“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
— Margaret Mead
On most Independence Days, my thoughts turn to historic heroes of America’s past, both famous and forgotten, sharing our collective gratitude for their contributions. However, during this year’s Fourth of July celebrations, I quietly expressed gratitude for some contemporary heroes: a small band of volunteers — neighborhood leaders, environmentalists, and good-government advocates — who helped to restore some of our collective confidence in the democratic process.
In a political era too often dominated by well-funded and powerful special interests, this June’s election promised more of the same. A group affiliated with a single developer, Ponderosa Homes, spent $6 million — more than any campaign in San Jose electoral history — on a June ballot measure that would have deceptively rewritten rules protecting our Valley’s hillsides, open space, and environment.
These rules, crafted eight years ago with extensive input from more than 5,000 community members at four dozen public meetings, would become the Envision 2040 General Plan (“Plan”) — a blueprint for future development in San Jose. While our community’s General Plan has largely protected outlying areas from residential sprawl, Ponderosa Homes wanted to build a gated community with 900 luxury homes in the Evergreen foothills.
Rather than follow the longstanding process for changing land uses in the Plan — filing an application at City Hall, and engaging in public meetings with the surrounding neighborhoods, Planning Commission, and City Council — the developer spent several hundred thousand dollars to place their 350+-page proposal — later known as Measure B — on the June ballot. While framing their proposal for a gated community of luxury homes as “affordable housing” for “seniors and veterans,” the developers also inserted language that would abandon longstanding protections of environmentally sensitive areas in San Jose, from Coyote Valley to the South Almaden Reserve.
With the help of the Mercury News and the local media, we sounded the alarm. Councilmember Sylvia Arenas convened gatherings of neighborhood leaders, and Megan Medeiros of the Committee for Green Foothills spurred action among environmentalists. Veterans like Tito Cortez and former Vice Mayor Rose Herrera spoke out to denounce Ponderosa’s misleading exploitation of veterans for their financial benefit. Soon, a coalition of community leaders — which included MacKenzie Mossing, Kat Baumgartner, Jordan Eldridge, Alice Kaufman, Brian Schmitt, Bonnie Mace, Larry Ames, Wesley Lee, Robert Reese, and Jeremy Barrouse, among many others — sprang into action. With the help of dozens of volunteers, the group knocked on more than 10,000 doors, made more than 10,000 phone calls, engaged in outreach through social media and traditional press.
Elected leaders at City Hall helped to support and expand this grass-roots effort. With only Councilmember Don Rocha dissenting, the City Council voted to place another measure on the ballot, Measure C, that would make it more difficult for other developers to follow Ponderosa Home’s lead in the future. In March, we largely shut down my Mayoral re-election effort and shifted our campaign staff, funds, and office space to support the community effort. Several of my Council colleagues, including Councilmembers Arenas, Chappie Jones and Lan Diep, also helped with fundraising.
A host of good-government organizations, environmentally-minded employers, and tech leaders pitched in their time, energy, dollars, and endorsements — the Audubon Society, the Greenbelt Alliance, Save the Bay, SPUR, Greenbelt Alliance, AARP, Sierra Club, Silicon Valley Leadership Group, League of Women Voters, and many others. Perhaps most remarkably, both the Republican and Democratic Parties in Santa Clara County formally opposed Measure B — a sign of unity we hope to see in other important efforts in the future.
While the group worked furiously in the weeks leading up to the June election, the developer’s campaign barraged our neighbors with television commercials and glossy campaign mail each day, disingenuously trumpeting the merits of “affordably” housing veterans and seniors. We would ultimately be outspent by a 10–1 margin.
Yet the night of June 5th brought an improbable victory. The voters saw through the campaign propaganda, voting to defeat the developers’ Measure B, and passing the Council’s Measure C, each by substantial margins. In marked contrast to the dispiriting national political environment dominated by special interests, here in San Jose, a diverse group of residents and stakeholders united to fight for our future.
During my tenure as San Jose Mayor, I’ve felt blessed to witness several examples of our community standing together. On the Saturday after last February’s floods, more than 1,600 volunteers responded to our call to help their neighbors clean out their homes and get back on their feet, and 7,000 residents donated more than $7 million to help victims needing housing. Since we launched the BeautifySJ effort last year, we’ve tripled the number of volunteers who have participated in neighborhood cleanups, to more than 25,000.
And now, as our City of Service initiative expands, even more opportunities will emerge for residents to help lift our community. Through Generation-2-Generation, retired seniors can help teens find a successful path through school and on to a career. Through our Mayoral Fellows program, mid-career professionals can take a short hiatus to impact their community through public service. Idealistic young millennials can dedicate a year of their lives to support young students in East San Jose through City Year, or plant trees in our neighborhoods with Our City Forest.
Despite a discouraging national political landscape, we see a tremendous and growing spirit of civic commitment in San Jose, offering a timely and powerful example for the rest of the nation that democracy is not a spectator sport. I hope you’ll join us.