I was naive when I started writing for The Milpitas Beat.
I thought I’d throw some warm coverage at our humble small town (or small city) mayor. After all, I’d always liked the guy. And he couldn’t have been more supportive or engaged when my wife Rhoda founded this online newspaper.
Little did I know, by featuring our city’s 17th mayor in a good light, I’d walked right into a bitter, resentful, vitriolic, daily-unfolding political bloodbath. Nothing like it existed, as far as I could see, on the Milpitas school board. No, this phenomenon of toxicity was unique to our mayor and our city council. It didn’t help when my first-ever op-ed (one I still haven’t stopped hearing about) defended our mayor when the 4 councilmembers rebuked him (an opinion, by the way, that I still stand by). I was suddenly a pain in the ass to some. Tran’s bloodbath became, in some tiny measure, my bloodbath, even though I’d go on to like and appreciate some of the councilmembers whom I’d criticized.
I haven’t always stood with Rich Tran. Going forward, I won’t always stand with Rich Tran. That’s not my job, or my loyalty. My first loyalty, here, is to Milpitas.
But for today, for a moment, I’d like to talk about why Tran won.
It wasn’t just a measured win, mind you. He took about 10 points over his 2016 performance. And he saw 2 strong women whom he endorsed and supported (respectively), Carmen Montano and Karina Dominguez, upgrade the city council. In a sense (here comes the pain in the ass again), the voters of Milpitas rebuked the existing council.
Why? What happened? Garry Barbadillo and Marsha Grilli are intelligent people. Efficient, competent, conscientious, caring, concerned. Attentive, engaged, detailed, professional, mature.
So why did things go Rich Tran’s way?
They threw everything at him, his opponents. I logged on social media or opened my mailbox and saw Rich Tran the incompetent, Rich Tran the no-show, Rich Tran the liar, Rich Tran the idiot, Rich Tran the partying alcoholic, and (to my continuing astonishment) Rich Tran the Vietnamese Communist.
None of it stuck. All of it helped him. You question his facts, you get your own facts checked. You call out his attendance, you hear he’s a military hero. You call him a drinker, you get called no fun. You call him immature: likewise. You call him a Communist, you get your ass handed to you by major media.
I’m not trying to say that Tran is the villain from “Terminator 2”, capable of adjusting and shape-shifting no matter what is thrown at him.
No, what I’m saying is Rich Tran won because he connects emotionally.
It’s not complicated. It’s not political science. It doesn’t even have much to do with politics. Politically speaking, Tran’s central philosophy is a bull-stubborn (fitting since he’s a Taurus) commitment to being a human stopgap against market-rate housing in Milpitas until which time as the city’s economy can handle it. He’s wielded his vote relentlessly toward this cause. His opponents frame him as a chronic do-nothing, somebody who has cast votes without accomplishing anything extracurricular or creative, but I might humbly argue in reply (oh, I’ll never stop hearing about this…) that he hasn’t exactly had a supportive council.
Now he does. He endorsed Montano. He supported Dominguez. They’ll go in friendly together, the 3 of them. It takes 3 votes to command a council majority. My hair would instantly turn white if the day came when 3 independent thinkers like Tran, Montano, and Dominguez started voting in zombie lockstep with each other, but you can rest assured they’ll hear each other out, giving Tran room to get creative and lead without hitting a constant wall of built-in opposition.
He got here, I say to you again, because he connects emotionally.
You can take this as me throwing rose petals at him, or you can take it as me advising any future opponents who might step in his path. All I know is, I’ve worked for 16 years as a speechwriter, generating content for hundreds of people in law, science, business, the arts, what have you, and it’s been almost impossible for me, over these past few months, to imagine a scenario in which Tran could actually lose.
He had Esteves working hard, of course. But Esteves’ campaign seemed as clean and tidy as Esteves himself, so clean it was often like Esteves himself wasn’t even there. It was a campaign of forcefulness and volume, but it was run, it seemed, by remote control, with Esteves off in a private room somewhere, not unlike The Wizard of Oz, issuing us crisp mailers and echoing robocalls.
Not Tran. Tran was on Facebook. Tran was in the streets. Tran was at your front door.
Tran connects emotionally. Tran tells a story. Tran’s a kid from the neighborhood. Tran wears the uniform. Tran lays his life down. Tran laughs at your dumb jokes. Tran remembers your first name. Tran remembers your kids’ names. Tran remembers what you’ve been up to lately. Tran showers you with kindness. Tran upholds Milpitas. Tran curses openly. Tran shows up on camera with a loud red sweater, and unless my memory has been deceiving me, I think homeboy was even wearing loud red socks!
I’ve been told I have a Tran bias. I can assure you the man’s been thoroughly annoyed with quite a bit of what I’ve had to say about him. What I do have is a human being bias. And Tran emerged in the field as a human being: well-rounded, open, vulnerable, flawed, thinking, deciding, measuring, calculating, winning.
He got us into the story. He gets under your skin. That’s why those who oppose him do so with such vitriol. They’re not only opposing him head-on, they’re actively not getting what other people like so much about him.
It’s maddening for them. But seriously — come on! — a Vietnamese Communist?!
It’s Tran’s time now, and a new day for the council. Not only did he secure a deep win, he’s rewritten the rulebook for Milpitas politics. You can’t win with mailers. You can’t win with endorsements. You can’t win from afar. And you certainly can’t win by underestimating Milpitas voters’ intelligence.
Here you win from the heart center. You win by connecting. And you win, also, if you’re Mayor Rich Tran, by having a strange, rare talent for memorable and insane quotes…
Something he wrote weeks back on Facebook stays with me. It makes me simultaneously get chills of honor and laugh uproariously. Some people on his page were getting hostile, and he told them to cool it just a bit. “The whole world,” Rich Tran advised everybody, “is watching Milpitas.”
I laughed out loud. Could it really be true? I mean, Apple is coming soon. We’re a hub of technology. We’re a monument of culture.
But, Mayor Tran…the whole world?
That one makes me smile. More so because I think he believed it. After all, from Rich Tran’s point-of-view, things might actually seem that way.
The whole world may or may not watch Milpitas. But for our 17th mayor, one thing is certain:
Milpitas is watching him.