Lee served on the Sunnyvale City Council from 2003 to 2011, rotating into the role of mayor in 2006 and 2007 and leading the charge on environmental issues. But his 28 years of service in the U.S. Navy Reserve, is what he says best equips him for public office.
Over the last two weeks, San Jose Inside has given readers a look at the primary contests for five on the San Jose City Council: District 2, District 4, District 6, District 8 and District 10. With just a few days to go until Election Day, this installment will focus on the most closely watched race for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.
Supervisor Dave Cortese’s impending departure as the county’s District 3 representative has drawn a crowded field of aspiring successors. Namely, ex-San Jose Planning Commissioner John Leyba, Assemblyman Kansen Chu, San Jose Councilwoman Magdalena Carrasco and former Sunnyvale Mayor Otto Lee.
Here’s a guide to who they are, what they’re running for and what’s at stake.
Santa Clara County’s District 3 encompasses Milpitas, parts of Sunnyvale and the Alviso, East Foothills, Berryessa and Evergreen neighborhoods of San Jose. The diverse, expansive district touches the boundaries of Alameda and San Joaquin counties on its northern edges and meets Stanislaus County in the south.
After serving the maximum of three terms on the county board, Dave Cortese is making a bid for higher office with his campaign for the 15th State Senate District.
Fifty-two-year-old Otto Lee hopes to make a return to politics after nearly a decade away from local government. A dozen years ago, he made an unsuccessful bid for the District 3 supervisor seat, but says he decided to give it another shot in 2020 because of the many pressing issues in the county.
“I do not believe the resources are being spent very wisely by the county these years, honestly,” he says. "I do think there’s some adjustment we can do.”
Born in Hong Kong, Lee and his family moved to the United States at the age of 15. He graduated from the University of California Berkeley with a degree in chemical and nuclear engineering and eventually went on to earn a law degree from the University of California Hastings. For the past 21 years, he has worked as a patent attorney at a law firm he founded and resides in Sunnyvale with his wife Sally and their three daughters.
Lee served on the Sunnyvale City Council from 2003 to 2011, rotating into the role of mayor in 2006 and 2007 and leading the charge on environmental issues. But his 28 years of service in the U.S. Navy Reserve, is what he says best equips him for public office. In 2008, Lee spent a year in Baghdad, helping coordinate the return of 150,000 troops from Iraq back to the U.S.
That military service, which earned Lee a Bronze Star, has inspired some of his policy platform, he says. To wit: while in Baghdad, he lived in a 40-foot shipping container, which inspired him to think that the county should use them as cost-effective shelters for the homeless. “The hard part is finding a location where to put them,” he concedes. “I do think that the county is willing to identify the locations to put these boxes. It’s not just putting a box that matters, it’s also the wrap-around services that you need to provide.”
Like his opponents, Lee says he believes the county needs to ramp up services for people suffering from mental health issues and drug and alcohol addictions overall.
But he says his signature issue is sustainability.
As mayor of Sunnyvale, Lee was nicknamed the “green mayor” for his staunch environmentalism and advocacy for public transit. As a supervisor, he says he wants to improve public transportation by making it free to seniors and students, creating more bus lines and upping the frequency of those routes.
“In terms of public transportation, I think it’s failed,” Lee says. “I don’t use that term lightly. ... I think the idea is we need to really focus more on getting more folks on public transportation to make a system that is really serving the people.”
The county should also look at timing traffic lights better, he says, and building overdue infrastructure to lessen the congestion on expressways.
With four heavyweight names, San Jose State Political Science Professor Garrick Percival says the D3 supervisorial race is going to be a close one.
But he says he’s betting on Chu. “He’s served on the San Jose City Council,” Percival explains. “He has pretty high name recognition.”
It’s notable, Percival adds, that Chu decided to return from state to local government—something he says is pretty rare.
“Chu is one of a bunch of Democrats in Sacramento,” Percival says. “I think he feels like he can make a bigger difference at the county level.”
While Carrasco also is well-known, he says her current council district doesn’t cover much of the supervisor district, which could come at a disadvantage in terms of name recognition. As for Lee, Percival says his absence from the political arena for a long stretch of time could hurt his chances.