After former mayor Jamie Matthews announced his retirement the day after Super Bowl 50, Vice Mayor Teresa O’Neill briefly served as interim mayor. Then the city council appointed Lisa Gillmor to be the new mayor to serve out Matthews’ term. In early March, the City Council interviewed 17 candidates interested in Gillmor’s seat. The majority of the Councilmembers’ votes went to Kathy Watanabe, former City Library Board Trustee and former President of the Santa Clara Sister Cities Association. Watanabe is known among many community members for her energetic spirit and leadership, as demonstrated when she advocated for the Northside Library.
“I thought I was busy with Sister Cities before and now I’m even more busy as a councilmember,” says Watanabe, overwhelmed and honored that she was chosen. “I’m happy to have this opportunity to serve Santa Clara. The City of Santa Clara has a rich culture and history and is the center of what’s possible.”
Right now, one of Watanabe’s goals is to explore ways to provide affordable housing in Santa Clara. She is also busy learning about the duties of a City Councilmember. She explains that all City Councilmembers have city and regional committee assignments. For example, Vice Mayor Teresa O’Neill sits on Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority Board, the Northern California Power Agency.
“My assignment is being the alternate for a few committees in case someone can’t attend,” Watanabe says. “I’m the alternate for the school and city liaison committee. I’m also on the BPAC committee, which is the bicycle pedestrian advisory committee.”
When asked if she felt that there has been any unfair media coverage of her since she was thrust into the spotlight, Watanabe refers to a news column she read.
“A columnist for a daily newspaper wrote an article about how I was a white person with an Asian name and how the City Council missed an opportunity to appoint a person of color,” Watanabe says. “The writer doesn’t know me. If he did know me, he’d know that when I was the president of the Santa Clara Sister Cities Association, I promoted the importance of diversity and working together.”
Under Watanabe’s presidency, the city’s Sister Cities Association established new relationships with Limerick, Ireland and Nagpur, India. Watanabe has hosted Japanese students from Izumo, Japan (another sister city of Santa Clara) in her home. Last December, Watanabe was also the lead organizer of a local baby carrier drive for Syrian refugees in Greece.
Nowadays, Watanabe works from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at her job as a legal assistant in Palo Alto. For the rest of the day, she assumes her City Councilmember duties by attending meetings and meeting with people. At home, she reads and responds to emails and prepares for more meetings. During her spare time, she likes to stay fit by running or walking. She also enjoys spending time with her husband and daughter.