I’m in my car, in front of my house when I get a text from the kid:
He’s running fashionably late.
It’s no problem; I have to finish a voice memo to a friend. And besides, when the kid shows, the atmosphere may get a bit charged. Not in an antagonistic way, just an energetic way. After all, save for some hellos around town and some calls about news stories, we’ve never had a proper conversation. In the meantime, the first time I addressed him directly was in this very newspaper, through an Open Letter where I listed his highly publicized series of missteps as a freshman Milpitas City Councilmember.
We won’t relive all of them now. After all, the kid is on his way. The only trespass I intend to ask him about involves a certain sinister mailer — one he circulated during 2018’s election cycle, depicting Mayor Rich Tran (who, it bears noting, was not his opponent, as the kid was not even running in an election) as a Vietnamese Communist. Tran and Phan, it should be noted, are respectively the first Vietnamese-American Mayor and first Vietnamese-American Councilmember in Milpitas history. Tran was quick to react, demanding that the kid step down. For if he didn’t, he’d duly be recalled.
Two choices: resignation, recall. The kid chose neither.
The kid hung in there. It was strange, and breathtaking. Few onlookers took him for a survivor type. But he kept showing up at Council meetings. In my Letter, I’d implored him to apologize in public. He did, though he said the idea to do so was his own. In any case, after the apology landed, Mayor Rich Tran ignored him and moved on. No impact. No peace offer.
The kid was in hot water. And yet he stayed.
And in time, the Mayor elected not to recall him.
What happened with the two of them behind the scenes? We’ll get to that in a moment. For there’s much more to cover. The kid’s running this year for State Assembly in District 25. He’s not only come back, polishing up his reputation, but he remains determined to excel in his political career.
The kid’s name is Councilmember Anthony Phan. I meet him on my driveway. We cut through the house to my backyard, where it’s bitterly cold, and where I end up apologizing to him repeatedly, each time being met with a tranquil wave of the hand: “I’m fine.”
Phan’s strikingly easy to be around. Tall and lean, he gains some height from his shock of jet black hair, not unlike the flame on a candle wick, cresting slightly to his rear. He’s also known for wearing suits, which he does on this day, complete with a tie, even though, as he later mentions, he generally doesn’t wear a suit when he’s not working.
He’s working now, however, in a sense: Our encounter’s an aspect of his comeback. As 2019 rolled in a year ago, his word of the year was set to be Redemption. In the meantime, I’ve watched him from afar. His presentation has shifted from cocky to humble. His gaze has cooled from all-knowing to gently, sweetly receptive.
He’s grown. He also remains a Councilmember. And that’s the part that fascinates me the most…
“At some point,” he says, “I literally gave [Mayor Tran] an olive branch. A physical olive branch. I wanted it to mean something.”
He said to the Mayor, “I’m gonna work with you. You might not see it right now, but I’m hopeful that as time goes on you appreciate these efforts.”
The harsh election time was fading. Tran had lashed out with great anger. But he received Phan’s gesture well.
Phan knows full well that Council seats are impermanent. The day before our meeting, he was one of three Councilmembers (joined by Tran and now Vice Mayor Bob Nuñez) who voted to rotate out then Vice Mayor Karina Dominguez. Asked if the move was personal, Phan says, “It was never personal. At the end of the day, whoever is gonna sit in the chair next to the Mayor should have a good working relationship — at the bare minimum, a working relationship. It doesn’t need to be a positive relationship; they don’t need to be allies, but a bare minimum — a working relationship. I don’t think it’s a secret that there has been tension between the two. I don’t think there was any other way to diffuse that tension.”
Why’s there been tension between Tran and Dominguez? Phan says, “I can’t speak on behalf of them. My sense is that it’s political, or at least it started off political…”
In other words, most of the Council, save for Nuñez, has had its sights set on the State Assembly, at least at some point. Tran and Dominguez were both in this year’s race early on. By the time they backed out, a sense of bitterness might have lingered, Phan speculates. “Words were said that can’t be unsaid,” he surmises. “There wasn’t any healing.”
I point out that Tran didn’t get along with his last Vice Mayor, Marsha Grilli, either, and ask if the pattern is in fact a Tran problem. But Phan says, “It’s very complicated. At the end of the day, I think Rich has grown a lot.” He adds, “I don’t think that if Marsha was still here, and she was still Vice Mayor, that they would have the same relationship they did back then.”
Phan cites time, experience, and an increasing ability to understand how one’s colleagues behave and operate, combined with a sense of compromise, as critical factors in not only his own evolution, but in Tran’s: “I certainly have seen a shift in the mayor’s leadership, his ability to reach out…”
As for the two of them? “We’ve moved on,” Phan says calmly yet emphatically. Asked if he’s comfortable working alongside the Mayor, Phan does not hesitate to say, “Yes, absolutely.”
In addition, Phan frames the whole current City Council as being in functional condition: “We’re pretty cohesive on most issues…Before, when there was disagreement, the disagreements became more personal…I disagree with this and you’re wrong for it. That doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a very positive relationship, I think, and a healthy conversation. There’s dissent, absolutely, and that’s not a bad thing.”
Phan’s past problems, as mentioned, extended beyond the City Council’s chemistry. It was also late in 2018 when he found himself in the sights of activist group Better Milpitas. Their objective at the time was to thwart any efforts toward Milpitas passing a cannabis ordinance in the city. Better Milpitas stood against any cultivation or distribution of the product whatsoever. Phan points out, however, that polling data showed overwhelming public support in favor of a marijuana industry in Milpitas. And he voted in favor of a preliminary ordinance. But as Better Milpitas applied pressure to him, Phan recused himself from ultimately voting on the matter. In the end, though, Phan’s recusal didn’t prove a dealbreaker: the entire City Council, facing in-person protests from Better Milpitas members, voted No and struck down the ordinance entirely.
The critical evening of the unanimous No vote, which was in November, 2018, came long after Phan had started up a Cannabis Subcommittee. For his fellow Committee chair, Phan overtly requested Bob Nuñez, as Nuñez, who’s a Republican, was in fact the Councilmember most inclined to oppose cannabis in Milpitas. Phan, who’s a Democrat (his reason: “The party strives for social and economic justice.”), was actively seeking debate, so as to craft policy that encompassed both ends of the ideological spectrum. As time went on, he and Nuñez progressed on crafting a workable cannabis ordinance for the city.
The way Phan sees it, marijuana stores in Milpitas could have provided critical funding for resources to combat illegal drug use, while helping with addiction prevention, mental health support, and drug education: “I think that’s the best way to combat drug addiction and all the stigmas associated with cannabis…We don’t live in the 1980s anymore; this is a different time, and the research has been proven. This [marijuana] is not something that is necessarily negative, more so than alcohol.”
Regardless, Phan refers to a lot of personal attacks against him from the activists, at a time when he was in a “vulnerable position.” Diplomatically, he adds, “I probably deserved a lot of it.” But he states with plainness, “The points that they were making [on marijuana] were not genuine objective findings.”
Phan goes on to say, “They ridiculed me — directly, on social media, on the platform WeChat, which is how they get their message out. The movement is largely based in the Chinese-American community. At some point, I felt that I was being targeted for my race…”
I make the point that in China, anti-government sentiments run strong. But Phan says politely, “We’re not China…This is a free and democratic society. I always respect people’s First Amendment rights. Up to a certain extent, where it becomes harassment, where it becomes a public threat to individuals…They had said, ‘If you vote for this, we will recall you.’ And that’s literally a threat.”
Phan cites the power of his vote as a very important thing. And he’s been vocal in the past about having faced down mental health issues. In reference to how his own mental health intersects with his work, he says, “I have to be comfortable voting on however I vote…and be able to sleep at night. The thing is, I have ADHD. I end up usually never sleeping after Council meetings: OK, so what did I do right? What’s to anticipate as follow-up to the votes? Is there gonna be any follow-up?”
What did I do right? It’s a good question, and a conscientious one. So I get into asking Phan what he’s most proud of:
“I’m proud of a lot of things. We have built a lot of affordable housing. It’s a lot more than other cities. We’ve contributed towards a diverse housing stock. Of course, not everybody is gonna be happy on that; I think that’s just something that is part of every community. We’re getting Apple. We’re getting Amazon. That’s a lot of jobs that we’re creating. Every time you hear a company closed down or are moving away, you do feel like somehow you’re responsible for that, even if you didn’t approve anything, even if it’s just market conditions — whatever the reason is. You know that the jobs are going away with it…” He cites Cisco’s layoffs as an example, one which made him very worried.
But, Phan says, “Milpitas is a growing city, a lot of which is to be proud of…”
An only child, to a pair of Vietnamese parents who immigrated to the U.S. 27 years ago, one year before his birth, Phan was originally a resident of San Jose: “My family and I grew up in poverty. We’ve benefited a lot from the services that government has provided. The opportunities that we’ve received, we’re very grateful for. And I don’t think we could have survived in this new land without it.” Phan’s father passed away during his freshman year of college.
He goes on to say, “I believe in government and its ability to do good.”
“Government is slow,” Phan offers. “And it takes a while for policy to kick in sometimes. Serving towards the end of my term now, I start to finally see the impact of a lot of the policies that were set from the very first year in office.”
Striking another optimistic note, Phan says, “I feel like we’re in a good spot right now, creating new jobs. I’m hopeful that more companies will come and invest, and I think they will. We have made Milpitas a much more attractive place to live, to invest in, to work, because we’ve set the infrastructure for it. We have the housing, we have the transit, and we have the jobs.”
It’s in affordable housing where he feels noteworthy passion. “The status quo needs to change,” Phan states, citing regulations that have lingered on the books for long periods, yet failed to yield meaningful reforms. “There’s a lot of reforms to be made. I want to be able to bring those changes forward…I want to have contributed to alleviating this housing crisis that we are in.”
In the State Assembly race, Phan’s running on his track record: “Under my leadership, I have brought forward a lot of good results for Milpitas. We have more jobs. We have more housing. I think that people’s lives have improved…I’m comfortable saying that I know that it’s not possible to make everybody happy, but I think that in the grand scheme of things, you compare it to where it was four years ago, and it’s better. The culture in Milpitas is better.”
He also says that Milpitas is looking good not only from the inside, but from the outside, too. Phan works in the consulting business and sits on a variety of regional committees. His counterparts in other cities tend to praise Milpitas, wishing that they, like us, could get BART, light rail, and results in affordable housing.
In the meantime, he’s also running on his ability to overcome interpersonal difficulties, pointing to his healing with Tran as Exhibit A: “The level of diplomacy involved, the level of compromise involved…”
I ask the kid what his mom thinks of her son the Councilmember. A smile in his eyes, he says, “She’s always worried. She watches the meetings. She’s always supported me, except for the whole mailer thing. She called me: ‘What the f–k were you thinking??’ I know, Mom…”
He’s hit on yet another good question: What WAS he thinking?
Phan says with humility, “It was a mistake. I never should have done it in the first place. I think that’s very clear. I wish it was clearer to me then. Sometimes during the heat of the moment of electoral politics, things can get very intense, and people act impulsively. If I were to say, ‘Would I ever do that again?,’ I would not.”
The kid’s changed, that much is for certain. The past is behind him; he’s got his eye on the future. At City Hall, he moves with ease and speaks with politeness. He makes the case for himself as a graceful spirit. He knows he’s not always spoken of with kindness, but he hopes to not be remembered for his failings. After all, per the record, his successes are plentiful. He campaigns on the strength of them. Locks eyes. Shakes hands.
A kid who’s grown up…into a man.