After telling Council Member Kevin Park “No you can’t [speak], this is my event,” at her #StopAsianHate rally March 31, Council Member Kathy Watanabe countered criticism of her conduct by declaring her utmost respect for her colleague. Mayor Lisa Gillmor defended Watanabe, saying there was fault on both sides and Watanabe “wouldn’t do anything to hurt people.”
But respect for colleagues isn’t the story Watanabe’s record tells. At the April 7 Council meeting, Watanabe’s excuses opened a Council discussion revealing Watanabe’s rudeness was a pattern of conduct, not an aberration.
Watanabe refuses to even say ‘hello’ or acknowledge her Council colleagues and refuses to respond to emails and meeting requests.
Council Members Raj Chahal, Karen Hardy and Kevin Park corroborated this at the Council meeting, while Council Members Suds Jain and Anthony Becker have also described being on the receiving end of Watanabe’s ‘silent treatment,’ as have other people involved in City politics.
Early this year, Council Members questioned a contract renewal after analysis showed that it appeared the consultant, Dan Fenton of Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), was paid multiple times for the same work. They further questioned why the City was paying a consultant whose work in San José was the subject of two scathing Grand Jury investigations.
Instead of addressing the questions, Watanabe sniped, “Maybe our new Council Members could go back and take a look at some of the documents or watch some of the meetings.”
Chahal first raised questions about JLL’s contract last year. Gillmor dismissed his analysis without addressing the questions, saying he wasn’t “getting the big picture,” that the scope changed because “you evolve when things change,” and Chahal should talk with the City Manager “to fully understand.”
Chahal came in for a similar disdain for his analysis of the City’s current garbage contract and a proposal for a lower cost system last summer. At the June 23, 2020 meeting Watanabe dismissed Chahal’s financial analysis “numbers [that] were thrown out there…with no bearings.” After Gillmor refused to let Chahal speak at a July meeting — he’d had “hours to talk” she said — and said the City would have to spend money to correct his “misinformation.”
After a Council majority blocked Gillmor and Watanabe from appointing themselves to 21 (58 percent) of 36 seats on outside agency boards, proposing an alternative appointment schedule, Watanabe called it an “insult” after “all the work I have put in over the last four years.
“What was done is rude and arrogant, and there is something called protocol and respect, especially when there are people more senior than you already seated,” she continued. “This is not the way to treat your fellow Council Members…your lack of consideration is very telling. But I have to say it is not surprising.”
Gillmor followed up by accusing the majority of plotting to exclude her and Watanabe, saying other cities would take advantage of the new Council Members and Santa Clara wasn’t sending its “strongest team.”
A Sore Winner
Appointed to Council in 2016 after Gillmor was appointed Mayor, Watanabe is a reliable partisan in Gillmor’s crusades — whether building a $1 billion stadium in 2010 or today vilifying the NFL team she helped bring to Santa Clara.
Watanabe appeared in 49er-financed TV ads promoting the stadium project in 2010. A devoted 49ers fan who enjoys premium club seats at the stadium that few of her constituents can afford, Watanabe has missed public meetings to attend games. When not at games, however, she’s shrill about the community impacts of a 65,000-seat stadium.
Despite being the only Gillmor ally to survive the 2018 and 2020 elections, Watanabe styles herself as a victim and launched her second term with a tirade about the election.
The election, she said, was “a joke. A farce. A mockery of the democratic process…Billionaire Jed York used his money and influence to buy an election and hurt good people with vile commercials, text messages and constant lies…In the end, his strategy worked. He won three out of the four seats up for election.” These “vile” attacks consisted of pointing out her record.
Watanabe likened her election to the Irish War of Independence, comparing the 49ers to Black and Tan British mercenaries and terrorists.
“Michael Francis Reynolds’ granddaughter…who many of you know as me, Kathy Watanabe, won my battle against the red and gold. Just like my grandfather, I didn’t have much …and I overcame adversity to win an important battle.” She called the 49ers PAC spending “a $3 million bounty over my head.”
Watanabe’s campaigns were sustained by hundreds of thousands in independent expenditures by the developer-funded — this year the major funder was Related Companies — Santa Clara police union PAC.
Situation Ethics on Negative Campaigning
Despite her complaints, none of the 2020 campaign ads she grumbles about were comparable to the vicious and vulgar personal attacks leveled by her police union and labor supporters against her opponent. Nor did she object to the hundreds of thousands spent by those PACs to keep her in office.
She was silent about malicious attack mailers sent by the police union PAC against her opponents in 2016 and 2020. Nor did she say anything about the racist and sexist messages suggested by the graphics, nor slanderous allegations taken from alleged sex offender Robert Haugh’s blog posts.
She said nothing about the lies Haugh circulated that her opponent was a lobbyist and under investigation. Watanabe was a leader on a Nextdoor community that repeated those lies and blocked her opponent.
Accusing Colleagues of Conspiracy
After her swearing in Watanabe lost no time in attacking her colleagues — Becker, Chahal, Hardy, Jain and Park — who wanted to settle the voting rights lawsuit that the City subsequently lost for the second time on appeal and may now cost the City over $5 million.
She said they wanted to “hand over” $4 million to [the defendants’] lawyers, calling it a “gift of public funds,” and that they were “a disgrace” and “should be embarrassed.”
On Dec. 16 she implied they were conspiring with the 49ers, saying “I would like to ask the Council Members whether or not they have talked to the 49ers about this case.” The 49ers have no involvement in the CVRA lawsuit.
She accused her colleagues on Dec. 18 of violating the Brown Act after they followed the City Manager’s direction to email her requesting a special meeting. “The timestamp on the e-mail the optics looks bad very coordinated and looks not coincidental,” she said.
This may have been a logical assumption on Watanabe’s part because she regularly participated in private confabs with Gillmor and two other Council Members in Gillmor’s office following Council meetings, according to City Hall sources.
Consistent Opponent of Asian American Candidates
Although Watanabe makes much of her Asian American family, she consistently opposed the by-district elections that gave Santa Clara its first minority representatives.
She did endorse one minority candidate: Restaurateur Sam Kumar, who was running against Gillmor family thorn-in-the-side Karen Hardy. Kumar, voting records show, cast votes in both Santa Clara and Alameda counties in the same elections, and, by his own account, lived in Santa Clara only on weekends.
She made a point of telling her Council colleagues they didn’t speak for her when Council Member Anthony Becker made a statement of apology to Santa Clarans who were denied their rights to fair representation by the at-large election system.
Last week wasn’t the first time Watanabe has said things leading critics to question her attitudes about minorities.
At a 2018 Council meeting following fights at a soccer game in Levi’s Stadium, Watanabe said soccer games attract a “different crowd” than an event such as the Super Bowl. Immigrants make up a significant part of the audience for soccer.
Last week, about 70 Bay Area civil rights groups and public figures called on the Council to censure Watanabe for her conduct, but the Council took no action. Richard Konda of the Asian Law Alliance, which circulated and presented the censure demand, says that he hasn’t written off taking additional action.