With Santa Clara County’s official and final election results verified, it will soon be time for cities across the county to swear in new council members. But in Mountain View, the ceremony will come with a sense of deja vu: the three incumbents, who were sworn in side by side after winning in 2018, were all reelected Nov. 8 and are set to serve another four-year term together.
Council members Lucas Ramirez, Alison Hicks and Ellen Kamei are slated to be sworn in at the council’s Jan. 10 meeting, when the council will also decide who will serve as the city's mayor and vice mayor for 2023.
While the incumbents walked away with a clear victory, collectively earning more than 80% of the vote, their names weren’t alone on the ballot. Two newcomers, Li Zhang and Justin Cohen, each threw their hats in the ring just days before the filing deadline, which made for a more dynamic election season than if the incumbents had been shoe-ins.
“If there had not been a campaign, there would have been a number of items that we wouldn’t have been able to think about in a public form as easily,” Ramirez said in a post-election interview.
Ramirez said one of the concerns that surfaced leading up to the election was the proposed rezoning of a couple of shopping centers in the city.
“I can understand why that may have been concerning to the community, and the campaign gave us an opportunity to let the public know that the general plan already allows for this, that it was a state-mandated change to help implement our own general plan,” he said. “Similarly, there were a lot of important conversations about the R3 update.”
Plans to update the city’s R3 zoning district – the areas where multi-family residential developments are allowed – became a central point of concern for Zhang’s campaign. Though Zhang didn’t earn enough support to snag a seat on council, her unease around the city’s rate of growth resonated with nearly 6,700 voters.
Reflecting on the election, Zhang said she was surprised by how much support she received from residents whom she had never met before.
“When the election was over, I got a lot of messages and emails (from supporters),” Zhang said in an interview. “Losing the election was not a good feeling, but people reached out to me to encourage me to run again.”
Zhang said she will likely make another run for council, and until then, she plans to get civically involved in other ways, like serving on the Livable Mountain View steering committee and joining Carbon Free Mountain View.
Fellow newcomer Cohen was less certain about whether he’d try again next election season – he gives it about a 50/50 chance, he told the Voice in an interview. Cohen ran on an unorthodox platform, proposing a direct democracy system where residents would vote on every issue he'd face on the council. He promised voters that his vote would align with whatever the majority voted for, making him more of a vessel for popular opinion than an elected representative.
Cohen stands by direct democracy, but there are things he would have done differently in his campaign if he could have a do-over, he told the Voice.
“My idea of direct democracy, it doesn’t involve me and my opinions. That’s how it works,” he said. “But to get elected in the first place, I first need to get voted in, so for that reason the people need to know my name. Ideally, it wouldn’t say my name on the ballot, it would say direct democracy, but the system doesn’t allow that.”
In retrospect, Cohen said he wishes he had run a more public campaign and gotten to know the voters better: “Maybe put up some signs or something, and hand stuff out, like what the other candidates were doing,” he said.
Ramirez said his biggest takeaway from the 2022 election season is the importance of running a strong field campaign – both for incumbents and newcomers.
“I think it’s always easier for an incumbent because we have name recognition and infrastructure from previous campaigns,” he said. “But for those of us who have run before, Ellen and I were not successful in our first campaigns (in 2016), and came back stronger in our next ones. I think that can be true for others as well.”
Hicks said a highlight of campaigning in 2022 was getting to interact with the public in person again. She particularly enjoyed the ice cream socials put on by various neighborhood associations in Mountain View.
“A lot of the people who go are people with very young children, and I always enjoy those,” she said. “I enjoy talking about safe routes to school. The ability to bike with their family was a theme that I heard a lot that I didn't hear the last time I campaigned.”
With the council slated to return to in-person meetings in January (while still offering a virtual option for the public), Hicks said she’s excited to get back some of the community interaction that was lost during the pandemic.
“We’ve been virtual council members for the last three years,” she said. “We’re going to be working on a lot of outdoor things on our work plan, things like making our car-free downtown better, or parks and open space, or heritage trees. So I’m kind of feeling a theme of people out with people again, and working with them to make our outdoor spaces better.”
But COVID-19 is still among us, and many aspects of the 2022 election season remained virtual, like candidate forums and debates. With the pandemic still lingering, Kamei said running in 2022 felt a lot different than 2018.
“I never imagined when I ran four years ago that the majority of my time on council, three of the four years, would be virtual. This election cycle was still majority on Zoom,” Kamei said. “It wasn’t the 2020 election, which I would say was fully remote, but we still kind of felt the effects of the pandemic.”
But despite these challenges, Kamei said she believes Mountain View sets an example for other cities in how to run a healthy democracy.
“We have different perspectives, but everybody at the end of the day just cares about making Mountain View the best place it can be,” she said. “We’re really fortunate to be in Mountain View.”