Several recent articles have pointed to San Mateo’s changing demographics as the chief reason for the county’s shift toward more diverse leadership. A point that might be missed, however, is that white folks have not been the majority in San Mateo County for quite some time.
Since 1995, only one Latino — and not a single API — candidate has won a supervisor race in San Mateo. The single Black member was appointed to office. In response to a suit filed in 2011 to move to district elections, county officials claimed to The New York Times, “it had been the dearth of Asian and Latino candidates, rather than racially tinged voting patterns, that had led to a mostly white Board of Supervisors.”
San Mateo County to this day maintains the highest overrepresentation of white elected officials in the entire nine-county Bay Area region according to the Bay Area Equity Atlas. In other words, San Mateo County’s elected officeholders are the least reflective of the county’s demographics. Latinos for example, comprise 24% of the county but only 13% of its elected officials. Only 11% of elected office holders in the county identify as Asian-American or Pacific Islander compared to 26% of county residents as a whole.
So what, if anything, has changed in the past 10 years?
A number of elected officeholders continue to hold on to a sense of entitlement and are perceived as belonging to an exclusive club. “I paid my dues,” “no one is interested in the work we do anyway,” and “I was elected to maintain my community’s character (i.e., the status quo).”
While progress toward leadership being more responsive to and reflective of our actual demographics can appear excruciatingly slow, many currently elected indeed go to great lengths to hear from the diverse voices of their constituents and proactively work to demonstrate their relevance to the community every day.
In parallel, forces at work outside of the halls of government have increased pressure on the county’s leadership to embrace change.
The pandemic has opened many residents’ eyes to the inequities in funding for community services, health care and schools. It has initiated a new wave of demands for participation in the deliberations on how their tax dollars be spent in ways that start to mend the deep structural challenges we face.
Add to the mix, an increasingly diverse, tech-savvy younger demographic changing the civic dialogue and not waiting around for their leaders to become more responsive on their own. Neighbors seek out like-minded neighbors, connect and come together on issues impacting their daily lives via social media tools on their phones like never before.
The newly virtual format of governing board meetings has made the deliberative process more accessible. Frequent and organized public comment on issues like transit equity, housing affordability and green energy is now commonplace at city council meetings.
As disparities in COVID-19 vaccinations widened, community groups rallied together in Daly City, East Palo Alto, Belle Haven and North Fair Oaks to demand swift action from their elected leaders. Reach codes have been a rallying point for a loose coalition of concerned citizens to push for change in front of city councils.
Community-based organizations in turn are catalyzing residents to rally support for candidates who reflect shared values and mobilizing speakers for public comments as well as build a bench of future leaders by targeting appointed commission seats and training neighbors to be successful applicants.
There was a time when endorsements by incumbents and party leadership were voters’ lodestar. In more recent elections, voters take into consideration endorsed slates from a wide range of organizations. The process by which officeholders give endorsements is by no means standard with some offering support out of shared values and others for purely transactional purposes. As more voters weigh their options, being part of the status quo might not always carry the weight intended.
Yard signs and endorsements don’t win elections. Candidates, their local supporters, and volunteers do. In 2020, the election of newcomers Antonio Lopez in East Palo Alto, Lissette Espinoza-Garnica in Redwood City, Joaquin Jimenez in Half Moon Bay, and James Hsuchen Coleman in South San Francisco caught many by surprise by winning with fewer endorsements and campaign dollars against longtime incumbents.
All of this just goes to show it’s no longer up to the political establishment where we go from here.
There are so many encouraging signs getting us closer to a future with public office more accessible and reflective of the rich diversity of the county and for all residents to bring their knowledge and lived experience to policymaking at all levels.
Let’s keep up the good work.
David Pollack is a community organizer. He lives in San Carlos.