The public comment portion of this week's Santa Clara City Council meeting turned into almost an hour of community members and council members publicly airing personal grievances against Councilwoman Kathy Watanabe for the first time on Tuesday.
Watanabe has lost some local support since her March 31 “Stop Asian Hate” event’s fallout; more than 70 Bay Area leaders and residents submitted a letter to the city requesting the two-term representative apologize and be censured for denying Councilmember Kevin Park—the city’s only elected Korean American—a chance to speak during the event.
For just shy of an hour, the seven-member council rehashed the March 31 event in minute detail, offering their perspectives and opinions about the incident that turned a “Stop Asian Hate” event organized by Mayor Lisa Gillmor and Watanabe into a magnifying glass on council divisions.
While the councilors did discuss those larger divides—and years of shunning perceived political foes by Watanabe—much of the conversation devolved into quarrels about who showed up to the event when, which names were on the speakers list, how Park RSVP’d for the event and both parties’ culpability.
“It’s unfortunate that this event that highlighted how our community came together to support AAPI residents has become a controversy about Councilmember Park not speaking,” Watanabe read from a prepared statement, which she previously provided reporters. “There was no ill will on my part. I am sorry that I could not accommodate him. If possible, I would have done so.”
Watanabe ultimately offered the apology Silicon Valley leaders demanded. “I’m sorry that you were offended and I’ll apologize to all of you, if that's what it takes, because this has not been easy for me in a lot of ways,” Watanabe said.
But that apology, it seems, has not smoothed things over with the Silicon Valley leaders demanding the mea culpa. The groups who signed onto the letter—including the Asian Law Alliance, The Health Trust, Korean American Community Services, Silicon Valley NAACP, Working Partnerships and others—are still pushing for Watanabe’s colleagues to censure, or formally reprimand, the councilwoman.
“The underlying problem is that the Mayor and Councilmember Watanabe don't get it,” Richard Konda, executive director for the Asian Law Alliance said in an interview Thursday. “They don't understand what that refusal really meant and what it signaled. I think that her denial of Kevin Park’s request to speak was just outrageous and I think it calls for a censure by the council.”
Likewise, Park said Watanabe’s apology hasn’t cut it with many Asian American residents, a fact that has become abundantly clear this week as his phone has buzzed incessantly with people asking about his next move.
“The AAPI community—all minority communities—we need to take the cause back,” he said. “We need to make sure that it is not Caucasian politicians that are speaking for us. Here we have a City Council person basically saying ‘this is my event,’ trying to gate-keep a national and a global movement for an Asian community that I think she does know about, but I question if she actually understands.”
Park said he hasn’t settled on a position when it comes to censure because he’s trying to balance the desire for closure and recognition of the hurt Watanabe’s actions caused, while avoiding further politicizing and deepening the already gaping council divides.
Gillmor, meanwhile, is pushing for the council members to forgive and forget.
“Council member Watanabe apologized, and I think it's time for us to work together and try on a positive approach, as opposed to the negative with lessons learned from everyone here,” Gillmor said during the meeting Tuesday. “There's always going to be people out there to point it out, and this is a good example of that—a very good deed that ended up going sour. The question is how do we make it better, work together, spread inclusion and love and everything else instead of divisiveness and hatred?”
Whether censure comes up again may depend on the residents, Park said, and specifically whether any will request the topic be put on a future meeting agenda.
“We need to make sure that Asians and the minorities in our community feel safe and supported, and a lot of them were not happy, and for good reason with what they heard at the city council meeting,” Park said Thursday reflecting on the meeting. “Censure is not about punishing anyone, but it's about sending a message to all of Santa Clara that this is what we stand for. I feel that we need to do something meaningful to record when we do things that are wrong.”