Going into last week’s Milpitas Beat-hosted live-streamed interview of this year’s mayoral candidates, everyone knew some tension was in the air among the 5 contenders. Notably, Mayor Rich Tran was rebuked earlier this year by the other 4 City Council members, one of whom — Councilmember Bob Nuñez — is now his opponent. Nobody, however, was expecting to see what actually happened: a sort of surrealist, slapstick battle royal, complete with so much cross-tension and finger-pointing that after a certain point it was difficult to keep watching with your jaw anywhere near your neck.
The main sticking point between Tran and the existing Council — or at least Tran and Nuñez — seems to be differing visions about new housing development. As in: Nuñez is for it, but Tran is not. In fact, Tran’s position against housing expansion is the cornerstone of his current campaign and his overriding mayoral identity, which puts “Milpitas Families First.”
But despite this preservationist position, Tran simultaneously manages to represent the future: He’s our first-ever city politician to maintain a robust social media presence, reporting on city news and developments on a near-daily basis, and sparking ongoing political debates online. On an extracurricular basis (i.e., beyond the power of his mayoral vote), this communications contribution to Milpitas politics might be Tran’s signature achievement as our mayor. One can either frame that as a meaningful cultural enhancement or a fluffy dissemination of noise — take your pick.
In any case, the 5-man conversation’s first big flare-up came when Nuñez referred to the existing Council as a “4-person Council” (meaning 1 less than the 5 they’d be if they had a more attentive mayor). Tran didn’t address that remark right away, but he later followed up on it, stating that his absences from Council meetings have been owed to his obligations as a military reservist. In between, you had Yoon Lee yelling that Tran is a liar (more on that below), Jose Esteves testing Tran’s technical knowledge regarding potholes (a test Tran failed, but deemed unimportant), Tran referring to Nuñez as a “jumper” (i.e., someone who jumps from one objective to another, without consistency), and no shortage of interrupting, sighing, head-shaking, and (at least for me!) palpitations.
What can we expect, then, on November 6? Let’s take each of the 5 candidates one by one, and contemplate their chances:
MAYOR RICH TRAN (chances: STRONG):
Tran’s military service underscores his sincere heart and his patriotism. He’s warm and affable, he’s got the active social media following, and he campaigns door-to-door, meaning he’s got a face-to-face rapport with large chunks of the voting populace. His critics point to a meager to nonexistent list of tangible accomplishments; Tran points to the principles underlying his voting record. His critics paint him as juvenile and an intellectual lightweight. But he graduated from NYU and displays a good memory for facts and statistics. If the Council sees some fresh blood in its seats next year and even the new members turn on a re-elected Tran, we can then safely conclude that he’s not much of a leader. But those who like him might be willing to give him another chance. (Sour note: If it’s the same 5 faces who are on the Council now again in 2019, then we can safely expect 2 more years of infighting and inertia…unless Tran and his colleagues somehow manage to bury the hatchet).
JOSE “JOE” ESTEVES (chances: STRONG):
Esteves is another kind of character altogether. One could sling the argument that his 6 preceding mayoral terms have made the public grow tired of him, but then again, that argument was probably also being made when he ran for (and won!) terms 3, 4, 5, and 6. He speaks with relish of a Milpitas marked by excellence and cleanliness, and given his 12 years on the job, one would have to be willfully blind to not see the glaring alignment between the tone of our city and the tone of the man’s precise rhetoric. But like Tran, he gets called out for not having a solid list of achievements to point to. Plus, his most recent span of time in office intersected with Tom Williams’ scandalous reign as City Manager. A Republican, Esteves’ positions and underlying philosophies are contrary to those of some 70% of our city’s voting pool. And in an age where Republicanism brings to mind the orange-haired sociopath in the Oval Office, that’s farther from a plus than it’s ever been before. But let’s not kid ourselves: This is an elegant and eloquent man, one who is beloved by large segments of our neighbors, one whose signs are highly visible every time we’re not blinking, and one whose name on the ballot alone could secure him a reasonable victory.
BOB NUÑEZ (chances: SOLID):
Nuñez (also a Republican) is a fascinating figure, namely because he can seem aloof and prickly before one gets to know him, but upon speaking to him, one encounters an individual of commendable modesty, warmth, and wit. He’s campaigning in the margins, with an unconventional ground game; in other words, he’s not omnipresent in our social media feeds like Tran, or on our streets and lawns like Esteves, but he’s deeply involved with a high amount of our city’s organizations both public and private, and prone to boosting their efforts via generous donations. He’s also the most overtly cerebral man in the race, seeming ignited by wonkish policy planning and careful, detailed strategies. If this city of techies gets the itch for a political scientist, Bob Nuñez would be the only option with which to scratch it. But it’s hard to take measure of his connection with voters, and if you don’t know him, he is likely to come off as enigmatic (a fact not helped by The Mercury News long cornering him for financial shadiness during his time as East Side Union High School District superintendent, despite an eventual audit’s findings to the contrary). He’s a solid guy with solid chances, but in any case, given his existing Council seat, we will see him at City Hall for 2 more years no matter what (a factor which, in and of itself, might move voters to skip over his name).
YOON LEE (chances: MODEST):
This season’s dark horse, Lee’s most prominent public appearances to date have been The Milpitas Beat article about his unfortunate social media run-ins with some Tran supporters, and the 5-man interview we later hosted. Via the former, some sympathized with a newcomer whom they felt was being ganged up on, but others came away feeling that Tran hadn’t crossed any major lines. Via the latter, a larger impression was left: Yoon Lee is a man who likes his props and grand gestures. During the debate — sorry, interview panel! — he presented print-outs bearing evidence of Tran offering conflicting year tallies of his time spent living in Milpitas. Tran hasn’t consistently presented his length of time living in Milpitas to the public, and Lee, amid no shortage of theatrics, actually shed light on this fact. Meanwhile, Tran didn’t defend himself against or disband Lee’s evidence. So Lee landed a blow there, although the manner in which he did so might have left voters confused or indifferent. Likewise, Lee presented a flash drive hanging around his neck, which he alleged contained yet more damning evidence against the mayor (still unknown to everyone aside from Lee and his attorney). In the meantime, he also has in his possession an envelope of data which he claims bears solutions to the odor issue. Print-outs, a flash drive, a swelling envelope — the man certainly knows how to attract attention. And not for nothing, American politics has long had in its bloodstream a heavy strain of high spectacle. Just when you write off a man as overblown or paranoid, he can become our president. Or mayor.
VOLTAIRE MONTEMAYOR (chances: LIGHT):
For the first time ever, during our live-streamed event, I actually got a feel for Montemayor. This is saying a lot, since I’d seen him many times at City Council meetings (where his attendance is literally perfect) and had never taken him for a political heavyweight. But this man — the only one, I must say, who threw no jabs during a supremely heated hour of discussion — is supercharged by the pure, blue, crystalline heart of the Holy Spirit. He waxed poetically about the very soul of Milpitas. He is ignited by a passion that would burn most mortals into a vanishing mist. To pass by the front of City Hall is to wonder with sincerity why there’s no statue of this grand spirit out on the lawn. But…as mayor? Well, he’s run before, and it simply hasn’t clicked. A good man — I’d entrust him with the lives of my children — but come November, when that seat is filled, Voltaire Montemayor will not be slated for it.
Until then, we will keep on watching.
(Note: This editorial was revised from an earlier version to omit Mayor Rich Tran stating that he’s missed 3 council meetings out of 50, as The Milpitas Beat has not independently verified that statement.)