After losing to Supervisor Dave Cortese in 2008, former Sunnyvale Mayor Otto Lee is making another run for the District 3 seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.
This time around, Lee is running with the message that the county must act quickly to better address the region’s most pressing concerns of homelessness, lack of affordable housing and mental health.
As a teenager, Lee, 52, immigrated to California from Hong Kong with his family and worked in the restaurant industry with his parents. He studied chemical and nuclear engineering at UC Berkeley and continued on to study law where he specialized in intellectual property law — working for some high-profile clients such as the late musician Prince. Lee also served in the U.S. Navy for 28 years and earned a bronze star for helping to lead the drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Lee’s political career began in 1996 when he began serving on the Sunnyvale planning commission before being elected to the City Council in 2003 and serving a term as mayor. After watching Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, Lee decided he wanted to make environmentalism his political focus and was dubbed “the green mayor.”
Environmental activism and fighting homelessness
While serving as Sunnyvale’s mayor, Lee spearheaded a number of environmental initiatives, including the banning of single-use plastic bags in the city and creating higher environmental standards for commercial development projects.
If elected to the Board of Supervisors, Lee says homelessness and affordable housing will be his top priorities. He’s most interested in creating shorter-term solutions that will get people off the streets immediately.
“What is truly missing is the urgent solution,” Lee said. “Last year, 161 people died in the county on the streets… that’s a real issue.”
While serving in Iraq, Lee said he lived in a 40-foot container over the course of a year. He sees this as viable short-term solution for homeless residents, to provide a safe, comfortable place to sleep with shared utilities for toilets and laundry.
“I’d like to see a pilot project to try it out,” Lee said. “A container unit you can buy on Amazon for $5,000. It’s not expensive.”
According to recent financial disclosure forms, Lee’s campaign raised more than $317,000 in contributions.
Improving mental health care
Addressing mental health is another priority for Lee, saying he’d like patients to receive more immediate care and help understanding the services that are available to them. “You cannot expect someone who needs mental health to navigate through the myriad of county services,” Lee said.
Lee says he’d like to see the $80 million the county has collected through Proposition 63 for mental health put to use.
“The need is everywhere,” he said. “But clearly funding is not going toward the need and that’s a problem.”
Lee’s campaign manager Mark Tiernan ran Cortese’s campaign in the 2008 race when Lee initially ran for the seat. Over the years, Tiernan and Lee ran into each other at events and became friends.
“Otto ran a really tough campaign, a really honorable race,” Tiernan said. “We took him extremely seriously as an opposing candidate.”
Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg told San José Spotlight she supports Lee because of his commitment to environmentalism and the diversity he would bring to the board.
“I’ve known Otto for more than 25 years and have consistently been impressed with his civic engagement (and his) commitment to a really complicated law practice,” she said. “I think he will be a terrific addition to the Board of Supervisors.”
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Name: Otto Lee
Family: Married with 3 girls
Political affiliation: Democrat
Education: University of California, Berkeley, Hastings College of the Law and Rijksuniversiteit Leiden (Netherlands).
Profession: Founder and managing partner at Intellectual Property Law Group, registered patent attorney and U.S. Navy Supply Corps (retired).
Current or previous elected or appointed positions: Democratic National Committee member representing California, Sunnyvale City Council, mayor of Sunnyvale, Blue Ribbon Commission on Santa Clara County Custodial Operations, Sunnyvale planning commissioner
Top 3 priorities: Affordable housing, homelessness and transportation.
Top 3 endorsements: Santa Clara County Democratic Party, League of Conservation Voters, Assemblymember Evan Low, Santa Clara County Supervisors Susan Ellenberg and Joe Simitian
Special talent: Cooking. Otto loves to cook and has a very good BBQ sauce recipe, in addition to making “delicious crepes and Tiramisu.”
In one sentence, why vote for you? “I have the best combination of experience and independence, and a proven track record on public safety, finances and the environment.”