In the wake of national election results that have triggered widespread anxiety about the implications for the future of the country, the outcome of our local elections seems small in importance.
It would be easy -- but a mistake, we believe -- to interpret the outcome of the City Council election as some kind of important shift in voter attitudes on growth. To do so requires believing that distorted, black-and-white accusations that opposing candidates (or their supporters) made about one another are true; that candidates intentionally misled voters in describing their actual positions; and that the newly elected council members will act contrary to their more nuanced campaign statements when sworn in.
It also assumes that the three newcomers, Greg Tanaka, Adrian Fine and Lydia Kou, are beholden to certain interests in the community rather than to crafting solutions through understanding, negotiation and compromise.
To the community's detriment, the eight leading contenders in the election formed into two competing camps that baited voters to pick a side. It positioned the race as less about the individual qualities, viewpoints and expertise of the candidates and sought to oversimplify the choices for the purpose of electing a dominating majority of loosely aligned viewpoints.
In effect, the slates enabled the less well-known and less experienced candidates to hitch themselves to those with more widespread political support in hopes of riding their coattails. It should surprise no one that the only incumbent in the race, Liz Kniss, was easily the top vote-getter. She has successfully represented the city for two earlier terms on the City Council, two terms on the Board of Supervisors and for another term on the council, and she has a loyal and extensive group of supporters who ran a predictably effective campaign.
The three candidates who aligned themselves with Kniss -- Tanaka, Fine and Don McDougall -- successfully tapped into Kniss' north Palo Alto establishment base and waged a joint advertising campaign unlike anything seen in modern Palo Alto politics.
The group and its allies also pressured the county Democratic party to endorse it and successfully made housing a central issue in the campaign and falsely painted its opponents as anti-housing.
By contrast, the other group, consisting of Kou, Arthur Keller, Greer Stone and Stewart Carl, failed to craft a cohesive campaign message beyond broad-brush exaggerations of the positions of the Kniss slate on development issues. Instead of running a campaign that took credit for changing the balance of power on the council in the 2014 election and successfully achieving widely supported limits to new commercial development and new measures to address parking and traffic, this group chose to paint their opponents as being in the pocket of developers and in support of a return to overly permissive development policies. In was an overreach that backfired.
The assumed result will be a modest shift from a 4-4 split on the council, with a swing vote (Pat Burt), to a 5-4 split tilting back toward the city's political "establishment." But with such politically inexperienced newcomers, the outcome of key issues cannot be predicted and will be highly influenced by community opinion. With all the winners on-the-record expressing the need for continued constraint on new commercial development and a focus on innovative housing to serve lower income residents, we hope for few 5-4 votes and for more actions that meet with widespread community support.
By contrast, the Palo Alto school board election left nothing to the imagination. For the first time in decades, an incumbent seeking re-election was defeated and another finished in third place behind two first-time challengers (Jennifer DiBrienza and Todd Collins) -- an unprecedented rebuke.
Heidi Emberling, who has served one term, will step down after narrowly losing the third place slot to Melissa Baten Caswell, who chose to go against long-standing tradition and seek a third term.
To underscore voter unhappiness with the performance of the board, almost 6,000 votes were cast for Srinivasan Subramanian, who withdrew from the race only days after having declared but too late to be removed from the ballot. He ran no campaign.
It is impossible to know how much voters were reacting to the recent budget mistakes and the controversial approval of three-year union contracts and administrator pay raises, or if they were expressing a broader discontent with the board's handling of numerous other problems and controversies, but they left no doubt about their desire for new and better leadership.
In this year of political turbulence and angst at both the national and local level, we should be grateful for those who have committed the time and energy to serve in such a challenging climate. Holding public office is not easy in Palo Alto and every candidate steps forward with the best of intentions. We don't always agree with the processes or the results, but we thank them for the sacrifices they make to serve.