It’s been a decade since Otto Lee’s served in public office, but his new gig as Santa Clara County’s D3 supervisor still comes sooner than expected.
That’s because his predecessor Dave Cortese gets sworn in as 15th State Senate District rep on Dec. 7—a full month before the Board of Supervisors’ usual changing of the guard.
“Suddenly, we have to really step up,” Lee said in a recent phone call. “So, right now we’re reading resumes, taking interviews and trying to figure out who to hire.”
The incoming District 3 supe appointed his campaign manager, Mark Tiernan, as head of his transition team, whose goal is to recruit anywhere from seven to a dozen staffers to hit the ground running in just a few short weeks.
“Competency is really important to me,” Lee said when asked what he’s looking for in a team. “I want people who have a firm grasp and knowledge about policy and the district—where the issues in Berryessa and San Jose might be different than those in Alviso.”
With a 40 percent Asian and Pacific Islander constituency, Lee said he also wants a staff that reflects that diversity and can speak various languages.
“I had a really strong campaign team,” he told San Jose Inside, “and they’ve been a huge help now that we’re in this transitional phase.”
Lee—a former Sunnyvale mayor, U.S. Navy Bronze Star recipient and IP attorney endorsed by the Silicon Valley Organization—vanquished his labor-backed rival, Assemblyman Kansen Chu, with more than 60 percent of the votes and after outspending the state legislator by a five-to-one margin.
“Honestly, I think that’s because I ran as a unity candidate,” Lee said, “and I think voters appreciate someone who can bring those sides together.”
It helped that he ran a strong ground game, too—at least until Covid made door-knocking too risky. “After the primary, we had to run a very different campaign,” Lee said, “and had to go digital. But it worked out. It was a very strange time to run for office.”
And a challenging time to govern.
Looking ahead, Lee said he knows he’ll have some difficult choices to make.
Next year, the county will no doubt face painful cuts. And with the pandemic poised to get worse before it gets better, the five-member Board of Supervisors will have to continue leading the South Bay’s Covid-19 response—hopefully with more federal help than it’s seen under the Trump Administration.
“Being a public official is far easier in boom times,” Lee said. “In times of surplus, you’re like Santa Claus. But in tough times, like we’re facing now, we have to be the ones to make decisions about what to cut and what sacrifices to make.”
Though he’s served in public office through lean years before, the current crisis presents unique challenges, Lee observed.
“Past recessions, and definitely the past two, have hit every industry, basically,” he said. “This one is very unusual because you have some companies doing phenomenally well, while others suffer. It’s extremely uneven.”
The disproportionality of the pandemic will feature into the county’s response, of course, and that could open the door to disagreements over what to prioritize.
With Cortese out, Board President Cindy Chavez no longer has a reliable labor-aligned majority. Joe Simitian and Susan Ellenberg are both Democrats but hover more toward the center, while Mike Wasserman, the lone Republican, leans conservative.
Lee said he doesn’t anticipate much division, however. For the most part, the board tends to vote unanimously—though recent divisions emerged over the question of whether to put a new tax on the ballot and whether to require South Bay schools to evaluate compliance with federal gender harassment policies.
On issues most important to Lee, he said he’s confident the board will work with him. “My No. 1 priority is the homeless situation,” he said. “The pandemic only makes that more urgent, especially now that it’s getting colder and Covid is getting worse.”