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Political Climate with Mark Simon: Whole new ball game for Redwood City elections

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Smith's District 4 successor to be appointed

No doubt, after five months of Sheltering In Place, you are hungry for something new and different. Well, my friends, you have come to the right place. Political Climate is back for the duration, which runs through November 3, and I’m happy to be your tour guide. My sustaining philosophy is informed by the classic line from “All About Eve,” uttered in that Bette Davis way by, of all people, Bette Davis: “Fasten your seatbelt. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

Indeed. It is Redwood City’s first foray into district elections and there are four City Council seats on the ballot. Three of the seats are contested and two feature incumbents who don’t get to be called incumbents anymore because they were elected citywide, but now are running in districts. So, according to their ballot designations, we should use councilmember when referring to Alicia Aguirre and Janet Borgens. Which certainly has the same semantic effect as incumbent, but there you go. It’s a brave new world.

If you did the math, one district seat is uncontested, and congratulations to Planning Commissioner Michael Smith. In fact, the City Council is meeting Monday for the sole purpose of conceding the seat to Smith and bypassing the election. It’s supposed to save a modest chunk of change, but it’s an interesting way to initiate the new districts over which the council labored so. I think if I were Smith, I’d want to have my name on the ballot — start off that political career with an affirmation from the voters. But that’s just me.

Smith will represent District 4, which takes in the Five Points area and is one of two minority-majority districts: 77 percent of residents are Hispanic, 80 percent are renters, and education and income levels are among the lowest in the city.

Smith has been in the Bay Area only four years and is only two years into his first term on the Planning Commission. But he has established himself quickly as a community activist, serving a wide range of city and neighborhood organizations. Apparently, that was enough to discourage opposition in a district that could have been expected to attract a Latino candidate.

It is understandable, however, that a community denied a fair share of representation on the council and city boards and commissions will need some time to build up a bench of eventual candidates. Meanwhile, Smith brings a fresh energy to a district where residents long have felt overlooked.

A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME: The other three districts not only are contested but promise to be competitive campaigns. The 2018 city council campaign also was competitive —  seven candidates running for three seats. But it was a citywide election, which meant it was difficult for some candidates to separate themselves from the crowd. It also was a testy election, a proving ground of factional disputes over development and growth that often became quite personal, particularly behind the scenes. In that citywide election, oddly enough, the agenda was dominated by a small group of advocates.

The new political setting will be quite different and the ability to influence the council or the election is spread out, which was the idea. Residents of District 1, the Redwood Shores district, are going to have priorities, including views on development and housing growth, that differ dramatically from residents in the Farm Hill area of District 7 or the Friendly Acres area of southernmost District 3, not to mention such issues as rent control or sea level rise.

And all of this is overlaid by Covid-19 and a community still under quarantine — to devastating effect on the city’s economic well-being. Candidates can, and will, run on a variety of issues that are also highly localized. But whatever issues they raise, whatever promises they make, the council that convenes in December is going to spend most of its time making budget cuts and frantically seeking ways to bail out a city with an annual shortfall of $10 million.

The fiscal effects of the pandemic not only will dominate the new city council — with, possibly, a brand new majority — but it will have a huge impact on the campaign, or, more precisely, how the candidates will campaign. One of the benefits of districts is that candidates can knock on every door, sometimes more than once. Campaigns are much more personal, and, likely, much less costly. A pandemic would seem to make face-to-face campaigning less inviting. Mask-to-mask campaigning?

NEW LIMITATIONS: That would tilt 2020 campaigning toward mail and online messages, which take money. But the other new wrinkle is a campaign donation limit of $1,000, which took effect in mid-March, right around the time most of us were being told to go home and to stay there.

The donation limit already has made its presence felt in the form of hurried-up contributions.  Julie Pardini, the prime force behind the residentialist-inclined Facebook page of Redwood City Residents Say What?, has given $5,000 to Chris Rasmussen, the retired cop who is challenging Aguirre in District 7.

The donations by Pardini to Rasmussen were made on February 4 ($1,000) and March 1 ($4,000).  The new donation limit took effect on March 11. Rasmussen said the donations were legal at the time and that makes them acceptable to him.

Borgens also got $2,000 from Pardini on March 9, just two days before the new law took effect. But Borgens returned $1,000 with a note on her campaign finance report that Pardini “already contributed the maximum amount.” Borgens acknowledged she didn’t have to give back half the money, but she said she served on the council committee that recommended the limit and she felt she should observe the spirit of the new law.

Rasmussen also received two contributions totaling $2,000 from Christina Umhofer, a losing council candidate in 2018. The first donation was on January 24 ($1,000). The second was on May 28 ($1,000) from her 2018 council campaign committee.

The cumulative donations are legal, according to City Attorney Veronica Ramirez, speaking through city Communications Director Jennifer Yamaguma. The first donation occurred prior to the new law and does not count as part of the aggregate amount contributed by Umhofer.

SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW: The goal of moving to district elections — whether coerced or by choice — is to invite more diversity among candidates, not just demographically, but politically. Certainly, there are new faces in the three contested districts, but also some familiar ones. And there is a new electorate, if you will. From the analytical work done in creating the new districts, we know something about population and voting trends from past elections. What we don’t know is how true that will be this time.

And, so, we are off to the races. Ordinarily, campaigns avoid too much activity until after Labor Day, but these certainly are not ordinary times. I’ll dive into the contested races in my next missive. Meanwhile, and to tide you over, remember that old saying, “May you live in interesting times.”

Contact Mark Simon at

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

Glew, Becker leading in State Senate District 13 race

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The San Mateo County Elections Office said the Tuesday night results included all ballots cast at vote centers. The results also included vote by mail ballots the Elections Office had received in the mail by Monday, and vote by mail ballots turned into Vote Centers and Drop Boxes by Sunday. The results, however, do not include mailed ballots received by the Election's Office after Monday, or ballots dropped off at Vote Centers or Drop Boxes after Sunday. The results also don't include conditional voter registration or provisional ballots. The Elections Office will release another update on results today at 5 p.m.

With still many ballots to count, Alexander Glew, the Los Altos mechanical engineer and lone Republican aiming to succeed District 13 State Sen. Jerry Hill, currently leads the seven-candidate race with 21.92 percent of the vote. Former venture capitalist, CEO and Menlo Park resident Josh Becker is close behind at 19.01 percent, according to results released after the polls closed on Election Day Tuesday.

In California, the top two vote-getters move on to the November elections, regardless of party.

Redwood City Councilmember Shelly Masur is in third in the State Senate District 13 race with 17.72 percent of the vote. Millbrae city councilmember Annie Oliva (14,722), Burlingame city councilmember Mike Brownrigg (13,516), former state Assemblymember and Mountain View resident Sally Lieber (12,347) and lone Libertarian John Webster (2,256) round out the preliminary ranking.

Also, supporters of several school district measures and bonds are optimistic with the preliminary results:

Measure N (San Carlos School District) has garnered 68.35 percent approval to increase the district’s annual parcel tax from $246.60 to $334.60 for the next eight years. The measure needs two-thirds approval to pass.

Measure M (La Honda-Pescadero Unified) has garnered 68.82 percent approval to increase the district’s annual parcel tax from $100 to $130 over seven years. Two-thirds approval is needed to pass.

Measure P (Portola Valley School District) is thus far just short of two-thirds approval at 63.46 percent in favor of renewing the district’s annual parcel tax of $581 per parcel with a 3 percent increase every year.

Measure J (Jefferson Union High School District) has so far garnered 61.06 percent approval for a $27 million bond issue to fund upgrades to schools and other district facilities. Fifty-five percent voter-approval is needed to pass.

Measure O (Burlingame Elementary School District) has 57.14 percent approval for a $97 million bond issue to fund school facility upgrades. Fifty-five percent approval is needed to pass.

Measure K (Brisbane School District) has 58.97 percent approval for a 27 million bond to make safety, security and facility upgrades in the district. Fifty-five percent approval is needed to pass.

Measure P (Portola Valley School District) has 63.46 percent approval in renewing the current $581 per parcel tax, with 3 percent annual increases, raising at least $1,200,000 annually, for eight years. Fifty-five percent approval is needed to pass.

Measure L (San Mateo Union High School District) currently has 54.15 percent approval for a $385 million bond measure aimed at upgrading schools and facilities and modernize classrooms. Fifty-five percent approval is needed to pass.

Still ballots left to count:

Tuesday as come and gone, but the primary election is not over as plenty more ballots remain to count, according to the San Mateo County Elections Office. The results released Tuesday included all ballots cast at vote centers. The results also included vote by mail ballots the Elections Office had received in the mail by Monday, and vote by mail ballots turned into Vote Centers and Drop Boxes by Sunday.

The results, however, do not include mailed ballots received by the Election’s Office after Monday, or ballots dropped off at Vote Centers or Drop Boxes after Sunday. The results also don’t include conditional voter registration or provisional ballots.

The Elections Office will release another update on results today at 5 p.m.

San Carlos State of the City to be delivered at brewery

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Talk about a “City of Good Living.”

San Carlos Mayor Ron Collins will deliver the State of the City address at Devils Canyon Brewery on March 12. The free event will take place from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the brewery at 935 Washington St. Titled “Change and Reinvention,” the State of the City updates residents on the city’s affairs.

The event requires advanced registration. To register, click

San Carlos: Ballot snafu affects more than 2000 voters

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San Mateo County: Vote today to avoid lines, and it's not too late to register

A total of 2,047 voters were recently impacted by a ballot printing error that affected four school district measures in four jurisdictions, including the San Mateo Union, Honda Pescadero Unified, San Carlo and  Portola Valley school districts, according to the San Mateo County Elections Office.

It is unclear how many, if any, voters have returned corrected ballots, but considering how close recent funding measures on the Peninsula have become, the “every vote counts” mantra has never been more accurate.

In a statement Friday, San Mateo County Chief Elections Officer Mark Church said his office learned of the ballot misprint on Feb. 6 and, within 48 hours, notified every affected voter and sent replacement ballots with the correct measures. An “Important Notice” with instructions was included with those ballots, according to Church.

Church said his office’s printing vendor, K&H Integrity Communications, “did not precisely follow our mapping instructions for the construction of the official ballot.”

“Either a school district measure that should have been included in a ballot was omitted, or a school district measure was omitted that should have been included,” Church added.

The misprint affected Measure N in the San Carlos School District, Measure M for the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District, Measure L for the San Mateo Union High School District, and Measure P for the Portola Valley School District.

The superintendents for all school districts were contacted about the ballot misprints, Church said.

Amber Farinha, director of enterprise and community relations for the San Carlos School District, expressed concern about the error’s impact on the election. She was informed 165 voters in the district received initial ballots that did not include Measure N.

“We want to make sure voters are aware of the error and look for their new ballot and return it before March 3,” Farinha said, adding that the district’s last measure in 2015 narrowly passed by 110 votes.

Affected voters are being asked to discard their previous ballot and use the replacement one. Ballots that have already been submitted will be discarded when the second, corrected ballot is returned, election officials said.  If voters don’t return their corrected ballot, their votes from their old ballot will still count towards measures shared between the precincts. And for those who voted on issues outside their district, those particular votes won’t count, the elections office said.

This mistake comes on the heels of a particularly tough election cycle last year where complaints of late ballots and slow counts were registered against the elections department run by Church. Also in October 2018, ballots began arriving in San Mateo County mailboxes more than a week late after a race for the Board of Education was left off the ballot. Previous to that, a race for local judgeship was omitted from the ballot.

This story has been updated with clarifications provided by the Elections Office.

Mom’s $460K contribution to son’s state senate campaign draws scrutiny

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Michael Brownrigg/City of Burlingame

A mother’s $460,000 campaign contribution to her son’s candidacy for the 13th State Senate District raised eyebrows and questions.

Michael Browningg’s 84-year-old mother, Linda Browningg of Burlingame, put the hefty donation into an independent expenditure committee (IE) called Californians Supporting Brownrigg for Senate 2020. She contributed $32,400 on Jan. 2, and then $425,000 on Jan. 17, with the aim of funding media advertising and polling in the campaign for her son, a Burlingame council member since 2009.

Unlike direct contributions to a candidate, those made to IEs have no limit. However, questions have been raised over whether the contribution violates state election law, which forbids an IE from coordinating with the candidate. Election law presumes that an immediate family member’s IE contribution is improper, unless the facts prove otherwise.

“If there is coordination, the payments are reported as contributions, and, among other things, may be subject to contribution limits,” which for individual donations to state senate campaigns is $4,700 per election, according to the California Fair Political Practices Commission (CFPPC).

The penalty for failing to comply with the Act’s disclosure requirements is a fine of up to $5,000 per violation. In addition, violating the disclosure requirements involving IE advertisements may be liable for a fine of up to three times the cost of the advertisement, including placement costs, according to CFPPC.

Brownrigg has not yet responded to a request for comment by Climate. This story will be updated when a response is received. Brownrigg told media outlets earlier this week he had no idea his mother was going to make the contribution. He told San Jose Spotlight it isn’t a fair assumption that his mother broke a campaign law. His mother told Spotlight she made the contribution “on the advice of someone else,” but declined to identify that person.

As of Wednesday, the CFPPC had not received a complaint regarding the contribution, CFPPC spokesperson Jay Wierenga told Climate. Wierenga declined to comment on the specifics of Brownrigg’s case.

Image: California Secretary of State

Poll: Republican Glew, Democrat Masur lead senate race

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Poll: Republican Glew, Democrat Masur lead senate race

In the highly competitive race for termed-out State Sen. Jerry Hill’s District 13 seat in the 2020 election, polling predicts that Republican candidate Alex Glew (pictured on left) and Democrat Shelly Masur (right) will be the two candidates to win the California primary, according to a recent poll by EMC Research.

The emailed poll garnered responses from 709 likely Senate 13 District voters from Nov. 11-17.

Twenty-five percent of respondents said they would vote for Glew, a longtime mechanical engineer in Silicon Valley who currently serves on the Los Altos Design Review Commission, followed by 22 percent saying they’d vote for Masur, a former nonprofit executive who currently serves as a Redwood City councilmember.

Regardless of their party affiliation, the top two vote-getters in the California primary, set for March 3, 2020, will earn their spot on the ballot in the November 2020 election.

Glew is likely to earn a spot in the top two because, as the lone Republican, he’ll have consolidated support from voters in his party unlike his five Democratic opponents, according to EMC Research.

Still, Democrats tend to win District 13 in November, and Masur, who benefits from name-recognition and key endorsements by State Treasurer Fiona Ma, the California Teachers Association, and California Federation of Teachers, has emerged as an early favorite among her party’s voters, pollsters say.

Josh Becker, a Menlo Park resident who created the Full Circle Fund and serves on the California State Workforce Development Board, received support from 16 percent of voters. Former State Assemblymember and Mountain View mayor Sally Lieber had 9 percent; Michael Brownrigg, a two-term mayor and 10-year councilmember for the City of Burlingame, had 7 percent; and Annie Olivia, a realtor and Millbrae city councilmember, had 4 percent. Eighteen percent of the electorate, however, remain undecided, the poll suggests.

When additional information is provided to voters about all the candidates, Glew’s lead over Masur slightly narrows, 27 percent to 25 percent, and interest in nearly all other candidates tick slightly upward as well.

Tight race for Redwood City School District parcel tax measure

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The proposed Redwood City School District parcel tax, Measure H, is just under the two-third voter approval needed to pass, according to semi-official results released Tuesday night by the San Mateo County Election’s Office. But with votes left to be counted, the measure’s supporters remain optimistic.

The measure, a parcel tax of $149 per parcel annually for 12 years, had received 65.61 percent support from voters as of the latest results reported Tuesday night, with 8,868 voting yes and 4,648 voting no, according to the San Mateo County Elections Office.

Factored into the count are all Vote by Mail ballots received in the mail by Nov. 5 and Vote by Mail ballots returned at Vote Centers and Drop Boxes by Nov. 4. The results also include all votes cast from Vote Centers.

Still to count, however, are Vote by Mail ballots received in the mail after Nov. 5, Vote by Mail ballots dropped off at Vote Centers or Drop Boxes after Nov. 4, and provisional ballots, according to elections officials.

The Elections Office is scheduled to update the results on Thursday, Nov. 7, at 4:30 p.m.

“The votes are coming in still and there are thousands left to be counted,” according to the Yes-On-H committee, adding the results received last night “are promising and expected and we’re optimistic Measure H will pass once the votes are counted.”

If it passes, Measure H would raise an estimated $3.45 million annually for the  school district that is reportedly facing a $10 million deficit.

The stated purpose of Measure H is to attract and retain highly qualified teachers, support quality reading and writing skills in schools, maintain science technology, engineering and math instruction and reduce class sizes in kindergarten and first grade.

In 2016, Redwood City School District voters approved an $85 per parcel tax that raises $1.9 million annually.

Photo credit: San Mateo County Elections Office

Political Climate with Mark Simon: The struggle to embrace change continues

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Housing, transportation, infrastructure – growth and change – it always seems to come back to these specific topics and those two overriding issues. And so we plunge into a number of local matters that reflect the struggle to embrace change, accommodate change and define what it means to continue to move forward.

PENINSULA NOW AND LATER: It has been a few weeks since former Redwood City Councilmen Jeff Gee and John Seybert kicked off a lobbying group named Peninsula Now at a private event. Enough questions remain that we touched base with Gee again on the organization, what he’s trying to do and why.

“This is not a platform for developers, as much as some people might think it is,” said Gee, and that’s just as well, I suppose. One reason those who consistently oppose growth and change are so much noisier is that they lack any real power or influence, except through the ability to be noisy. On the other hand, developers never seem to have trouble getting their side of the story heard, which is a pretty good definition of having power and influence.

Still, Gee is worried that the public debate is dominated by opposition. “From my experience on the council, people who are unhappy are usually the ones who show up and raise an angry voice,” Gee said, adding that he thinks the debate should not be “one-sided. … We want to create an opportunity for those who like what’s going on. …It’s not just about making sure there is more housing. It’s about making sure the consensus is not about the status quo. The status quo is not acceptable.”

The critical issues facing the region – housing, transportation, infrastructure – have to be tackled now and in earnest by a broad coalition of decision-makers and policy-influencers, he said. “If they don’t start now, they don’t have a hell of a chance,” Gee said.

He said the organization is intended as a “convener.” Peninsula Now will conduct candidate forums, for example, Gee said, including the race for the 13th Senate District seat. And the group will weigh in politically on ballot measures, candidates and issues that come before local councils. As an example, Gee said a local city council is on the verge of ignoring its own zoning regulations and city ordinances and downzoning a parcel, quite likely in violation of state law. On a regional level, Gee wants Peninsula Now to be a vigorous advocate for San Mateo County’s interests, citing the work toward a regional transit measure. “What’s really in it for San Mateo County? Are we going to get our fair share?” Gee said.

Some of this is already being done by Rosanne Foust through her leadership of the San Mateo County Economic Development Association, but the county has long been overlooked as a regional player so it could be argued another voice is useful. In trying to develop a regional presence, redundancy probably doesn’t hurt.

Peninsula Now is established as an independent expenditure committee, which means it can get involved in support of candidates and on ballot measures. It also means Peninsula Now won’t have to disclose who donates to the group, although Gee, again, was a little vague about how that would work. If money is raised for a candidates’ forum, “there’d be no need to disclose who’s funding our operation,” he said.

How all this manifests itself is still pretty vague and it’s hard to tell if Gee doesn’t know yet or simply isn’t saying.

“It’s so early in the process. We want to grow and learn,” he said.

One thing is certain, he said. Peninsula Now is not a vehicle for Gee’s return to the Redwood City Council. With the advent of districts, Gee’s neighborhood, Redwood Shores, has been carved out as a distinct entity and would seem ripe for him. The council currently has no one from the Shores and won’t until the 2020 election.

“I haven’t made any decisions (about running) and that has nothing to do with Peninsula Now. … I haven’t ruled it out. I haven’t ruled it in either,” Gee said.

SAN BRU-NOPE: In referring to a city that was on the verge of a troubling housing decision, perhaps Gee was anticipating the defeat in San Bruno this week of a 425-unit housing project by the narrowest and weirdest of circumstances – a 2-1 vote with two council members recusing themselves because they owned property nearby. By any measure it’s a lost opportunity.

More than any other city on the Peninsula, San Bruno has been hungry to reinvent a largely moribund downtown, and this project would have been a huge step in that long-desired direction. And it’s absolutely the wrong message to send to those who continue to seek ways to relieve local cities of land-use authority that blocks housing development near transit.

GETTING REAL ON EL CAMINO: In another occupation (or preoccupation), it was a particular pleasure to be part of the initial efforts to form the Grand Boulevard Initiative, a regional effort to transform El Camino Real into a world class boulevard of housing, businesses, recreation and retail. One of the fundamental planning concepts described at an early Grand Boulevard brainstorming session was the creation of nodes – centralized locations of commercial business, ranging from regional centers, like the Hillsdale Shopping Center, to mid-level community centers, like many of the Peninsula’s downtowns, to neighborhood service centers, like 25th Avenue in San Mateo.

Between these nodes would be high-density, high-rise housing – apartments and condos, mostly, designed to fit into the character of an adjacent residential neighborhood. There would be greenswards and bike paths and transit would be high-frequency and take people readily and conveniently to the nodes.

One key element of this concept is development that doesn’t push right up to the curb. But if you tool up and down El Camino, that’s exactly what you’ll see – housing projects that go right up to the edge of the sidewalk. This is happening because local cities are willing to go out rather than up.

El Camino housing development can be the answer to the Peninsula’s housing quandary, but it is going to require a willingness to build up and preserve the ground level for human use and enjoyment.

IN CONTROL: Assemblyman Kevin Mullin and I were fortunate recently to interview State Controller Betty Yee on our TV show, The Game. Among the interesting tidbits from the state’s highest-ranking female officeholder: 70 percent of the state’s General Fund comes from personal income taxes, which makes the state budget extremely vulnerable to economic downturn. She said the tax structure is used to fund public services, but it’s fuller purpose should be to support economic development and growth. She said reform of Proposition 13 should be among the tax reforms up for discussion. You can see the interview here:

Contact Mark Simon at

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

CORRECTION: The original column incorrectly stated that 70 percent of California’s General Fund revenues come from sales tax, when in fact 70 percent of General Fund revenues come from personal income tax. The story has been corrected.

Above photo by Getty Images: Aerial Photography view south-east of Boothbay Park, Hillsdale, San Mateo with a view of Oracle in Redwood City, Marine View Park and Belmont.

Political Climate with Mark Simon: My favorite holiday

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The Fourth of July always has been my favorite holiday.

It’s in the summer and that means long days, soft evenings and warm weather. It’s a day to be outside all day and into the night. And if I can’t spend the whole day as a kid running around the neighborhood, I can certainly feel such a day as a visceral memory.

Because it’s summer, it’s a day of the best food – pancake breakfasts and barbecues and hot dogs and hamburgers and corn on the cob and watermelon.

There are parades, always communal events, and they make all of us feel a little closer, something along the lines of what Abraham Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory.”

There are fireworks, and, really, how can anyone not like fireworks? I know, they’re hell on pets, but there is nothing like a good fireworks show and I am always grateful to the organizations that put them on.

It’s also a time of illicit fireworks and while I’m not condoning any activity that might burn down my neighborhood, it makes me think of Ed Sessler, which is always a good thought. I sat behind Ed through middle school and for some years, we were as close as two kids can be. On the Fourth, Ed always had firecrackers and he had a long-running custom of having at least one blow up in his hand every year.

One year, he had a firecracker go off in his left hand while he was throwing another one in his right hand. When I asked him what happened, he said he got so excited about the firecracker he was throwing that he forgot about the one in his left hand. Another time, he wrapped two firecrackers together by their fuses and lit them, and they both went off just as Ed remembered to drop them. Again, I asked what happened. He said he noticed one was burning faster than the other and he was waiting for the slow one to catch up.

INDEPENDENCE DAY: It’s one more reason I love the Fourth of July. I love my country, and it’s a day to celebrate being an American, with all the blessings that brings.

What can be better than independence? What country celebrates individuality like we do? What country embraces all our differences and tries to meld them into one restless, complicated and fascinating mish-mash? All our freedoms make me proud of who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s how I define patriotism.

Patriotism is a tricky word, something to mull over. It seems so many people appropriate it, or misappropriate it.

Samuel Boswell said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” and it does seem as though many scoundrels hide behind it, or embrace it for reasons that have nothing to do with celebrating that all of us start off equal before the law. Some try to dictate to us a strict and rigid definition of patriotism and if we don’t meet that definition, we must not love our country. I’m reminded of another quote from the song “Survivors” by the late folksinger John Stewart, “I believe that the flag, it was more than a rag, but the outlaws in office have shattered my life.”

My own definition is broad and inclusive and takes into account all that makes us distinctive and those differences that make us truly American. My country is not about sameness. I can support those in uniform without having to accede to a uniformity of thought or love of country. I love my country in my own way and I have the freedom to do so without the approval of others.

Conservatives seem always to be absolutist about patriotism: Love your country in my way, or you’re disloyal. During the Vietnam War, a popular bumper sticker was “My country: Love it or leave it.” I don’t know why one person’s love of country has to be expressed in forced alienation of another person’s exercise of the very freedoms we are supposed to represent, including the freedom to disagree.

It’s not about unconditional love. It’s about loving something, warts and all. Is there any more affirmative statement of American values than to go against the crowd, to disagree honorably?

As Mark Twain said, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”

Liberals, on the other hand, seem uncomfortable with a firm and fervent assertion of love of country, as though no one wants to impose a set of values on another. There has been a small dust-up on social media over the absence of American flags at the recent televised Democratic debates. Several of the candidates wore flag lapel pins, but no flags on the set. That might be the fault of NBC News, but it is not uncommon to go to Democratic events and observe the absence of any American flags.

If you leave patriotism to those who will cloak themselves in it, don’t be surprised if their embrace doesn’t include you. It may be more accurate to say “My country: Love it or lose it.” So much of public discourse is about the agenda – who determines the topic or the terms and conditions of the debate. When it comes to patriotism – love of country – some people seem to leave the field to others.

In the end, and for me, it’s not about who can make the biggest show, such as the way President Trump seems determined to usurp an annual, national celebration. It’s not just about who can proclaim their love of country on a single day and in the loudest voice. It’s also about who can live the American values of fairness and respect for individual rights on a daily basis.

BACK AT THE PICNIC: That’s worth a celebration. So, I’ll be there at the parade in Redwood City Thursday morning. I’ll get there early to stake out a good spot. I’ll decorate my front yard with flags and at the end of the day, I’ll find some fireworks to watch. In between I’ll eat some food that’s not on my diet and think about Ed Sessler and think about this marvelous experiment in freedom that we continue to undertake.

I’ll be a little more forgiving of those who disagree with me and a little more respectful of those who serve our country in every way possible and I’ll think being born an American is the best definition of luck I can imagine.

Contact Mark Simon at

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

Photo: Getty Images

Political Climate with Mark Simon: Redwood City’s progress should be embraced

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Minimum wage in Redwood City set to increase

Early next year will be the 27th since the appearance of the now-legendary billboard touting Redwood City as “Palo Alto Without the Attitude.”

Climate Magazine Editor Janet McGovern, sentimental slob that she is, apparently thought the 26-and-a-half-th anniversary was more than ample reason to revisit the topic, providing further evidence that journalists have only a theoretical relationship with math. Anyway, she backtracks on the whole matter in the current edition of Climate and makes passing reference to a contest I initiated while writing a daily column for the Peninsula Times Tribune, one of many print publications I helped drive out of business. In the interests of full disclosure, I initiated several contests while writing a daily column. Writing five days a week was a constant search for topics I could milk.

The contest was based on a thorough mocking of the billboard (“Redwood City – Palo Alto Without the Attitude. Or the Restaurants. Or the Stores. Or a Vibrant Downtown” was just one of the smartass responses I wrote). I then invited people to send in their own slogans – for Redwood City and Palo Alto. The whole thing quickly got out of hand. In the pre-social media environment, hundreds of written entries were sent in by something we used to call the U.S. Mail. That number is skewed a little by one woman, Lori Rogers, who sent in 48 entries. One of hers was a winner: “Now that we have your attention.” As I recall, her win was not unanimous among the judges, but some of us would have felt badly if we rejected all 48.

The winning entry for Palo Alto was by Heather White: “This billboard must be removed (Municipal Zoning Ordinance 1,732,664),” and it’s still pretty good after all these years. Other runners up included “Palo Alto – Where process is our most important product” and “Redwood City — No attitude. No stores.” The latter reflected most of the Redwood City entries, which included “Podunk with a complex” and “Attitude without the aptitude.” There also was this entry: “Get Rid of Simon.” Unfortunately, it was sent in anonymously, or it might have won.

Interestingly, the Times Tribune offered a $100 shopping spree to each of the winning entries, and one is left to ponder what kind of shopping spree you could have had in downtown Redwood City in 1993. Some merchants opposed putting up the billboard for fear it might alienate Palo Altans and they wouldn’t shop in Redwood City. You can’t make this stuff up.

The leader of the opposition was a guy who owned a used furniture store he fancied an “antiques” store. It provided many of us with the opportunity learn the difference between an antique and something that was just old.

THERE’S A POINT IN HERE SOMEWHERE: And the point is that in 1993, downtown Redwood City was not much, on its way to nowhere special. And that reality, which seems lost by those who say they miss the “old” Redwood City, drove a group of far-sighted city leaders and staff to set in motion a new reality that is decidedly more interesting, meaningful and substantive than the array of sandwich shops and used furniture stores that defined the place.

Look at election results in the early- to mid-2000s and you see a council that was elected and re-elected by healthy margins and that was united in its determination to make Redwood City into something. This wasn’t revolutionary thinking. It was a very full and complete reflection of what the residents wanted – a there that was somewhere.

But in 1993, boy, you sure could find parking right in front of the hardware store while you ran inside to get a new key made. One of the things I learned while writing the column all those years ago is that lots of empty parking spaces is not a good indicator of a vigorous retail environment. It was easy to park there because nobody went there. Now, you hear complaints from people that they can’t find a place to park, a problem I have never had, although I do have to walk a couple of blocks on occasion to get where I’m going.

Which is what I had to do recently when I went to the Courthouse Square on a Friday night to listen to live music. And then again, the next night when I went to Angelicas to hear a jazz combo, two things so far removed from the “old” Redwood City as to invite hilarity. On the way to each venue, I passed one restaurant after another, packed to the walls with young people, who were eating and drinking and listening to music. Some of the music was loud and it reminded me of another pithy comment: “If it’s too loud, you’re too old.”

This is a good thing. Vital, alive, full of energy, prosperous, youthful and incalculably better than anything you might have seen in downtown Redwood City in 1993.

THE CAPITAL OF THE PENINSULA: The aforementioned Times Tribune was a merger of the Redwood City Tribune and the Palo Alto Times by its owner, the Tribune Company of Chicago. Tribune Company since has developed quite a record of buying newspapers and killing them off with budget cuts, staff layoffs and demands for greater profit margins. I like to think the Times Tribune was at the cutting edge of this charming practice.

What the Tribune Company did here was take two 100-year-old, well-established local newspapers and merge them into one regional paper. Their view, from the Tribune tower in Chicago, was that Silicon Valley was spreading out, spewing wealth and self-importance in its path and that Palo Alto was going to become the capital of the Peninsula. They never understood that Redwood City and Palo Alto were quite different and a person who identified with one would never identify with the other. And one would not read news about the other.

Undoubtedly, it looked like sheer genius from a tower in Chicago. It didn’t work. The merged newspaper went out of business in a scant 14 years, and Palo Alto and Redwood City were without two credible and serious daily newspapers that were rooted in their respective communities, the kind of connection that can only be built over a century.

Still, at the time, it was valid to believe that Palo Alto would become, if it wasn’t already, the central city of the Peninsula, a cultural, entertainment and business hub around which the rest of the area would revolve. (Old joke: How many Palo Altans does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One – to hold the lightbulb while the rest of the world revolves around it.)

Certainly, Palo Alto is a vibrant downtown community with high-end restaurants and a thriving retail that any city would hope to emulate. But their unique brand of insularity denied Palo Alto something that Redwood City has become – the Peninsula’s gathering place. I still recall when the Super Bowl was held at Stanford two lifetimes ago, Palo Alto sniffed that this unseemly sports spectacle was being held at Stanford, not Palo Alto. The city did virtually nothing to act as the host city. Just imagine if it had been in Redwood City, which continues to retain its hometown, Main Street USA, gee-whiz brand of enthusiasm.

THE UNEASINESS OF MOVING FORWARD: There is Central Park in San Mateo, Burlingame Avenue in Burlingame, Castro Street in Mountain View and, of course, University Avenue in Palo Alto. There are gathering places all throughout the Peninsula. But there is nothing like Redwood City as a place for people from all over the region to gather for communal events and from which the downtown scene benefits in ways that were not even a vision in 1993.

All of this makes longtime residents uncomfortable and they long for a time that didn’t exist, a sense of what Redwood City must have been, but, in fact, never was. Discomfort is the price of change. But if such an idyllic time ever existed, it’s done. There is no going back. Time doesn’t work in reverse.

If 25 years ago, we had a council determined to transform downtown Redwood City, we now have a council that reflects the uneasiness of the most vocal of Redwood City’s residents. While it is unlikely the most outspoken represent the broad views of the larger community, they are the loudest and they are most politically active and they have the council they want – one that is decidedly less bold and certainly not nearly as unified behind a vision of what could be made of what this city has to offer.

What is the vision of the current city leadership? To tinker at the edges and try to minimize the impacts of the changes that have taken place? To pull the reins of change and to respond rather than initiate it?

In 1993, the mere statement – Palo Alto without the attitude – was ironical at best and simply incorrect.

The greater irony is that it is truer now than it ever was in 1993. The council that was elected on the heels of that billboard recognized that rare moment in time when change was possible and could be used to set a new course, to determine events rather than have them dictated to us. That moment still exists. The challenge now is to transform the entire community into a place that is livable and affordable – in essence, to do with housing what was done with the downtown. In that sense, Redwood City may hearken back to the place some people think it was then – welcoming, open, available to all.

The only question is whether there is a unified will to press the advantage.

Contact Mark Simon at

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

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