Otto Lee refocuses on public health and housing in race for supervisor
Otto Lee at work in his Milpitas-based Campaign office. Photo by Carina Woudenberg

Otto Lee is making his second run at a seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

Twelve years ago he lost in an election against Dave Cortese. But with the District 3 supervisor term-limited and seeking higher office, Lee finished a close second — by a margin of less than 2,000 votes — in a four-way primary in March.

The former Sunnyvale councilman and mayor hadn’t run in a local race in more than a decade, so Lee said his campaign organized a massive door-knocking operation that reached 17,000 households in the district. Lee, his wife and three daughters were out ringing doorbells together at more than 4,000 houses in the days leading up to the primary.

Otto Lee

Since then, he’s picked up some high-profile support, including labor leader Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the National Farmworkers Association, and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Congressman and San Jose Mayor Norm Mineta.

After the primary, COVID-19 and the public health orders that followed put an end to the usual ways of campaigning.

“Shaking hands and kissing babies is illegal now,” Lee joked.

So he had to get creative by relying more on social media to get his message out. Lee says his campaign invested in four mailers sent to voters before Election Day. Campaigning by mail is more traditional than Twitter and Instagram, but it is also expensive. He’s hoping that investment pays off because more voters will vote by mail this year.

“If we could knock on doors right now that would be great because everybody is home,” Lee said. “But it’s just not safe for our volunteers or for voters right now and we don’t want to spread the disease.”

The pandemic not only hampered the campaign process, Lee said, it also caused him to re-evaluate his priorities — renewing his focus on affordable housing and putting public health on his list of urgent issues to address.

Affordable housing and homelessness prevention

“The need for more affordable housing has become more clear, and its consequences more dire since COVID,” Lee said.

The pandemic caused an economic crisis that is hurting landlords and tenants alike. During an interview with San José Spotlight, Lee floated the idea of a countywide rent relief program to help tenants catch up on rent they couldn’t pay during the early months of shelter-in-place and provide ongoing assistance for those still suffering from the economic downturn brought on by COVID-19.

Whatever form such a program would take, Lee said the purpose and effect must be to keep people housed, not just provide financial relief.

“We would want to make sure the back rent goes to the landlord and that tenants don’t take the money and run,” Lee said. “But we also want to be sure that landlords don’t take that money and then evict the tenants.”

Focus on public health

“We’re all waiting for a vaccine, but in the meantime we have to consider what we can do,” Lee said.

The county should double its public education campaigns promoting the use of masks and face coverings to prevent the spread of the virus, he added.

“People are sick and tired of being isolated,” Lee said. “We are social creatures and without those public health reminders, we can start to go back to our old ways.”

Lee also said it is a good idea for the county to promote the use of pulse oximeters — an inexpensive device that measures a person’s blood oxygen levels. The device can be used as an early warning indicator of respiratory symptoms associated with COVID-19.

And when the vaccine does come, sometime after Election Day, Lee says the county’s public health department will be responsible for ensuring it is distributed equitably according to need

“The county will have a huge role to play in distributing a vaccine when it finally comes and we need to make sure that it is distributed fairly and not only to people with means,” Lee said.

‘Independent thinker’

Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg has known Lee for a decade. In that time, Ellenberg told San José Spotlight she’s been “continually impressed by his intelligence, thoughtfulness and his balanced approach to issues.”

That temperament will serve him well if he is elected to the board, Ellenberg said. As an “independent thinker,” Lee will give careful consideration to all the potential outcomes of decisions he makes, she added.

“A lot of complicated and nuanced issues come before our board,” the supervisor said. “Otto will think through the consequences, intended and unintended, of every action we take and use that to make the best decision. We’d be lucky to have someone like him on the board.”

Lee has raised $638,017 in 2020, according to finance reports, and spent $559,883 on his campaign this year through Sept. 19.

He’s headed into a match-up against Assemblyman Kansen Chu on Nov. 3.

IN HIS OWN WORDS

“What’s the most important lesson you learned in 2020 and how has it prepared you for this role?”

AT A GLANCE
Name: Otto Lee
Age: 53
Family: Married, 3 daughters
Political affiliation: Democrat
Education: UC Berkeley; UC Hastings; Leiden University, The Netherlands
Profession: Intellectual property attorney, retired U.S. Navy commander
Current or previous elected or appointed positions: Sunnyvale City Council, County Blue Ribbon Commission for Custodial Operations
Top 3 priorities: Affordable housing, homelessness and protect public health & behavioral health, COVID-19 recovery
Top 3 endorsements: Civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, former Congressman and San Jose Mayor Norm Mineta, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo
Special talent: Cooking. In addition to BBQ ribs, crepes and tiramisu, I learned a few new recipes during COVID-19, including cooking bitter melon and steamed fish with ginger/scallion
In one sentence, why vote for you? “Through compassion, equity and justice, to ensure our county public safety net is helping our most vulnerable populations with affordable housing, accessible quality health care and efficient public transportation.”

Contact Adam F. Hutton at [email protected] or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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