With all precincts reporting in Santa Clara’s District 1 race, Kathy Watanabe appeared to have maintained her City Council seat with 53.9% of the vote, or 1,964 votes, versus challenger Harbir Bhatia’s 46.1%, or 1,681 votes, as of midnight.
But challenger Kevin Park was ahead of longtime Santa Clara Councilmember Teresa O’Neill in District 4. With 100% of precincts reporting, Park had 57.4% of the vote, or 2,750 votes, while O’Neill trailed with 42.6%, or 2,040 votes.
“I actually am very happy about the campaign,” Park said. “I only took money from individuals, not special interests.”
The results of the race could dramatically shift the power balance on the City Council from an old guard of nearly all white candidates vowing to uphold norms to a diverse set of candidates aiming to bring a pragmatic mindset to Santa Clara politics.
O’Neill is an ally of Mayor Lisa Gillmor and if she loses the seat, Watanabe will be Gillmor’s sole ally on the City Council.
“I’m not very happy right now,” O’Neill said. “We’ve worked very hard and put all kinds of effort in and tried to get our message across. That’s not what you want to see.”
Park and candidates Suds Jains and Anthony Becker – who are now all frontrunners in their races – have advocated making amends with the San Francisco 49ers and maintaining Santa Clara’s district system.
These goals run counter to the City Council’s actions, which has wedged Santa Clara in a stalemate with the 49ers over stadium management and an appeal against a California Voting Rights Lawsuit.
Councilmember Karen Hardy said the expected shift in the council will ensure more diverse representation in Santa Clara.
“I teach at Wilcox High School. We have 52 native languages,” Hardy said. “I’ve been concerned we don’t have those type of voices on City Council.”
She said the frontrunners would bring more diversity in thought to the City Council.
“I’ve known them for years. They’re very smart, they worry, they’re concerned, they’re responsible and they’re independent and that’s what’s important,” Hardy said. “I don’t want somebody who’s always going to agree with me. In fact, I love it when someone argues with me because it clarifies what’s important.”
Watanabe has been a councilmember since she was appointed in 2016 to serve District 1, which includes Levi’s Stadium, California’s Great America and the Santa Clara Convention Center.
Throughout the campaign, she vowed to continue fighting for the goals of Santa Clara’s current leadership, which includes battling the 49ers over financial transparency, stadium management and event curfews.
Watanabe said she and her fellow councilmembers ensured Santa Clara could survive the toll of COVID-19, and the city has been sufficiently prepared for the imminent recession because of the budget reserves it has built up during her time on council.
The Santa Clara Police Union has endorsed Watanabe and its political action committee received $25,000 to support her, Robert Mezzetti, Councilmember Teresa O’Neill and candidate Bob O’Keefe. The donation, from a developer, was used to produce mailers and ads for the candidates who were all backed by the mayor.
Watanabe raised $7,258 and spent $5,468.51 through Oct. 23, according to campaign finance reports.
Watanabe’s opponent, meanwhile, earned the 49ers’ endorsement. Bhatia said Santa Clara needs to improve services for businesses and build corporate partnerships to provide rent relief.
Bhatia, 49, a community organizer and entrepreneur, campaigned on diversifying thought and bringing a new approach to making decisions for the city.
“I know a lot of people believe that there always has to be one that has to be a loser,” she said shortly before the polls closed. “I think that’s a mindset we have to do away with because what it makes you feel is you are rejected or you are lost and that loses your spirit.”
As Santa Clara has wedged itself in a stalemate with the 49ers over management of Levi’s Stadium, the team poured $3 million into a political action committee supporting Bhatia, Park, Anthony Becker and Suds Jain — all newcomers.
Bhatia said she aims to find a way to compromise with the 49ers.
Bhatia raised $17,182 and spent $15,621 this year through Oct. 23, according to campaign finance reports.
Park campaigned on bridging a divided City Council, said city leaders need to be more pragmatic about their relationship with the 49ers and stop butting heads. The team endorsed him.
But he slammed back at the idea that the 49ers support was the only reason for his win.
“I think it’s unfair to the candidates that did put in all this work to say that it was the 49ers push that meant everything,” Park said. “I’m not going to say the 49ers push, their support didn’t help us, but at the same I didn’t count on their support to win. I did everything I could to run my own campaign.”
Park said stop the feuding that has plagued the council for years.
Over the past 22 years, O’Neill, 65, has served as a school board member, planning commissioner and city councilmember. She campaigned on that experience as well as on her fiscal management skills.
While O’Neill said her budget management skills have helped the city have enough reserves to survive the pandemic, Park said the city needs to establish more centralized resources for businesses and residents.
To resolve the city’s conflict with the 49ers, O’Neill said the football team needs to be more transparent about its finances and operations.
Both Park and O’Neill, however, say the city should contract with a third-party company to manage Levi’s Stadium.
To support businesses throughout the pandemic, Park said the city needs to help establish a more centralized chamber of commerce that focuses on Santa Clara.
Contact Mauricio La Plante at [email protected] or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.