Since some local jurisdictions, both large and small, have changed from at-large to district elections, often as a result of a legal challenge, there has been a steep price to pay. The loss of several outstanding officials who still had much to offer. Here’s a recent list: Shelly Masur, Redwood City councilwoman, former elementary school board member, candidate for the State Senate. Redwood City’s new method of electing its council meant Masur ended up in the same new district as fellow councilwoman, Giselle Hale, who still has several years before her term is up unlike Masur whose term was up this year. In Menlo Park, Kirsten Keith, a major player in county affairs, lost her seat when the city changed to district elections. On the San Mateo County Community College Board of Trustees, the late Tom Mohr lost his seat to Richard Holober when the two were placed in the same district. Two years later, Dave Mandelkern, who brought a business perspective to the board, lost to colleague Maurice Goodman when the two had to run against each other in newly formed districts.
On the other hand, the change has ushered in new people, many of them minorities who would not have had the resources or the support to run districtwide. That’s the entire point of district elections and it has opened the door to a more diverse group of candidates.
In 1999, before district elections, there was no African American member on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors until the late supervisor Mike Nevin drove the appointment of Rose Jacobs Gibson to replace Ruben Barrales, the first elected Latino supervisor, who ran for state controller then later was appointed to a position in the Bush White House. Since the Board of Supes moved to district elections, there have been no minority candidates elected to the board but that is sure to change in the future.
Now a losing candidate for Millbrae City Council is demanding Millbrae move to district elections. He lost by around 40 votes. He sounds like a sore loser blaming his loss on having less money than the candidate who beat him. Both happen to be Asian Americans. If the city receives a legal challenge it will be because the current council is not sufficiently diverse. As Mayor Reuben Holober pointed out, Millbrae is a small city and not a large entity where district elections might make more sense. However, the best solution is reasonable term limits for the council. It’s hard not to support district elections when you have people serving decades. But with term limits, there are openings. In Millbrae, there is an eight-year limit although after sitting out a few years, some members decide to run again. But with four members of the council white and only one Asian when 48% of the city is Asian a change may be inevitable.
There have been rumors for years that San Mateo councilman and recent mayor Joe Goethals might be eyeing a run for San Mateo County district attorney. These started when Goethals worked in the DA’s office. Rumor has it he was asked to leave because he lost some cases. He is now in private practice.
Current DA Steve Wagstaffe plans to run for re-election in 2022. He was first elected in 2010. Goethals’ term also ends in 2022 and he could run for council for a third term. Goethals has led a coalition of progressive activists on the council which include colleagues Rick Bonilla and Amourence Lee. Assuming he did decide to take the plunge, he would count on the wave of young progressives in the county to help him take on a popular incumbent.
Goethals said there is a new breed of district attorneys throughout the country and in California who do not support the death penalty and are more inclined to give first offenders, depending on the crime, a second chance. He sees himself as part of that group. He is against the death penalty because “killing people is wrong and historically the death penalty has been used against people of color.” In 2016, Wagstaffe led the campaign to reform the death penalty, Proposition 66, when Proposition 62, to eliminate it, was on the ballot. The death penalty was upheld but in our county 57.47% voted in favor of Proposition 62. Recently Wagstaffe said his views on the death penalty were evolving.
Meanwhile, the former mayor is looking forward to a quieter life in 2021, spending more time with his young family, and practicing law in Terry Anderlini’s office in San Mateo. No decision yet on 2022. Stay tuned.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.