As the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors race heats up heading into its March, 2020, primary, one candidate who’s becoming more of a visible presence around Milpitas is former Mayor of Sunnyvale Otto Lee.
Lee was mayor there from ‘06 to ‘07, after having been elected to the Sunnyvale City Council in ‘03. He remained on the Council ‘til 2011. Prior to his Council service, he served for 5 years on Sunnyvale’s Planning Commission, during which time people kept telling him to try for the City Council. Not only did he try, he succeeded, and ever since that ‘03 turning point, his political ambition has been awakened.
In the District 3 Board of Supervisors race, Lee’s running against San Jose City Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco, Assemblymember Kansen Chu, and San Jose Planning Commissioner John Leyba.
Lee ran for the Board of Supervisors back in 2008, but came in second, losing to current Supervisor Dave Cortese. Cortese’s campaign manager at the time was Milpitas’ Mark Tiernan, who ironically became friends with Lee, his candidate’s opponent, during that race, dubbing Lee “the smartest guy in the room,” as well as a good guy overall. Although the man whom Tiernan deemed the smartest guy lost to Tiernan’s own candidate, this time around, things are different:
Tiernan is now Lee’s campaign manager. The two friends have morphed into colleagues.
Back in Sunnyvale, Lee got nicknamed “The Green Mayor.” With a smile, Lee pointed out that the name could be easily misconstrued as an insult, in that “green” can mean inexperienced and raw. In his case, though, the term was environmental in nature, as Lee’s chief focus as mayor was facing climate change.
He’d watched Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” around the time his mayoral term began, and found that it raised his awareness around climate change, and inspired him to frame it as an urgent priority. At the time, though, Lee faced some pushback from his City Manager, who said to him, “Hey, Otto, you know this global warming, it’s a fad, right?”
To which Otto thought, “Yeah, it’s only a fad for the next thousand years…”
Disagreement or not, they moved forward together on a few sustainability programs. Lee created Sunnyvale’s Green Ribbon Committee, with a focus on improving the city’s green footprint. As time went on, that committee evolved into a full-blown Sustainability Commission.
A lot of these bodies’ actions revolved around ensuring that the city engaged in environmentally conscious, green building projects. As Lee explained, building green not only helps the health of the ecosystem, it’s also a notable cost-saver. Solar panel prices, he pointed out, have dropped “like a rock” in the past decade. In addition to costing less, they’re more efficient than dated energy alternatives. So cities can save money while saving the environment.
Now Lee intends to implement such practices at the county level.
He would like to see a future in which all of Santa Clara County has clean energy options available to it, and he highlighted how city-by-city environmental measures, while a step in the right direction, aren’t as powerful as what can happen when a county embraces a more holistic approach. For example, in Sunnyvale, he helped to implement a ban on single-use plastic bags. Although the regulation moved the needle toward a cleaner environment, the truth was that people who were attached to the old way of doing things could always swing on over to Cupertino. Sometimes, unfortunately, cities with clashing regulations can end up at odds with one another.
Which is why Mr. Lee has widened his scope to all of Santa Clara County: “People don’t realize: Santa Clara County is huge. It’s got 15 cities.” In addition: “There are more and more people moving into our cities; jobs are here.”
As Tiernan pointed out, the county’s growing economy is leading to greater demands upon its energy resources. Fortunately, unlike when Lee started out his political career in Sunnyvale, there’s at least more agreement around the fact that climate change is happening, and is thus worthy of our shared attention. Said Lee, “It’s no longer a Democrat-Republican issue. I think everybody gets it.”
He’s also been amazed to see students working on assignments and science projects that tie in climate change as a central theme.
“You’re entitled to your opinion,” he said, “but you’re not entitled to your own set of facts.” He’s past the point of having the time or patience to debate the issue: “I believe in science, and not in just rhetoric.”
Among Lee’s proudest achievements as mayor was being a signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement. But he’s been frustrated to see the U.S. slip behind on the issue, pointing to China’s recent fast and efficient transition to all electric major city buses. Here at home, he hears about similar ideas, but they’re routinely preemptively delayed by decades: “Maybe in 2030, 2040, we’ll get electric,” he said, impersonating the drab tones of politics as usual. Or perhaps hybrid vehicles and natural gas will find themselves embraced in the U.S. faster than electric, in a more incremental approach. But such “solutions” still emit greenhouse gases, and Mr. Lee is strictly interested in measures that last.
“We don’t need to wait,” he said. “The status quo, to me, is not good enough.” And in reference to California and Santa Clara County, he added, “We can’t wait for the federal government to help us out; we’ve never done that.” Indeed, he added, we’ve been more inclined to sue them…
Born in Hong Kong, Lee has made his professional career as an intellectual property attorney, counting the late pop star Prince among his clients. Meanwhile, in addition to his legal and political work, he’s served for 20 years in the U.S. Navy (active and reserve duty), and was called to Iraq as our troops were headed home in 2009. Lee’s work there revolved around finessing regulations so as to get the troops home sooner.
While there, he came across a form of dwelling called Container Housing Units (CHU). These are essentially large containers, divided up into sections and made fit for people to live in. They’re cheap to construct, and comfortable enough to live in; in Lee’s case, overseas, the showers and toilets were contained in a nearby trailer.
Lee looks to CHUs for inspiration in terms of alleviating Santa Clara County’s homeless crisis. He estimates a five-figure cost for the construction of each one, and points out that since a lot of the homeless issue is tied up in land, solutions at the county level should be well within reach, since the county owns so much land. Without land cost as a meaningful issue, then, all the county really requires, in Lee’s view, is creativity.
“Get ‘em off the streets, get ‘em meals, get ‘em mental health treatment, and I’m absolutely convinced we would see improvement in their life.”
On a related note, he’s tuned into the region’s need for more affordable housing, framing housing as fundamentally an issue of supply and demand, and thus citing a need at the county level to up the amount of supply. In other words: more housing, as fast as we can get it.
In Lee’s mind, the above-discussed issues are all intertwined. He looks to his daughters — ages 14, 11, and 8 — and sees them growing up into a worse environment and a less fair economy than the one he and his wife of 15 years, Sally, got to come up in. His service, therefore, is to restore the balance, not only ecologically, but economically. If he wins the Board of Supervisors seat, he’ll step back from his law firm during his term, citing how the dozen attorneys there certainly managed to get along just fine during his year of service in Iraq: “Clearly I was dispensable!” he joked.
Self-deprecating humor is a key aspect of Otto Lee’s personality. Asked why he went into politics in the first place, he said he used to boil it down to 3 core traits: Curiosity, Naivete, and Stupidity. In other words, if one knows too much going in, one would never try. “It’s too hard!”
He also tends to downplay his own intelligence, declaring at one point, “I’m nowhere near the smartest guy in the room.”
“Actually,” Tiernan interjected with a straight face, “I would disagree with that.”