Milpitas Mayor Slammed for Tone-Deaf Comments, Awkward Hugs, Offbeat Rap Performance

Milpitas Mayor Rich Tran campaigned on a promise to clean up City Hall from the top down. Not a year into his first term, he felt he delivered on that vow when notoriously combative City Manager Tom Williams resigned amid allegations of abusing taxpayer money and lying to cover his tracks.

So it came as a shock to the 33-year-old mayor when his colleagues called him part of the problem. Then, in a somewhat bizarre turn of events, a woman he never met slammed him for rapping what she took for low-key sexist lyrics.

The Milpitas City Council on Monday issued a sharp rebuke, describing Tran as unprofessional, disrespectful and, essentially, a black eye on a community struggling to repair its tarnished reputation.

“Service as an elected official is not a mere hobby, it carries accountability,” reads the statement signed by Vice Mayor Marsha Grilli and council members Bob Nuñez, Anthony Phan and Garry Barbadillo. “It is a professional and personal calling to help make our entire community better, more tolerant, and a more positive place everyone can call home. We ask Mayor Tran to remember that, and to please not disappoint the people of Milpitas in the future.”

The public call-out stems from complaints of sexual harassment and age discrimination by the young mayor. A newly released report by Kramer Workplace Investigations concluded that Tran “more likely than not” made inappropriate age-based comments about 53-year-old Williams and “engaged in conduct of a sexual nature” by awkwardly hugging a female department head and asking a staffer if she had any single friends.

The firm led by attorney Karen Kramer sustained the claims because Williams seemed more credible than Tran, whose testimony was directly contradicted by other witnesses.

It should be noted, however, that a separate investigation cast Williams as an unreliable witness because he said things that were demonstrably false to justify misusing his city charge card, disobeying a council directive and physically and verbally intimidating an employee in an attempt to hide his wrongdoing. He also reportedly drafted a condemnation of Tran and Phan and tried unsuccessfully to coerce department heads into signing off on them as a vote of “no confidence.” Plus, in years past, Williams dragged the city into lawsuits over ageism, harassment and wrongful termination.

But Williams—who has since returned to public sector work in Millbrae—isn’t Milpitas’ problem anymore. He’s been replaced by an apparently far more diplomatic successor in Julie Edmond-Mares, who has since re-hired Steve McHarris, a planning official who fled Milpitas a few years ago to escape Williams’ wrath after filing a complaint about the city manager’s misconduct.

With direction from the council, the new city officials are trying to mend an agency demoralized and divided by more than a decade of dysfunction.

Thus, the attention has shifted to Tran.

The mayor’s nascent career in public office has been marked by a series of missteps, including, among other things, Brown Act violations, an inauguration speech cribbed from President Obama’s and an apology for it plagiarized from Jay-Z.

And now, the Kramer findings.

In the statement issued earlier this week, the council calls Tran’s behavior a distraction from the city’s efforts to sort things out.

“Looking forward, we trust that the mayor has learned and grown from this painful experience over the past year,” the council writes. “We hope he now understands that words have consequences, and that as mayor representing all our residents and all our employees, he must adhere both to a much higher standard than for a private person, and to a standard that we have not fully seen from him.”

But the outspoken mayor says the incidents detailed in the 2017 report, which the city unveiled this past week to comply with a court order, were taken out of context to support Williams’ narrative. The uncomfortable embraces, he says, were “side hugs.” Tran explained to an investigator last year that he was “not raised to shake hands,” and that he intended to continue hugging people at events unless they’re not “huggers.”

Those rationalizations didn’t fly with Kramer.

“Mayor Tran failed to acknowledge the conduct attributed to him and maintained that he has not done anything wrong,” she wrote in her 45-page report. “He stated during his interview that it is his goal to be the ‘best mayor in the nation,’ and that the citizens of Milpitas are happy, so he is happy and is sleeping at night.”

Soon after the council sent its scolding news release this week citing Kramer’s findings, other critics chimed in. A woman named Amber Haley on Tuesday emailed councilors a YouTube clip (uploaded earlier that morning, incidentally) of Tran performing a woefully offbeat rap with mildly gender-essentialist verses about a woman with ladylike posture who punches “like a guy” as further proof of his misogyny.

“I don’t know if this was in his official capacity as mayor or recorded prior to his election,” she wrote, “but that shouldn’t matter because it highlights a pattern of misogyny and male privilege on his part. … Please do the right thing and remove him from office, because I can’t bear to raise my two daughters in a city run by Rich Tran.”

Upon reading her critique, Tran shakes his head.

“Wow,” he says. “This is from my rap days in 2010, [at a] benefit concert for the Friends of Hue Foundation. Raised $10,000 that night for an orphanage. [The] song was about Vietnamese women empowerment. My mom was there.”

As for the other allegations, Tran says, they’re politically motivated. He says that Nuñez, for one—who’s hardly in a position to take the moral high ground, given the way he left East Side Union High School District—wants to challenge his re-election. As for the rest of the council, he says, they’ve had it out for him from the get-go.

“I came here with a target on my back,” Tran says.

But the mayor says he doesn’t feel betrayed. No one on the council endorsed his run for office, so he had no illusions of camaraderie.

“I don’t have any ill will towards anybody in City Hall,” Tran says. “I understand that this is politics and I am more disappointed that it has gotten to this point. I’ve never attacked anybody on this personal level.”

Though proud enough of his Milpitas roots to tattoo the city’s name on his right forearm, the mayor says he’s ashamed of its politics.

“I’m embarrassed by my hometown for having the worst politics in the county,” Tran says. “I’ve had everything thrown against me, but there’s no police report, there’s no formal complaints and I continue to be transparent in the community.”

For the mayor, the council’s opinion matters less than the public’s.

“It’s all the residents that put me in office,” Tran says in a phone call Tuesday. “Over 8,000 of them. That’s who I answer to.”

Jennifer Wadsworth is the News Editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

28 Comments

  1. Oh c’mon look at Anthony Phan on the Milpitas City Council. I can’t take anything seriously from the City Council if that low-life signed it. He’s already under investigation for campaign finance issues anyway. Also, while receiving a rebuke from a resident voter of Milpitas at a City Council meeting a few months back during public comments, Phan opened a bag of popcorn, wore a condescending grin, then interrupted the speaker, and asked him to look him in the eye while speaking about him, and then Phan told resident publicly not to let the door hit his ass on the way out of the room. It’s all on video too on the City website. You can even see the kids in the audience attending the meeting as part of a homework assignment. Anthony “No Class” Phan.

  2. I dont care about his rap.
    Im GLAD he got City Manager Tom Williams to resign, that man needs to repay all he’s stolen from Milpitas

  3. Why hasn’t the the City Council also issued a rebuke on Anthony Phan for his behavior as described above? I guess unless a separate investigative report is prepared, to which they feel obligated to respond, the City Council condones this behavior from Phan….

  4. I agree.. rich tran has done nothing for Milpitas. In fact if I think about , the only thing that comes to mind is the proposal not to fly the Communist Vietnam flag over City Hall. This was his and Anthony Phans idea. No nothing else that comes to mind about these two and I’ve heard about the shenanigan Anthony Phan pulled at the city council meeting regarding him and a resident.
    Rich Tran may have plagiarized himself regarding Obama’s speech fantasizing that it could be another Obama but I can tell you he is no Obama neither will he be. This guy is just an big teenager that has no sense of how a city should be run or what to do.

  5. Milpitas residents need to get rid of rich tran and anthony phan. If any of you have been paying attn to thier conduct towards the residents of this city and city workers then you would get rid of thier asses

  6. The Gong. Show returns

    Tran as the Disco Inferno
    Phan as the Unknown Comic
    Tam Nguyen as Gene the Dancing Machine
    Esau Herrera as Spoon Man
    Debi Davis as the Amazing Lipso

  7. Mayor Tran is the gift that keeps on giving. But I am continuously surprised that Councilmember Phan gets so little attention in the pages of the Metro and on this site. Phan is the kind of say-anything politician that is in public life for all of the wrong reasons. I have spent time with him and talking to the guy honestly makes my skin crawl. His election in Milpitas was not only the result of carpetbagging less than two years after running for an SJ school board seat, but there were credible accusations that he didn’t even move but merely began listing a relative’s address as his own. During the race I heard him very cynically disparage the residents he was running to serve. And then barely a year into Milpitas City Hall he announces he is running for Dave Cortese’s supervisor seat.

    This isn’t to mention his sketchy FPPC violation, which involved him telling some pretty obvious public lies to explain where he had gotten a large sum of money he invested in his campaign. Anyone who reads the publicly available info will walk away knowing that the money really came from Phan’s parents. Of course I doubt the motivation of Phan’s parents was to unduly influence a potential elected official, but Phan’s willingness to put forward specific lies about how the money came from “business investments” shows a disturbing willingness to mislead the public for his own self-interests.

    One of the great shames of BANG’s staff layoffs is that we have had so little coverage of Tran and Phan in the past several months. One of the final articles while Milpitas coverage was still IMO robust was about Phan power-tripping on the Milpitas planning director during a council meeting, and I am still very curious to know what the outcome of that outburst was. I have not seen the popcorn bit that Publius mentions, but it sounds 100% within his character from what I have witnessed from him in private and read about publicly. He is incredibly immature for someone in the position he is in.

    People should be very wary about working with Phan. Phan cozied up to Mark Tiernan when they were both running for City Council and stuck a knife in his back as soon as it was politically convenient to do so, accusing Tiernan of violating Tam Nguyen’s free speech because Tiernan stood in front of Nguyen as Nguyen was engaged in disrupting a press conference held by Van Le. I guess Nguyen and Phan see an opponent’s press conference as an opportunity to bring supporters and stage a confrontation AND THEN claim the victim card. Great job at democracy! 10/10! Would vote for Supervisor!

  8. How can councilmember Phan say that he cares about the city of Milpitas when in less than a year serving as a council person he puts an exploratory committee together to run against supervisor Dave Cortese? Originally it was running against County Assessor Larry Stone. This guy has no idea where he wants to be or who he wants to serve. But you can rest assured he has no intention of serving Goodwill to the residence of Milpitas wanting to move on in less than a year after he is elected to Milpitas City Council

  9. Here is one, Brian Doyle the City Attorney Santa Clara will often speak as a resident not a City Attorney.

  10. Again, this is a Milpitas story, but look South. Last night in Santa Clara, a complete fanatic berated the Council to appoint him. Now the City does have a good mayor, but SJI has chronicled the recent scandals well. But like Phan and Tran, if this WACKO got the appointment he would outdo Tran and Phan. This guy even said Putin is an investor in the 49ers. San Jose Inside should do a piece on the land of misfit toys and make Tran the King

  11. Who cares? This city is going to continue to only vote along racial lines regardless of how corrupt or inexperienced a candidate is. The majority of Asian voters will not for a qualified, competent, experienced person who is non-Asian. Milpitas along with the rest of California is slowly getting worse and worse. No hope it will get any better with all the liberal based policies and politics involved.

    • For all of the mistakes Mayor Tran continuously makes, he comes across (to me at least) as a goofy buffoon. Phan has come across as vindictive, power-hungry, and arrogant. He behaves in a mean-spirited and bullying manner at the dais, and in private he comes across as cynical and dishonest.

      To answer your question directly, I think Phan has just rubbed a lot of people the wrong way with his behavior. I personally feel that Phan’s bad behavior has gone under the radar for reasons I can only speculate about. I have tremendous respect for SJI/Metro and the work they have done, and I think they have done a tremendous amount to support honest politics in the valley. But I have wondered if they have a blind spot when it comes to Phan, who generally receives positive coverage here, and my comment was intended to point out that he deserves just as much attention as Tran.

      I would not have even known about Phan’s popcorn-incident if it had not been for another commenter here. If you ask me, that is way more worthy of coverage than Tran’s terrible “rapping.”

      • Well, to be fair, the mayor is the “top dog” while a councilman is a lower position so would get less coverage?

        That being said, I do think that people get a reputation and then it’s easy to keep piling on. For example, this article’s headline is about alleged inappropriate remarks and “side hugs” so why throw in the Jay Z references from last year?

        Phan’s campaign violation (and then the fact that he was cleared by the DA) was covered by the Merc.

        • The violation which the DA investigated was the claim that Phan was not a resident of Milpitas, not Phan’s finance violation, which is still under investigation by the FPPC.

          Residency fraud is something that can be difficult to prove or investigate, and the DA never put out any information other than a very brief statement saying they investigated and found no crime had been committed. That same DA had also already endorsed Phan for both his 2014 and 2016 elections. Weigh that against the fact that the accusations of Phan committing residency fraud came from the very neighborhood where he claimed to reside:

          “One Edgewater Drive neighbor submitted a petition from the neighborhood saying Phan did not live there. That person, who asked not to be named in this story for fear of retaliation, said the community is tight-knit and would know if Phan was a resident on that street. She said she remains convinced that Phan has not lived in the city for more than two years, as he says he has.”

          In all honesty, the DA’s investigation could have been as extensive as them calling Phan’s godmother (the person Phan claimed to live with in Milpitas) and asking her whether or not Phan lived there. If she said yes, the DA’s office can technically say they investigated and found no crime was committed while giving no further details. Which is what happened.

          Phan’s finance violations are another story. The FPPC is still investigating whether or not he disguised a campaign loan from his parents as coming from himself. To make matters more complicated, Phan was involved in a third kerfuffle when he became the recipient of a PAC illegally funded through former council candidate Joshua Barrouse’s defunct campaign warchest. But I wouldn’t hold that last one against Phan, unless new info comes out that he coordinated with Barrouse.

          I don’t mean to “pile on” or act like a bully myself, but I think that politics is a double-edged sword, and people who want to enjoy the prestige of public office should be subject to constant evaluation and criticism. I have so much admiration for the resident that Phan tried to intimidate and humiliate with his popcorn gag. I can’t imagine how someone can come into a community they have no connection to, become a representative of that community, and then insult the real long-standing and civically-engaged members of that community. It’s individuals like that, so completely lacking in shame, that have made “politician” a dirty word and stolen so much honor out of public service. Phan is creating his own reputation, and it is the product of his character.

          • Folks will have the I opinion but due process should control in my view. I don’t think the DA’ s office is risking a scandal for some city councilman whose barely out of college nor do I think we should accuse the godmother of lying to law enforcement (committing a crime). I don’t care how closeknit a community is but unless you are weirdly nosey how much do you follow what a neighbour is doing?

            Concealing a loan from his parents as his own hardly seems like it risks any corruption.

            He’s relatively young and acts that way but I think that a young talented guy choosing to put themselves out there should be commended. He’ll grow into a better public servant (obviously there seems to be room for improvement)

          • Phan either trusts his godmother enough to live in the same house with her or to have her assistance in pretending he lives in the same house with her. I would be extremely surprised if she told the DA Phan did not live with her, regardless of whether he did or did not. I don’t think the DA was risking a scandal; they never put forward what evidence convinced them Phan lived there, and so it’s impossible to scrutinize their determination beyond speculation. Phan’s efforts to disguise the campaign loan demonstrate his willingness to mislead the public for his own self-interest. You might not think it’s a big deal, but it’s dangerous to elect leaders who think that rules don’t matter, and are willing to double-down on their fraud by constructing more elaborate lies.

            You have been very civil during this conversation, but I feel like I’m wasting my time engaging you if you can watch Phan insult his constituents and call him talented. What is with this perspective that he should be commended for “putting himself out there”? People who seek the spotlight should not be rewarded solely for seeking the spotlight, especially if they do so by seeking elected office in a community they have no history or connection to.

  12. You go mayor, if one guy on your council was crooked, chances are you didn’t get em all yet. You’re not going to please all the people no matter what you do anyway. As for the other stuff, you are human, right? Keep doing what you’re doing.

  13. TRAN AND PHAN BOTH VIETNAMESE HAVE DONE NOTHING FOR THE CITY OF MILPITAS OTHER THAN ADOPTING THE RESOLUTION NOT TO FLY THE VIETNAM COMMUNIST PARTY FLAG AT CITY HALL ON CERTAIN OCCASIONS.

  14. Being a 2nd generation Milpitian I just want to say that what I’ve noticed in this town is that there are a lot of roads that need to be fixed the school district needs a bit of a leg up and there is a sewer hole on Carlo St that spews out nasty water that hasn’t been fixed yet. Everyone in the city hall needs to quit playing games and focus on our town. People behaving like this is so ugly and selfish. I also would like to add that city officials should be people who actually live in it so they know where the problems areas are to fix.

  15. City manager Tom Williams has long been a problem for Milpitas alienating residents and employees alike with bullying behavior and engaging in ethically shady financial behavior. Whatever part Mayor.Tran played in Williams departure is worthy of praise. Previous mayors have let Williams’ rotten behavior persist.

    While Mayor Tran is rough around the edges, he has been a breathe of fresh air into the often incestuous world Milpitas politics. I hope he is re-elected handily and will continue to shake up the power structure of the city council and build a government more responsive to the concerns of Milpitas citizens.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *