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 He’s been replaced by an apparently far more diplomatic successor in Julie Edmond-Mares, who has since re-hired Steve McHarris, a planning official who fled Milpitas a few years ago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.”