Lenny Siegel first arrived in the Bay Area to study physics as a Stanford undergrad. He never graduated -- instead the young activist found his true calling in the raucous politics of the time. The student protest movement was gaining steam, and every aspect of society seemed to be crying out for change: civil rights, the environment, and especially the war in Vietnam.
It was a time of shattering windows with rocks, student walk-outs and occupying campus buildings. For Siegel, as a leader in the university's chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society, it was when he learned the art of political compromise: tempering, negotiating and partnering with myriad factions toward a common goal.
For Siegel, the tumultuous days of the student protest movement were the crucible that forged his political beliefs and strategy, which he says have remained mostly unchanged for the last 50 years. Now the dyed-in-the-wool community activist will be jumping into the big seat of Mountain View government. On Tuesday night, Siegel was unanimously voted in as the city's mayor for 2018 by his City Council colleagues, and Lisa Matichak was selected to serve as vice mayor.
Accepting the new role, Siegel promised a similar spirit of cooperation to work with his colleagues for the betterment of Mountain View as well as the greater region.
"It should be clear by now that I consider Mountain View a leader. We're a leader in how our city operates," he said. "I expect there to be differences among the seven of us on the council, but it's my hope we'll approach each issue on its own right."
Stanford genetics professor Leonore Herzenberg was involved in many of the same university campus activist groups as Siegel. As a young student leader, he was "brilliant," she said.
"He was always sensible about what could be accomplished politically, what made sense to work on, and how to form coalitions," she said. "Intellectually, he was able to grasp and deal with all these groups, and I think he was only 18-and-a-half at the time."
Those qualities will be tested by the city's upcoming challenges. Siegel pledged cooperation with the city's stakeholders, ranging from individual homeowners and small businesses to big-time developers and corporations.
Asked about his goals, Siegel singled out transportation as his top priority. The city already has a slate of ambitious transportation initiatives, including projects to rebuild the downtown transit center and design an automated transit line using cutting-edge technology. On top of those projects, Siegel said the city needed to go further.
He pointed out that Mountain View needs to strengthen its coordination with its neighboring cities. A new automated transit line would be nice for Mountain View, but it would make much more sense to plan ahead for a system that would expand out to Sunnyvale and perhaps Cupertino, he said. The Highway 85 corridor with its unused median would be the obvious place for this transit line to go, he said.
The problem is the same for many of the North County cities, Siegel said. Prosperous tech companies are overwhelming the transportation infrastructure, and they need to be part of the solution, he said. He singled out Apple and Google as companies that will need to do more. Both corporations have an incentive, since the area's problematic transportation and housing is hindering their ability to hire and retain talented employees, he said.
"My hope would be to engage Apple and Google since they both have more money than God, and this is problem that they need to solve," Siegel said. "Our leverage is that this is clearly in their interest."
The other big player that Mountain View would need to approach is the Valley Transportation Authority, which controls billions of dollars in government transit funding. Recently, VTA officials have proposed using the Highway 85 median to add an express traffic lane or possibly an extension of the light-rail system. In any scenario, Mountain View will be in a better position to negotiate with VTA if it partners with other cities first, Siegel said.
Today's hot-button issues such as gentrification, housing affordability and transit planning are nothing new for Siegel. Back during his student activist days, he was part of a group called Grass Roots that published pamphlets and materials on local land-use planning. Some of their materials from nearly 50 years ago seem downright prophetic, such as early warnings about a growing jobs-housing imbalance in the Palo Alto area.
It has been an unsteady transition for Siegel to go from campus protester to political player. After he left college, Siegel first joined his wife, Jan Rivers, in Mountain View in 1972. About four years later, he made his first bid for a City Council seat and he came in 13th of out of field of 13 candidates.
It was the first of several ill-fated political campaigns during his younger years. He tried running again for council in 1980 and 1982, but both times he came up short. Around the same time, he also spearheaded two unsuccessful attempts to institute rent control in Mountain View, which made him no friends among the city's property owners. He has no regrets about thinking big.
"Things aren't worth doing unless you're pushing the envelope. If you're just voting yes or no, then you're not doing your job," he said.
His political ambitions found more success through other avenues. In 1978, he joined the city's planning commission and became intimately involved in the city's land-use planning. He continued pursuing some moonshot ideas that might seem quixotic. As planning commissioner, he unsuccessfully called for a moratorium on industrial development in North Bayshore, a proposal that would have vastly altered the city's tech industry. Later, when Moffett Field was closing down, he proposed using the runways for an expansive swath of new affordable housing.
In some ways, Siegel has been vindicated. Google is embarking on aggressive plans to build housing in North Bayshore while NASA is doing the same at Moffett Field. Meanwhile Mountain View voters approved a sweeping rent control program in hopes of curbing the area's skyrocketing housing costs.
Siegel's concerns about the Silicon Valley's mismatched growth has found a much wider following. In recent years, he launched the Campaign for a Balanced Mountain View, a grass-roots group with a singular focus on the regional jobs-housing imbalance that has become a force to be reckoned with in Mountain View politics.
In 1992, Siegel found his professional calling by launching the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, a watchdog group that monitors polluted sites. The organization, which he leads to this day, has been actively involved in the cleanup efforts at Moffett Field and other shuttered military bases across the country. Through that effort, the former anti-war activist has found himself frequently working hand-in-hand with military officials.
He said he hopes to take that same open mindset into his time as Mountain View's mayor. Like the rest of the City Council, he has been critical of the Trump Administration on issues such as human rights and immigration. But where possible, Siegel says he will remain open-minded about working with the federal government on shared concerns, such as reusing contaminated properties.
Siegel expects to have numerous people disagreeing with him, and he'd be dissappointed if that wasn't the case. He points to his Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, which values argument as the highest form of learning.
"I like hearing from people who disagree with me," he said. "As long as they'll allow me to push back."