What Otto Lee’s election means for Santa Clara County
Otto Lee is at work in his Milpitas-based campaign office in this file photo.

    After 12 years on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, Dave Cortese heads to Sacramento today to be sworn in as a state senator while former Sunnyvale Mayor Otto Lee takes part in his first meeting as a county supervisor for District 3.

    What do the coinciding actions mean for the political leanings of the five-member Board of Supervisors, which finds itself grappling with a budget shortfall in the hundreds of millions and a record number of people getting sick during a global pandemic?

    Supervisors are tightening their coffers by approving layoffs and continue to focus on getting COVID-19 under control. But thousands are still homeless, the region is facing another shelter-in-place order and grappling with systemic racism with calls for police reform and accountability.

    But political analysts say Lee won’t govern much differently than Cortese — and there won’t be a major political shift on the board, unlike at the cities of San Jose and Santa Clara which both saw voters oust mayor-backed incumbents and flip political power away from their respective mayors.

    “In the big picture, this change is not a major shake-up. (Cortese and Lee) are both Democrats, and both share some similar policy views on some of the big issues in terms of COVID-19 response, homelessness and housing and climate,” said Garrick Percival, political science professor at San Jose State University.

    Percival noted some small differences between the men when it comes to fiscal policies, including revenue sourcing: Cortese advocated for raising taxes, such as a $950 million housing bond in 2016 to combat homelessness, while Lee believes Silicon Valley’s big businesses need to step up and help.

    Lee said he’ll hit the ground running; he has interviewed 40 people for eight to 10 positions on his team.

    “Some things don’t change that much when it comes to serving the public and being reachable to constituents,” Lee told San José Spotlight. “Those are things that we’ll have to do on a day-to-day basis.”

    Sunnyvale only comprises about 7% of the county’s population, and Lee acknowledged his learning curve is steep. The amount of information coming at him is “like drinking from a fire hose,” and his first few months will be difficult as the county struggles to balance its budget.

    “Trying to manage under these circumstances is tough,” Lee said. “We’re going to have to make decisions of (more) potential layoffs. We’re going to have to look at taking away positions.”

    The county is the public safety net and has a duty to serve its residents, Lee said. In the middle of a pandemic, he said, strong county leadership is more essential than ever.

    “He’s coming into a time where there’s a lot of tough decisions and he won’t have time to come up to speed — he will have to jump in right away,” Percival said.

    Lee said he sees a light at the end of the tunnel with the incoming Biden-Harris administration. The county earned a reputation for filing lawsuits against the Trump administration, particularly over immigration policies, and leaders feared federal funding could be threatened.

    “We can get more help. I think they understand California’s issues far better than the current administration,” Lee said.

    “I have no illusions about what I’m headed into. I’m not planning on taking any vacations,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese while campaigning for state Senate. Photo courtesy of Dave Cortese.

    Cortese’s legacy

    Fellow supervisors Cindy Chavez and Susan Ellenberg said Cortese’s legacy as a supervisor included his work on homelessness.

    “The work that Dave has been able to stand up and support during his time with the county will have a lasting impact,” Ellenberg said. She plans to continue Cortese’s work on criminal justice reform, homelessness and more.

    “Serving as a state senator may be the ultimate challenge in my political career,” Cortese told San José Spotlight. “Fortunately I’m going there at a point in time in my career where I have lots of experience, lots of learning that I’ve acquired… I think I’m as equipped as I’m going to be to deal with these kind of challenges.”

    Cortese started his political career as a trustee on the East Side Union High School District board in 1992 and joined the San Jose City Council in 2000. He was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2008, where he served as president for several years. In 2006 and 2014 he ran, unsuccessfully, for San Jose mayor.

    Cortese said he’s watched the homeless crisis boom during his past few decades in public office. Years ago, San Jose was home to the largest homeless encampment in the country — called The Jungle.

    “How could you have 300 or 400 homeless people living in a creek in something called The Jungle and not realize we had a problem?” Cortese said. “I was just finishing my first term as a supervisor and I thought the city and county both need to play a much larger role in this issue.”

    While Cortese championed expanding affordable housing across the county, he acknowledged the county’s shelter capacity is still lacking.

    “You can’t keep people in a creek for seven years waiting for their apartment to get built,” Cortese. “It doesn’t make sense and it’s inhumane.”

    Chavez noted she and Cortese “have broad appetites for policy.” As evidence of Cortese’s versatility, she pointed to his work on the region’s transit infrastructure. Cortese also helped design “school linked services” within local schools, a program that brings county-level mental health service to students in high-risk areas.

    “I really enjoyed working with (Dave), and we both ran against each other for mayor of San Jose,” Chavez said, referring to the 2006 race. “Even as an opponent, I appreciated him and what he stood for.”

    In a bit of advice for his successor, Cortese said new supervisors need to get their offices and schedules in order before setting out to tackle policy.

    “You know the largest 3-ring binders you can get at the store? We used to fill out three of those each week with calendar requests,” Cortese said. “I don’t think the president of the United States has any less of a scheduling challenge than what goes on in a county supervisor’s office.”

    Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] and follow her @MadelynGReese.

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