It's arguable that Mountain View has never given rise to a more improbable political success story than that of Sally Lieber, the wallpaper hanger from Detroit who surprised everyone in her election to City Council in 1998 and to the state Assembly in 2002.
Lieber was recognized by the council last month for her accomplishments over the decade. In just the last two years, she saw 58 of her bills pass the state Legislature. Her proudest achievement was raising the state's minimum wage, but her myriad other bills include third rail issues that other legislators wouldn't touch, like improving conditions for pregnant women in prisons and criminalizing human trafficking.
Her blunt style ruffled plenty of feathers in Mountain View, and she even faced a recall campaign while on the council, but election results would indicate that she made more friends than enemies. Her local accomplishments include fending off commercial flights at Moffett in the 1990s as a resident and that was before she was elected to City Hall. While on the council, she helped build Avenidas Senior Day Care Center and pushed for a child care center at Rengstorff Park.
Even though the final term of her six-year run in the Assembly ended in December, Lieber isn't done with politics. She says she will run for Elaine Alquist's state senate seat in 2012.
Meanwhile, there's another issue on her agenda: reforming the state budget process. Last weekend she was at the downtown farmers market with her trademark ironing board, passing out information about her plan for a bipartisan budget reform group called California Forward.
"I feel like I have a responsibility to not just walk away from the crisis," she said.
Campaigning is Lieber's passion, and she can't seem to stop. She's walked up and down Caltrain cars and knocked on doors with a sprained ankle in the final days of a race.
"If a congressional seat opens up, I would run for it," she said last week in an interview at Books Inc. on Castro Street.
It's a big statement from someone who never graduated from high school (she earned a GED instead) and learned about politics by listening to NPR all day while hanging wallpaper for a living. "I still listen to NPR all the time," she laughs.
"I think people do underestimate her," says council member Mike Kasperzak, who served on the council with Lieber from 1998 to 2002.
But as many politicians from here to Sacramento have found out over the years, they do so at their peril.
School and politics
Lieber was apparently interested in politics from an early age, wearing glasses to look like feminist icon Gloria Steinem in junior high. Before moving to Mountain View she worked as a wallpaper hanger for 10 years in Michigan and in San Francisco. She attended City College of San Francisco, and later Foothill Community College, where she served on the student government.
She had trouble with school in her younger years, and has said that upon her return to college as an adult, she broke into tears when she finished her first course with a B+.
Lieber eventually got into Stanford, and was a senior there and already passed over several times to sit on city commissions when she handily won the 1998 council election, becoming the top vote-getter against six candidates, including two incumbents. No one predicted she would grab any of the three open seats, let alone stomp the competition.
The 2002 state Assembly race was another victory against all odds. In one of the most competitive primaries in the state, Lieber took on fellow Mountain View council member Rosemary Stasek, the favorite of the Mercury News, and Rod Diridon Jr., who was backed by much of the Democratic Party's political establishment and the business community.
As if the stiff competition weren't enough, Lieber faced a recall campaign in Mountain View.
Recall effort fizzles
The recall campaign was organized by supporters of then-Mayor Mario Ambra, numerous firefighters, resident Valerie Harris and attorney Gary Wesley, many of whom didn't want her to become the next mayor. Lieber was called a "fraud," an "unemployed high school dropout" and a newcomer without roots in the city.
Lieber's enemies accused her of falsely posing as a "transit director" in campaign literature, of jeopardizing the nonprofit status of the YWCA by passing out political literature at an event there, of misrepresenting locals views on open space, of creating a climate of suspicion and fear among city employees, and of asking for an endorsement from the Mountain View Firefighters' Union president while he was on duty. Lieber was elected to the state Assembly before enough signatures were collected to put a recall measure on the ballot.
Looking back on it now, Lieber believes the recall effort was at least partly retaliation from Ambra and his supporters. Months before the recall campaign, she had supported city manager Kevin Duggan and city attorney Michael Martello in filing corruption charges against Ambra, alleging that he had pressured city staff to take actions that would benefit him financially, such as denial of construction permits on a property near his home so he could purchase it. Lieber called for Ambra's resignation in no uncertain terms.
Ambra was eventually removed from the council in disgrace. Lieber went to Sacramento.
In 2002, as she ran for state Assembly while still mayor of Mountain View, Lieber seemed to take the recall effort in stride. She told NPR that voters don't respond to "negative campaigning," and told her staff that that the "Recall Sally Lieber" signs along El Camino Real were actually good free publicity.
Lieber poured herself into her Assembly campaign. She and her staff knocked on 58,000 doors throughout the county. On election night, her victory surprised even her as she watched results come in from a small campaign office on Castro Street.
Lieber received $200,000 towards her Assembly campaign from her husband David Phillips. When she was questioned by the press about the unusual number of her campaign contributors being lawyers and how that might influence her, she said she had also gotten money from her husband, and joked that "I doesn't listen to him very much either." The two had met at Burning Man, a pyrotechnics festival in the Nevada desert, and moved to Mountain View in 1994 a year after they were married.
While in the Assembly, Lieber's belief in "experiential politics" lead her to live as a homeless person in San Jose, to visit women in prison and to witness an execution.
When she decided to become homeless for several days, she said she became "completely invisible" -- so much so that someone she knew didn't recognize her when she asked him for change.
In a chance encounter, Lieber met a videographer who documented her experience, eventually posting a video of it on YouTube. She says she nearly spent a whole night on the light rail before she found the Fifth Street homeless shelter.
The day after she returned home, Lieber found out the local cold weather homeless shelters were closing for the year, despite a rainy weather forecast. "I was livid," she said. She called the powers that be and had them re-opened.
In 2006, Lieber witnessed the state execution of Clarence Ray Allen.
"The most profound act the state does is put people to death," Lieber said.
"It's as vivid in my mind as it was then," she said. Ray Allen was 76 years old at the time. Lieber said she was prepared for a scene akin to watching a grandparent die peacefully. Instead it "looked like the premeditated killing of a human." She said that after watching the lethal injection, and sitting with Allen's family in the waiting room, she couldn't eat solid foods for a month.
With several other Assembly members, Lieber sponsored a state bill that would have put a moratorium on the death penalty. It failed, but Lieber says getting a bill passed isn't always necessary for it to be effective; sometimes it works as a way to get people talking about an issue. Similarly, Lieber's notorious "anti spanking" bill, which would make spanking children a crime in certain circumstances, caused national furor, with many calling Lieber a crazy childless liberal from California.
"Everyone talks about the spanking thing" as if it was negative, said Kasperzak. "But she got people talking about it."
"Sally and I disagree politically on some things," he added, "But I would never accuse Sally of taking the safe way out."
Lieber often took on the issues that other legislators wouldn't touch. She told her staff that "I don't want to take up bills sponsored by wealthy corporations," she said. "The most vulnerable should have the best representation."
Lieber is an admitted workaholic. In the state Assembly, she says, she worked seven days a week, often until midnight, taking only Sunday afternoons off. "If you aren't draining every day dry, you shouldn't be in public office," she said.
In Mountain View, one of her passions was mobile home parks. During her time on the council, Sahara Mobile Village in Mountain View was a battleground between angry residents and owner John Vidovich. Lieber eventually enacted a state bill that would give protections to mobile home park residents.
Sahara Mobile Village was also the source of one of her more cherished memories. While knocking on doors during the state Assembly race she met Dorothy Morita, an elderly Japanese-American woman who was interned during World War II. Morita told Lieber that the thing she regretted most was not being able to finish high school before being interned. Lieber considered drafting a bill just for Morita, but after getting advice from Congressman Mike Honda, she passed a state bill that gave high school diplomas to every formerly interned Japanese American in California. Morita received hers where she would have received it in 1942: Canoga Park High School in Los Angeles.
When Morita passed away, Lieber recalls, "Almost the whole funeral was about 'Dorothy's Law.'" Lieber came to the funeral and said, "Your mother was a hero, really."
After working hard for the past decade, Lieber jokes that it makes her exhausted just thinking about it all. Before terming out two months ago, Lieber rose to speaker pro-tempore in the Assembly -- the highest-ranking political level, she has said, that any Mountain View resident has achieved.