As I stood in front of Milpitas City Hall, I watched as Vice Mayor Carmen Montano pulled into a parking spot.
Within moments, she was out of her car and walking toward me. She was wearing a bright orange blazer, a perfect complement to the backdrop of the cool and cloudy autumn afternoon.
After greeting one another, we headed into City Hall’s Committee Room and got settled. I turned on my recorder and cut right to the chase:
“Did you ever think you’d be Milpitas’ first woman mayor?” I asked her.
She told me that it was still hard to believe, that she was still processing it all. Then she answered my question flat-out: “No.”
She recalled a time back in 1991…
While she was working for Milpitas Unified School District (MUSD) as a community liaison, she had a meeting with one of the various consultants that came through. He barely knew her, yet he made a prediction, based on this one interaction.
“I think he was a prophet,” said Montano. “He told me, ‘You’re gonna be mayor someday.’ And I said, not me. He must be out of his mind.”
She chuckled at that. Then she got serious again:
“But you never know. Whatever God has planned for you, that’s the plan,” she said.
I was curious as to the “why” of Montano’s journey. I wanted to know about those moments, those experiences along the way, that led to her being the first woman ever elected as mayor during Milpitas’ 68-year history. She’s also the first elected Milpitas Mayor of Latin American descent.
I asked her, “What was it initially that led to you wanting to be involved in public service?”
“I was actually never looking to get involved in the public arena or politics,” Montano said.
She went back to the beginning. She spoke of how she grew up in historic Sunnyhills, one of the nation’s first planned racially integrated neighborhoods.
In the 80s, Montano noticed that the city wasn’t taking care of their neighborhood. General maintenance wasn’t being done at all. Graffiti and weeds were becoming a problem, and the city wasn’t stepping up to do anything about it.
At the time, the country was going through a recession, and to Montano, it appeared that the city was cutting back on services and thus neglecting her neighborhood.
But even after the recession ended, she still noticed the neighborhood was not being maintained.
“All these other neighborhoods, like the Shapell homes, were being built at the time,” says Montano. “And the city was putting all the resources there.”
During this time, Montano was working for the school district. Daily, she dropped her kids off at the Sunnyhills Child Care Center. It was at that center where she met Bob Pecot, who was dropping off his grandkids. He also lived in the neighborhood.
The two got to talking about how unhappy they were with the way Sunnyhills was looking; they soon joined forces to form the Sunnyhills Improvement Association.
“The whole purpose was to improve and beautify the neighborhood. We had neighborhood cleanups and graffiti cleanups,” said Montano. “And we started coming to City Hall and challenging them…like saying, ‘Hey, this sidewalk – it was all dirt, and when it rained, kids had to walk through the mud.’”
Deeply driven by her desire to improve her neighborhood, Montano learned a great deal about zoning, code enforcement, and other city issues.
Through the Sunnyhills group, Montano and the other members worked to compel the City to make big changes.
“We wanted to put in a sidewalk and to fix the Hetch-Hetchy where Escuela Parkway is. All of that was dirt clods,” said Montano. “We were able to work with the City to have them improve it and make it a grassy area, so people can walk. It’s like that today because of our efforts.”
Through her involvement with the Sunnyhills group, Montano was getting more and more known throughout the community. Pete McHugh, who was mayor at the time, asked her if she wanted to serve on the Parks and Recreation Commission. This was in the mid-90s.
Initially, Montano felt reluctant, as it was outside of her comfort zone. But she agreed to do it, and actually enjoyed serving. So she went on to serve on both the Library and Planning commissions.
From there, Montano was hooked. She ran for School Board in 2000 and served two terms there.
In 2012, after two failed campaigns for Milpitas City Council, Montano ran again and won a seat.
“You know what they say: Third time’s a charm,” said Montano, grinning.
In 2016, with Jose Esteves being termed out, Montano decided to run for Mayor. She lost against Rich Tran. But in 2018, she ran for a Council seat again and came in first.
In August of 2021, she announced she would be running for mayor in the 2022 election. It would be almost a year later before other mayoral candidates jumped into the race. With such a big head start over the competition, Montano was able to raise over $40,000 in contributions, more than all five of her opponents raised combined.
In a crowded mayoral field of six candidates, Montano has taken 34.45% of the vote. (Ninety-six percent of ballots have been counted, as of the time this article was written.) Of the three City Councilmembers running for mayor, which included Anthony Phan and Karina Dominguez, Montano pulled out in front, garnering nearly 10% more of the vote than each of her colleagues.
“I attribute [my win] to my years of public service. It’s all grassroots, and my merits. People saw what I did in the community,” Montano shared. “And the fact that I was raised here speaks volumes.”
Speaking of being raised here, Montano went on to share that she attended Abel Elementary School in Milpitas during the 60s. It closed down in 1978.
After Abel, she went to Curtner for 6th grade, Russell for middle school, and even spent her first year of high school at Samuel Ayer.
“I was there for a year, while Milpitas High School was being built,” said Montano.
In her second year of high school, she moved to Milpitas High, where she was one of the first students to ever set foot on campus.
Since Montano spent a lot of her career working as a teacher, she is very much committed to education. This is why one of her big goals during her time as mayor is to create a Mayor’s Education Fund…
“The purpose is to help teachers with kids struggling in reading,” said Montano. “I want to help teachers get resources and even have access to a teacher’s aide.”
She doesn’t have all the details worked out yet, but hopes to find a way to move it forward.
Montano also plans to do what she can to revitalize Main Street, bringing more businesses and restaurants to the area.
“I want to spruce it up and make it nice,” she said.
Other priorities include finding ways to reduce crime, which will include working with business owners on posting signage in parking lots, increasing police patrols, and revitalizing community and neighborhood watch groups.
One thing Montano’s also passionate about is public art. She would love to focus on building a public mural program. She also spoke of how she’d like to have an open door policy and be available at certain times of the week for residents to come by and chat with her about their concerns.
Long-term goals of Montano’s include finding ways to bring a museum and a performing arts center to Milpitas.
I looked at her, incredulous, and said, “Those are some pretty ambitious goals. You only have two years. Does this mean you’re running again in 2024?”
Rich Tran has already stated his intention to run for Mayor again in 2024, and everyone who follows him on social media knows how much he supported Montano during her 2022 mayoral campaign.
Without hesitation, Montano looked me in the eye and said: “I’m gonna run again. You can’t do everything in two years. And if Rich plans on running again, then…we’ll be running against each other.”