simon: Election changes to impact local campaigns

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As elections go, 2018 could be one we will all remember for years to come, the circumstances of this election being unusual in one aspect and unique in another.

First, uniquely, it will be vote by mail general election as a result of the California Voter’s Choice Act, authored by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco. Voters still will be able to cast ballots at voting stations around the county, but the great majority of votes will be cast by mail.

Second, of San Mateo County’s 20 cities, 16 are holding council elections, having consolidated the local races with the statewide general election in November under threat of legal action.

The expectation among elections officials and most political analysts is that these two changes will result in higher-than-usual voter turnout, but no one really knows with any degree of certainty.

What is certain is that the changes put the city council candidates in a substantially different and potentially uneasy posture to these local campaigns.

Candidates rely on lists of likely voters – those who have voted in the last three or four elections – as a way of targeting their campaign efforts only to those most likely to show up and vote. Because every registered voter will get a ballot, it means the campaign has to take into account less-than-the-likeliest voters. The candidates who campaign door-to-door, which is most of them, will be in the uncomfortable position, perhaps, of walking past homes that may now contain someone who is more likely to vote this time, or expending more time and resources reaching out to voters with only sporadic participation records.

The consolidation with the statewide general election will mean substantially more voters at the polls than in the off-year cycle, historically an election with an abysmal turnout. But after they vote in the high-profile races of governor, U.S. senator, other statewide offices, legislative and congressional offices and statewide and regional ballot measures, how many voters will stick around to vote on the city council races?

Years past, when some local elections were consolidated with general elections, the number of votes cast in city council races tended to be the same as in an off-year.

The real change comes in the opportunities and the challenges these changes present. Candidates will struggle to be heard over the cacophony of a statewide election, particularly in a year when the political discourse is noisier than ever and many voters feel much is at stake.

On the other hand, the consolidated election is an opportunity for a creative candidate to make the pie bigger, to bring to the election new voters.

REDDY AND WILLING: It took a while to catch up with the other announced Redwood City City Council challenger, Diana Reddy, who, it turns out, is counting on the consolidated election to accrue to her benefit.

Self-described “social justice person” and housing advocate, Reddy is a former administrative assistant at the Sequoia Union High School District, former co-chair (twice) of the social justice activist organization Peninsula Interfaith Action (now Faith in Action), former member of the city’s Housing and Human Concerns Committee and a member of the Housing Leadership Council. She’s also a familiar sight at local labor picket lines, advocating for workers’ rights.

In an interview with Political Climate, she said the campaign issues will be education, health care, housing and transportation and how those issues affect the ability of some to remain in the community.

By background and passion, her focus is on housing for those who feel pushed aside and left out of the boom that has occurred in the last decade. While the city has over-achieved in building market-rate housing, it is far behind where it should be in building below-market and affordable housing, she said.

“San Mateo County has the lowest percentage of affordable housing of all the Bay Area counties, yet we are the wealthiest of those counties,” Reddy said. “It is important to me to fill the void we have in our community.”

She is counting on the consolidated election to bring out voters who don’t fit the profile of a typical likely voter, who is white, more than 50 years old and upper middle-class property owner.

“This is an opportunity for me to go into neighborhoods where they’re not used to candidates coming to their door,” Reddy said.

FAMILY MATTERS: In a truly rare turn of events, all three incumbents up for re-election this year in San Carlos will not be running, a complete turnover of the majority of the council.

In a city that prides itself on being family oriented – in late January for nearly a decade, the city has held a Week of the Family with special events and contests – two of the council members cite the demands of family as the reason not to seek reelection.

Vice Mayor Cameron Johnson told Political Climate that his first term will be his only term. He has two children, a 7-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son, and both are entering critical ages where the presence of an attentive father is of incalculable importance. Add to that the demands of his job as director of Product Innovation at Netflix and serving on the council “just takes up a tremendous amount of time. … Where’s my highest responsibility?” In five years, his daughter will be 12 “and I don’t want to miss those years.”

He said he “feels good” about the job he has done on the council, and he hopes to play a key role in the formation of a San Carlos Community Foundation he led the effort to establish with $2 million from a $6 milli9on settlement with PG&E over a faulty gas line.

At the council organizational meeting in mid-December, 16-year incumbent and contrarian Matt Grocott bowed out of consideration for mayor or vice mayor and subsequently indicated he would not run for another term. Grocott said he wants the freedom to devote time and attention to his 15-year-old son, an activity he says speaks to his sense of “the full measure of a man.”

Mayor Bob Grassilli, re-elected mayor for the extra year necessitated by the election consolidated, has said publicly that he will not run again.

As you might expect, these decisions already are prompting several candidates to step up timelines.

AFTER HILL: State Senator Jerry Hill is widely regarded as the model for a candidature who announces early, works hard and effectively closes out possible opposition.

Now, Hill is termed out and among Redwood City City Councilwoman Shelley Masur hopes to emulate the senator, who can be described as outgoing in more ways than one. Masur formed a fundraising committee last week and she expects to spend most of this year “putting some building blocks in place” and listening to voter concerns.

Masur is barely halfway through her first term on the council. She ran countywide for the Board of Supervisors, losing to Warren Slocum, and she served 10 years on the Redwood City School District Board.

The legislative office affords a better venue to tackle the issues affecting her community and about which she is passionate: public health, housing and transportation.

Supervisor Dave Pine confirmed in other publications he is looking at running for the Senate. A prior column mentioned Menlo Park City Councilwoman Kirsten Keith as a rumored candidate, but she told Political Climate she is running for re-election and is “not interested” in running for the Senate seat.

Contact Mark Simon at

Political Climate by Mark Simon: Groom to seek third term

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There was much behind-the-scenes speculation that San Mateo County Supervisor Carole Groom might opt out of a run for a third term. But she’s running, she told Political Climate.

Appointed to a vacant seat in 2009, elected in 2010 and re-elected in 2014, Groom said she has “unfinished business,” particularly the Big Lift, the countywide effort she initiated to raise the reading proficiency level of third-grade students from 58 percent to 80 percent by 2020. The initiative is backed by the San Mateo County Office of Education and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Groom wants to make sure “it keeps moving.” Also on her unfinished agenda is a reinvention of the San Mateo County Events Center as a true regional venue.

Stepping down also would have meant leaving the Bay Area Air Quality Management Board of Directors and the California Coastal Commission, not to mention the San Mateo County Transit District Board of Directors and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority.

The Transit District is preparing a half-cent ballot measure for November that seeks to resolve significant financial shortfalls that hamper its ability to reinvent itself as a modern mobility agency. (Full Disclosure: I retired from the transit agency in December and was in a leadership role on work to prepare for a ballot measure.)

Groom is worried it will be tough to convince the public the agency needs the money. “I don’t know if anybody believes us, or wants to believe us,” she said. With the county winning passage of two sales tax measures in the past six years, “We may have gone to the well too many times.” Of course, a campaign is all about making believers.

Prior to her decision, the speculation Groom might not run turned up a number of people ready to run for the seat, most notably Belmont City Councilman Charles Stone. Other names that were being raised: San Mateo City Council members Diane Papan, Maureen Freschet and Joe Goethals.

STRANGERS IN A STRANGE LAND: San Mateo County Manager John Maltbie is retiring this year – late fall or early winter, depending on the timeliness of the much-vaunted nationwide search for his replacement.

In an interview on Peninsula TV’s show The Game, co-hosted by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin and me, Maltbie’s most provocative observations were on the future of the county.

“Most of the people who live in the county like it the way it is,” he said. But that stands in the direct path of changes that already have occurred in the county and are not going to be turned back.

The cost of housing has changed fundamentally the demographic makeup of the county, so that, for example, there simply are fewer children..

He cites the county Youth Services Center in Belmont, which we used to call Juvenile Hall. The facility was renovated and reopened in 2006. At the time, the center had a capacity of 180. A year later, the daily population was 159. This year, it is 60, Maltbie said.

“There are fewer kids living here, and fewer kids getting in trouble,” Maltbie said.

“Twenty years from now (the county) won’t look anything like it does now” due to gentrification, he said.

The full interview can be viewed here:

OUT, FOR NOW: Jason Galisatus, co-chair of the city Downtown Association and board member of the Redwood City Education Foundation, has opted not to run for the city council this year, while leaving quite open a run in 2020.

He said the above-mentioned initiatives, and others in which he is engaged have “got my hands full. The best way to serve my community is to work on those.”

One of the bright, rising stars in the city, Galisatus would have been the only Millennial in the race at a time when the city, particularly downtown, is increasingly populated by tech workers in their 20s. Galisatus said the city council ought to include a Millennial, so that this newer but significant element of the city can “see people like themselves” in office.

Galisatus said he is “certainly happy with the direction of the city. There is more we can do to address the twin crises of housing and transportation.”

He said he probably will endorse in the race, but was not prepared to say who that might be, although it’s worth noting that when Giselle Hale announced her candidacy on Facebook, Galisatus was among those who gave her the “like” thumb’s up.

ALREADY RUNNING: San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine and Redwood City City Councilwoman Shelly Miller Masur have confirmed they’re both interested in running for Democrat Jerry Hill’s State Senate seat in 2020, when he is termed-out. Now, the rumor mill has added Menlo Park City Councilwoman Kirsten Keith as another interested party.

JERRY COHN: It has been a few weeks, but I don’t want any more time to pass without offering a few words about everybody’s friend, Jerry Cohn, a multi-decade veteran of the Sheriff’s office for whom a memorial was held a few weeks ago at the Woodside Village Church. Jerry died at the end of the year after a prolonged struggle with cancer. The church was packed to overflowing for his memorial, where he was remembered as radiant and known for his disarming humor and his ability to make instant friends with anyone. He was described as loquacious and gregarious and he would have loved that so many of his friends were on hand to remember him. Among those speaking at his memorial: District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, former Sheriff Greg Munks, current Sheriff Carlos Bolanos and County Manager Maltbie.

Contact Mark Simon at

Photo Courtesy of Carole Groom’s Facebook

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

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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

Political Climate by Mark Simon: Seybert stepping down, but sticking around

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When Redwood City Councilman John Seybert was first elected in 2008, at the onset of the national recession, he walked the city’s neighborhoods handing out postcards listing his goals: mainly to build the city to a place of financial stability, and to realize the community’s vision for downtown.

Today, Redwood City’s finances are in the best shape in years and stable, and the city’s center “has really come to life,” Seybert said. The progress has played into Seybert’s decision not to seek another term on the council, which is rare for an incumbent.

But that doesn’t mean Seybert is going anywhere. In a lengthy interview with Climate Online, Seybert discussed his plans for continued involvement in his community, an activism that began before he ran for office and was never dependent on official trappings.

He said he would have run again if he was certain “I hadn’t finished the work I set out to do and if there was no one ready to step up.” That’s not to say there isn’t more to do. “There are always more things you want to do,” Seybert said.

“This a good place for me not to retire, but to redeploy myself somewhere else,” said Seybert, who spent eight years in the Planning Commission, nine years on the City Council. “I don’t plan to be less busy, I plan to be differently busy.”

Seybert’s transition provides him an opportunity to reflect on the current political climate in Redwood City, particularly the complaints from some that Redwood City was a better place 25 or 30 years ago, before the growth that has dominated the past decade.

“I say it this way,” Seybert said. “There are some people who hate the city they always hated.” In other words, some people hated Redwood City the way it was – a downtown without any real substance – and what it has become.

As he put it, some people following Moses probably complained, “Let’s go back to Egypt.”

He acknowledged there is more traffic and congestion downtown, but said that’s a sign of a vigorous city center, one with places to go, things to do and people there who want to do those things.

When he first moved to Redwood City, he lived three blocks from downtown and “I liked it when I could always get a seat at dinner,” Seybert said. “But that’s not a vibrant community.” People who complain about no parking downtown should check in with the owners of their favorite restaurants. They may like that so many people are in a downtown that was notably a “ghost town” after 5 p.m., Seybert said.

Beyond his own campaign commitments of 2008, Seybert said the other controlling factor in his decision was whether there are new faces ready to take on leadership roles.

Besides Jeff Gee and Diane Howard, council colleagues who are seeking re-election, Seybert is looking for new leadership reflecting the changing city. “Who is our next generation leader? The city needs to be led into the future by the future,” he said. “Is there somebody to take my place?”

New faces are emerging. You will hear about some of them in my next column.

Seybert believes there is, and that he would serve the city well by getting out of the way.

“Nobody can step up unless there’s a place to step up.” He said there are such leaders emerging and he is likely to endorse someone he describes as from the “next generation. … I don’t know who that will be, yet.”

How he might next be engaged and of service he has yet to decide, Seybert said, but it will be about what’s next for the city, not about how Redwood City used to be.

“I don’t believe in leading an organization by looking in the rear-view mirror,” he said.


Political Climate by Mark Simon: Redwood City Council Race starts early; incumbent Seybert bows out

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For the last 13 years, I worked at the San Mateo County Transit District, and often I would tell people I was a recovering journalist. For the prior 35 years, I worked for newspapers as a political writer and local columnist, including the Redwood City Tribune, the Peninsula Times-Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle before leaving the news business.

Well, so much for that. Starting with this column, I am returning to the news business, writing for Climate Online and Climate Magazine. It is personally exciting to write and report regularly on the community where I have worked and lived for more than 40 years, a community I love for what it was and what it remains – dynamic, restless, always looking for what’s next.

There is no better time than right now to write about Redwood City. It will be a watershed political year at time when the city is poised to become the capital of the Peninsula, when change is occurring in every corner and when we all have to find a way to manage what is happening here.

As a columnist, I have the freedom to express a point of view, but, more than anything else, I believe in fairness, facts and openness in government and politics. Everyone will get a fair shake from me and everyone will be held accountable for what they say, including me. I have no interest in opinion masquerading as fact or opinion built on false assumptions.

As we launch this new enterprise, few things are dominating the local landscape quite like the race this year for the Redwood City City Council (that’s right – city, twice), which encompasses everything else on anyone’s mind – housing, transportation and traffic, digesting the changes that have occurred and the changes still to come.

Three council seats are up this election cycle, the first aligned with a statewide general election, an impact we’ll address in another column.

Incumbent Jeff Gee clearly intends to seek another term, and incumbent Diane Howard confirmed to Climate Online she is running and has formed a campaign committee.  See more on Howard below.

Incumbent John Seybert has decided not to run, telling Climate Online in an interview that he thinks there should be room in this election for some new faces, and that he looks forward to serving his community in other ways. Seybert sat down for an extensive interview, thoughtfully reflecting on what has occurred during his nine years on the council and nearly 20 years in city service. That interview will be featured in a subsequent column.

The filing deadline for this race is so far off in the future, the City Clerk has yet to receive the county elections department’s schedule for candidates to file for office.

Nonetheless, a number of names already have cropped up as declared or would-be candidates, and a few have bowed out already.

Among the non-incumbents running, a Facebook posting appeared to be venue du jour for announcing.

Diana Reddy, self-described affordable housing advocate, declared her candidacy on Facebook recently “after considerable soul-searching,” virtually guaranteeing that rent control will be a campaign issue.

Planning Commissioner Rick Hunter, whose experience includes serving prominently on the city Parks and Rec Commission, the Redwood City Education Foundation and the city Parks and Arts Foundation, also declared on his Facebook page.

Christina Umhofer, a board member of Corbett Group Homes, said she has yet to announce her candidacy, but has formed a campaign committee and is running. By the way, she was described elsewhere as a “residentialist.” She told me that’s a label “other people have put on me,” apparently after she said, “I’m from
Redwood City, for the people of Redwood City,” hardly the kind of statement to inspire labeling.

The emergence of all three at once prompted some to hope eagerly for a slate to take on all others, but Hunter, among others flatly declared to Climate Online: “I am not running on a slate with any other candidates.”

Planning Commissioner Giselle Hale confirmed she will run. Her political experience includes field director for the 2008 Obama presidential campaign and campaign manager for Congresswoman Anna Eshoo’s 2008 re-election campaign.

Other names in circulation: Planning Commission Chair Nancy Radcliffe and Planning Commissioner Ernie Schmidt. If all these commissioners run, it should make for interesting meetings.

We will report at more length on all of these candidates in upcoming columns.

What is clear already is that the most outspoken critics of the new Redwood City want to target Gee for defeat.

As an aside, I have no patience for the anonymous complaint filed against Gee with the state Fair Political Practices Commission. It appears spurious at best, a view reinforced to no small degree by the anonymity of the complainant. One of the expectations all of us should have for this election – likely to be heated and, by some descriptions, contentious – is honesty. Until the person steps up, the inclination is to dismiss the complaint as solely prompted by the meanest of politics, intent on winning by tearing someone down. Whoever filed the complaint ought to step out of the shadows. If you want to challenge his ethics, show some of your own.

Anyway, expect Gee to run hard and with considerable support from most of the community’s high-profile leaders. More on Gee in future columns.

Also running for re-election is Diane Howard, who is seeking her sixth term on the council. She served four terms, stepped aside in 2009, and then ran again in 2013. As the current vice mayor, her re-election is likely to mean she will be mayor in two years, when the balance of her council colleagues is up for re-election.

In an interview, Howard said she is running because, “I absolutely love serving. … I absolutely love every element of it – the good, the bad and ugly.” Her record of service beyond the council was sufficient for her to receive the Sequoia Awards Outstanding Individual Award, reflecting a long list of volunteer activities in which she engaged over decades.

She acknowledged the current political climate “is difficult these days, people jumping to conclusions, saying bad things without thinking.” The way for an officeholder to counteract that is to invite people of all opinions “to have coffee and let’s talk.”

It is evident to everyone that Redwood City has changed, she said, and the next campaign is an opportunity to understand what that change has meant and to ask, “What can we do to make Redwood City the community we want it to be?”

Her focus in the coming term would be on housing, transportation, the next wave of change on El Camino Real and the quality and character of the architecture of the city’s new look.

“I agree some of our architecture is not something I’m proud of,” she said. As the city turns its attention to development of El Camino, she sees that as an opportunity “to do some really good architecture and building” that sets a look and feel for the city’s principal boulevard and western edge.

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