Experience may be the deciding factor in the Mountain View City Council race, with early election results showing current and former council members leading the pack.
With more than half the votes counted at 9 a.m. Thursday morning, incumbent Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga held a sizable lead in the field of nine candidates with 11,991 votes, or 16.9% of all votes counted. Former Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, who previously served on the council, took second place with 9,985 votes (14.1%), followed by incumbent Councilwoman Lisa Matichak at 9,089 votes (12.8%) and former Councilwoman Pat Showalter at 8,427 (11.6%).
The top four vote-getters will serve on the council, and will be sworn into office in January next year.
Closely behind Showalter are candidate Alex Nunez, a community activist, with 7,967 votes (11.6%), former Councilman Lenny Siegel with 6,654 votes (9.7%) and Mountain View Whisman School District board member Jose Gutierrez with 6,648 votes (9.6%). Trailing the pack are John Lashlee at 5,007 votes (7.2%) and Paul Roales at 4,156 votes (6%).
Mountain View's council race was guaranteed to result in a change of leadership Tuesday night. Council members John McAlister and Chris Clark are both termed out of office this year, leaving two of the four seats up for election undefended by an incumbent.
Though Mountain View's incumbents have traditionally enjoyed an advantage over challengers and, with few exceptions, have retained their seats, that hasn't always been the case. That conventional wisdom was tested in the November 2018 election, when Showalter and Siegel both lost their bids for reelection, with Showalter losing her seat by only 97 votes.
The 2018 results may prove to be an anomaly, however, with early results from this year's high-turnout election favoring Abe-Koga and Matichak by a strong margin.
Abe-Koga said she believes she has shown bold leadership in difficult times, and that the current results show that voters and residents reflect that confidence. She ran on a platform of an experienced leader on the council -- now seeking her fourth term -- and her past experience serving as mayor following the 2008 financial crisis.
"It's helpful and it's important to have that continuity and I believe that's why the voters have chosen to let me continue," Abe-Koga said. "I believe that the results so far show that experience matters."
Though a key part of Abe-Koga's campaign strategy -- knocking on doors and meeting voters face-to-face -- was impossible during the pandemic, she said she still walked precincts with volunteers two or sometimes three times over, and people did seem to enjoy talking about issues facing the city.
Lieber said she was excited to have a chance to return to the council after a two-decade hiatus, and that she expects to hit the ground running. Residents are facing significant challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic, and she worries about an impending rental housing crisis. Looking at Tuesday night's results, Lieber said she is confident that next year's council will be able to cover a lot of ground.
"I think we're going to have a council that's going to be able to work together in a very seamless way to meet these challenges that are coming up," she said.
Lieber was the only candidate in the City Council race to face an opposition campaign from outside groups, which appears to have been ineffective, she said.
"I think many of the voters in Mountain View know me, and they know more about me than the special interests from outside of the community as well," she said.
Showalter said she is cautiously optimistic about the results Wednesday morning, giving credit to the unusually high number of volunteers who helped her on the campaign trail, including students and members of the Mountain View Housing Justice Coalition. She said she feels prepared to rejoin the council in January and help the city bounce back from the pandemic.
"We really need to do whatever we can to get our community through COVID-19," Showalter said. "I think that the current council has done a really good job with that but we need to continue with it. I'm excited about the prospect of that."
Unlike past campaigns, Showalter said something was lost in meeting constituents during the pandemic, which prohibited large gatherings and social events. Normally you get a strong feeling for what voters care about, she said, but it was harder to get that feedback this year.
"I felt very isolated just doing things through Zoom and getting together in exceedingly small groups of two or three at most," she said.
Some issues united candidates on the campaign trail. Every one of them supported at least some vision for higher housing growth in the city, including the North Bayshore and East Whisman areas, and every candidate supported a COVID-19 recovery strategy that involved leveraging city resources to save struggling businesses and renters.
But some hot-button issues divided the field. On rent control, all of the challengers said they supported the city's rent control law, the Community Stabilization and Fair Rent Act (CSFRA), while incumbents Abe-Koga and Matichak had historically opposed CSFRA and remain worried about unintended consequences of the law. Both point to a lack of incentives for property owners to maintain older apartments, and the worry that rent-controlled units will simply be torn down and replaced with for-sale homes. Other candidates offered much stronger support for rent control, and varied in how they would go about expanding rent control protections to mobile homes.
Measure C, the city's proposed ban on oversized vehicles on narrow city streets, also split the field. Gutierrez, Roales, Abe-Koga and Matichak supported Measure C, while Showalter, Siegel, Nunez, Lashlee and Lieber opposed the measure.
Siegel, who appeared to be headed for defeat Tuesday, said the initial results are "disappointing" but that he is heartened to see that progressive challengers won seats alongside the incumbents. He said some people may attribute his loss to his opposition of Measure C, the city's prohibition on RV parking, but Tuesday's election hardly amounts to a referendum on his views.
"Three of the candidates with more votes than me also worked against Measure C," Siegel said. "Moreover, I remain proud of the referendum effort. I still believe that it's wrong to drive out hundreds of vehicle residents when there is no place for them to go."
Abe-Koga and Matichak have also been less aggressive than other candidates on housing growth. Abe-Koga has repeatedly raised concerns about building out North Bayshore with the maximum 9,850 housing units zoned for the area -- arguing that it needs more infrastructure to be a self-sustaining neighborhood -- while Matichak has been tough on developers with regard to parking and park space.
Contrasting with those views, Showalter was considered a champion for housing growth while on the council from 2014 to 2018, and gained the reputation for being the councilwoman who never disliked a housing project that came before her.
In a statement Wednesday, Lashlee said he was proud of his campaign volunteers who dropped off campaign literature, made calls and sent text messages in support of his candidacy for the City Council. The results so far show it's unlikely he will win, he said, but that he would remain civically engaged and a staunch supporter of progressive ideas.
"I wish the results were different, but I remain committed to advocate for the principles I ran on, including affordable housing, police reform, increased aid during the pandemic, and environmental sustainability," Lashlee said.