When Harbir Bhatia first came to the United States, she never envisioned drafting policy and working in government as part of the American dream.
But now, Bhatia is vying for the District 1 Santa Clara City Council seat against incumbent Councilmember Kathy Watanabe as the city is embroiled in a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit, tensions with a major football franchise and the indefinite toll of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bhatia, an immigrant from north India, said she felt people like her did not run for political office.
“This has nothing to do with race. It’s just a question of my immigrant mindset that I came here as a young person with my parents for the sake of making a better life and working toward the American dream,” she said. “And we should be just glad that we’re here and we get to live that American dream, but more recently, I think it’s become clearer that, no, that may be the wrong type of thinking.”
Bhatia moved to Santa Clara in 2004. She’s worked at numerous tech start-ups and served on Santa Clara’s cultural commission. Now she says she wants a role in shaping policy in the city.
Throughout her career in tech, Bhatia worked on missiles for Lockheed Martin and software program management for numerous companies in Silicon Valley.
Bhatia said she plans to bring her skills from tech and the private sector to evaluate how city programs and initiatives would affect the public.
Diversity on the council
Former Santa Clara Police Chief Mike Sellers, who endorsed Bhatia, said she’s willing to express her point of view — even if it differs from the majority — and still work with others.
“She’s willing to voice her opinion, which I really think is so important and needed right now, the independent voice,” Sellers said. “But she also understands the importance of collaboration. And I think that’s really, really important.”
He lamented that some city leaders seem unwilling to work with people who disagree with them and Bhatia could help the council diverge from its stalemates.
“The last four years or so I really have seen the council not working in a collaborative way,” Sellers said. “And for me, I would rather work together on projects. Have everybody have a good voice, an independent voice.”
Bhatia said it is time to diversify representation and thought on the City Council.
For years, the City Council has been predominantly white. Councilmember Raj Chahal is the only person of color on the dais.
“The consequence of not having a diverse council is the preventing of diverse thought, which in our case would allow us to use different ideas and methods of creating a prosperous city,” Bhatia said.
Representation, voting rights and race
Bhatia said Santa Clara leaders should have never appealed the California Voting Rights Lawsuit filed against the city over its at-large elections, forcing the city to split into six districts “Stop lawsuits that the public has really shown no need for,” she said. “We’re spending resources when we don’t have resources.”
The city faces more than a $34 million budget shortfall caused by the COVID-19 pandemic within the next four years, according to its financial forecast.
Bhatia said having six districts ensured minority and grassroots leaders would have a seat on the council.
“It’s about diversity in general because when you bring in diversity, you bring in diversity of thought.”
Although Bhatia said she’s avoiding centering her platform around her race, she still aims to address racial issues.
The continuous legal battles between the San Francisco 49ers and Santa Clara have devolved into a stalemate that needs to end, Bhatia said.
The 49ers and City Council continually feud over the stadium’s curfew, rent and public safety costs.
Santa Clara lawmakers have been unwilling to work with the 49ers and need to be more open-minded toward the team, Bhatia said.
“Their attitude is that ‘If you don’t bend to me, I will not work with you,'” she said. “Well, you know, the first thing you have to start looking at is if they don’t win, then we don’t win. What that means is that if we don’t get that that economic engine turning and turning, they are not going to get any money. And we’re not going to get any money.”
Bhatia said she was opposed to the football team coming to Santa Clara at first. But to appease residents and the NFL franchise, the City Council must assess the team’s and residents’ needs more sufficiently.
“My approach would be saying, ‘Look, these are the genuine concerns, but if you want to be successful and make money off of this product or asset that you have, then we also need to take care of X,Y, Z things,” Bhatia said.
COVID-19 toll on housing, business
The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a toll on both landlords and tenants, Bhatia said, and city leaders must create a sustainable rent relief program for tenants to keep their homes and landlords to keep their income.
She also intends to work with corporations in the city to assist with rent relief.
“We need to work with our billion-dollar corporations and get their help to put these grants into some larger funds that allow us to provide rent relief,” Bhatia said.
In order to assist businesses struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic, she said the city must improve its permitting process for outdoor operations.
“There was a lady who is a friend of my one of my supporters, and she was having to pay like some $200 every day for using a parking spot,” Bhatia said. “And I was like, ‘That’s pathetic. How come it appears that a hair stylist has to pay $200 just to keep that spot every day that she is using that space? That’s senseless. So I think we need to look at our policies.”
From Jan. 1 to Sept. 19, Bhatia raised $14,062 for her campaign and spent $3,435, according to campaign finance reports.
IN HER OWN WORDS
AT A GLANCE
Name: Harbir Bhatia
Family: I don’t have kids of my own, but my sister’s and the community’s kids make me feel like I do.
Political affiliation: Democrat
Education: Masters in Engineering Management from Santa Clara University 2004, Bachelors In Electrical Engineering from University of Toledo, 1995/96.
Profession: Tech management and community benefits consulting
Current or previous elected or appointed positions: Santa Clara Cultural Commissioner
Top 3 priorities: Sustainable future: economic recovery and revenue generation, climate solutions, financial management, digital transformation and data Insights; livable and enjoyable city: affordable housing for youth, seniors, working families, workforce retraining, greater inclusion, infrastructure; community engagement and collaboration: transparency, more awareness, increased participation and empowerment, partnering for outcomes.
Top 3 endorsements: My parents, the youth and Democratic Party
Special talent: Building bridges of understanding to create win-wins, especially across interfaith and multicultural communities.
In one sentence, why vote for you?: “My unique background in technology, management and community organizing with an innovative, inclusive, analytical and collaborative mindset allow me to be the uniquely qualified candidate for our new reality and a highly volatile future that demands fresh perspectives and civic entrepreneurs, not politicians-as-usual.”
Contact Mauricio La Plante at [email protected] or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.