Consider the case of one Ling Kong.
Kong’s running for the open Milpitas Unified School District (MUSD) School Board seat in March, 2020’s Special Election. The seat was initially vacated when Former Board Trustee Daniel Bobay relocated to Texas. During the course of an at turns bumpy, haphazard, inept, thoughtful, seemingly well-intentioned, and yet consistently frustrating process, the Board elected Minh Ngo to the seat. Kong was the runner-up. A protest erupted, fueled in part by an activist group called Better Milpitas, which, though it bears a website peppered with questionable “facts,” may or may not still be in existence. (More on them in just a moment.)
Those in protest cited corruption, misconduct, and outright evil in the course of the Board’s decision-making. Full disclosure: I was there on the night of the appointment. It was not an easy thing to watch. Reason being, it was drawn-out. And that’s the polite way of putting it. Worse: The process unfolded in front of all 8 candidates, the fates of whom hung in the balance. Then-School Board President Chris Norwood later made a point, however (among other good ones): It was indeed part and parcel of the democratic process to handle everything out in the open.
Better Milpitas might well question that framing, dredging up minute, half-apparent details about scorecards, rubrics, and trustee whispers — all of which The Beat has covered exhaustively in prior stories. At the end of the night, Ngo got the seat in part because he said if he did not, he would still go ahead and run for a Board seat later on. Kong didn’t say likewise. Her commitment was questioned. Hence Ngo getting the seat.
But now Kong’s in it to win it. She’s actually running.
More disclosure: I think this controversy’s nonsense. I at times request that all mention of it under my own roof cease for just a little while. Yes, I was there that night. Yes, I found the process to be imperfect. No, nobody on Earth is perfect.
And no, in my opinion, the Board’s conduct on that night did not warrant the resulting petition for a special election.
But here’s the thing, and it’s perceptual: I’m on one side of history. I know the current Board Members. They’re all nice people. At a distance, it’s quite easy to demonize others. But in this 13-square-mile little city of ours, distance does not come easily…
This is not meant to delegitimize Kong as a candidate. Quite the contrary, here’s a woman with a sterling personal reputation. Her friends speak of her as though she’s a saint. Her friends indeed fired up the petition campaign! Meanwhile, I’ve heard from Kong myself many times. She reads this newspaper. She questions our details. I often disagree with her points of emphasis, but I’ve never for a moment been moved to feel that she’s an inch shy of razor sharp.
Problems abound, though, with her campaign, or at least the past conduct of her associates. And in my humble opinion (this being an Opinion column, after all), I think that for her to take the seat, she’s going to have to continuously embrace a highly positive tone. As of now, from my vantage point, on my distinct side of history, her campaign reads as at least somewhat insular, as though it’s embedded within a specific group.
Is that group Better Milpitas, or what remains of them now? Better Milpitas is not without its past victories, and thus not to be wisely ignored. They prevented Milpitas from opening up 10 cannabis shops (thanks a lot, guys!). They were instrumental, with Kong herself leading the charge, in pushing through those lovely garbage cans that we all spend 45 minutes a day wrestling with (again, guys, thanks so much!).
But just because I don’t align with their objectives, doesn’t mean I can’t spot a victory when I see one. Can they get another? Do they even exist?
The group is something of a phantom. Nobody in meatspace dares admit they were ever once a part of it. Even Kong, a past Facebook admin of the Better Milpitas group, had her name erased from it as this special election cycle heated up.
At around the same time, the group went ahead and changed its name.
This means, of course, that their reputation has soured. Victories be damned, what can be said in support of a group with which no one dares publicly associate? It was sensible, then, for them to lower their profile. The question remains, though, as to how vivid voters’ memories of Better Milpitas’ reign of noise will be come March.
More indicators point to a shortage of plausibility in Kong’s campaign. For one thing, none of her 7 fellow candidates during the controversial appointment session have taken the same hard position as she; the others, aside from the initial winner, Ngo, seem to have by now let the evening go. For another thing, shy of the School Board’s built-in loyal opposition, Michael Tsai, Kong was not any sitting Board Member’s final choice for the seat. So even if she gets the votes she needs to win, she’ll be heading into a potentially pre-poisoned situation. And one can only guess as to how much the present Board’s contacts and supporters are quietly pooling against her in resistance.
More troubling still is her allies’ past behavior on social media. Her close crony Tom Clavel, a committed, self-appointed local watchdog and debater (who according to public records sold his Milpitas home and now lives in Fremont), has been known to occasionally appear on Facebook waging paragraphs-long arguments, only to seemingly deactivate his account for months at a time. Kong’s own husband, who is on Facebook under the name Hian Ng, has routinely wandered into online debates on Kong’s behalf, offering zero mention of the fact that she’s his wife. When a husband assumes a specific online identity that by design enables him to argue in favor of his wife while not mentioning that he knows her (or is married to her!), I can only think of a given word that starts with a “t” and ends with a “roll.”
Such was Better Milpitas’ whole image problem: They were trolls. They took hard positions. They traveled mob-style, in giant herds. They preached transparency yet thrived on secrecy. They disliked conversing when given half a chance to launch insults and shout down those with whom they disagreed. To be sure, at one point one Facebook user, seemingly in step with BM’s positions, threateningly assured this newspaper that he would “keep an eye on” us.
To wash away this dark history, and the shadow it has cast over her campaign, Kong’s wisest tactical move would be to go highly positive. She must stand as one with her allies, and her husband, while emitting a resounding message of unity, hope, and optimism. She must distinguish her offline charm and intelligence from her allies’ online propensity for keyboard warfare. She must, in the meantime, cultivate insider allies on or near the Board, the better to humanize herself and keep the public focused on her best intentions.
Shy of that, at least from one side of history, her whole run started off looking kind of like a game. Certainly, like any game, it can be won — but ideally, on her path to victory, Kong will commit in full to going high.
And she won’t even need 10 cannabis shops to get there.