More than two weeks after the Nov. 3 election, the results are more clear: Antonio Lopez will be the youngest and newest member of East Palo Alto's City Council, joining a five-seat governing body with two veteran incumbents who have comfortably secured another four-year term this election season.
Lopez, who maintains a lead against one of his challengers, Webster Lincoln, with just 68 votes, according to San Mateo County's election data released on Friday evening, will be replacing veteran incumbent Larry Moody. Lisa Gauthier and Carlos Romero, who received 3,297 and 3,200 votes, respectively, will be going on their third term serving the city.
"I'm not worried," Lincoln said in an interview on Nov. 13, when results increasingly showed the candidate was losing his initial lead. "At the end of the day, I'm running to represent East Palo Alto. If the people don't think I'm the right person, then that's how it is. I really can't complain."
Lopez, a 26-year-old, Stanford University doctoral student, has remained silent on his campaign's social media accounts and reluctant to call the race in his favor before all the votes have been counted and the county certifies the results on Dec. 3.
"It would be a disservice to the county election officials to call it prematurely," Lopez said on Wednesday. "Let the democratic process play out."
But Lopez's win seems all but likely. Throughout the entire county, 99.9% of votes have been tallied, and, according to East Palo Alto City Clerk Walfred Solorzano, the city makes up 2.67% of registered voters. Based on that number, Solorzano said there could only be about six to 12 ballots left to be counted for the city election.
"It's highly improbable that we're gonna have a significant change, but we'll wait for the official certification of the vote," Solorzano said.
Assuming an unexpected batch of votes don't overturn his lead, Lopez said his immediate attention as a new council member will turn to the city's response to COVID-19 and addressing the housing insecurities exacerbated by the pandemic.
"The housing crisis has been at the forefront of my mind," he said.
Lopez said that he plans to create more educational campaigns on the "do's and don'ts of COVID" and on what residents need to know in terms of rent that needs to be paid and how much of it will be due given the extraordinary circumstances of the health crisis.
As a fresh-faced council member, Lopez will be joining three seasoned city council members who have each already served more than one term.
"I think it'll be exciting working with someone who's young and energetic and clearly has a progressive bent," Romero said. "If Lopez does take a council seat, there will definitely be three very progressives on the council, and I think that will help move some of the equity and social-economic issues forward that East Palo Alto has to address during this pandemic."
Lopez called it a "wonderful situation" to join a body with so much institutional memory and said he is eager to share his perspectives.
"What I'll remind all of them is that I have had the humble privilege of canvassing every inch of this city, so I'd like to think that I have an organic sense of what the community's needs are," he said. "And in particular my passion is for the youth, who might not give a damn about politics, but maybe, with someone like me, they might pay attention."
Lopez's appeal among younger and Latino voters of the city helped boost the doctoral student's shot at the third seat. But also critical to overturning the initial optimistic outlook for Lincoln could have been his race-to-the-finish campaign method, which stirred controversy among some local residents.
On Election Day, Lopez hosted a taco stand nearby St. Francis of Assisi Church, one of two voting centers that were available in the city. The candidate publicized the event on social media beforehand, sharing posts that said "Vote & Eat Free Tacos" in English and Spanish. Lopez, Romero and Julian Garcia, who was a candidate for the Ravenswood City School District Board of Trustees, were present on the day of the event.
Some community members have called into question the legality of giving out free food near the church, since there are rules against campaigning within 100 feet of a polling location and offering incentives for voting or to vote for a certain candidate or measure.
But according to Solorzano, he and a few county field technicians investigated the stand on Nov. 3 and found that Lopez held the event outside of the 100-feet boundary and determined he was not explicitly exchanging incentives for votes that day.
"There was no quid pro quo," Solorzano said.
But Lopez did encourage people's votes on a few state propositions and Measure V, the local hotel tax increase, in the same online post that publicized free food. "It is imperative that the people of East Palo Alto have their voice heard," the post stated.
One community member, who wished to remain anonymous, has since reported the matter to the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office and the U.S. Department of Justice.
In response to the allegations, Lopez said he consulted closely with election officials and was affirmed that the event was allowed. Lopez said the event was not intended to encourage voters to support his campaign but was instead "an affirmation that we care and that this campaign cares and that this community will be fed and taken care of."
Legalities aside, Lopez agreed that his in-person campaigning and his push to the final hour of Election Day contributed to what's turned out to be a razor-thin victory.
"When I was canvassing, there were folks who we might have missed, so doing that second or third run around helped," he said. "Every door knock mattered."
County data shows Romero and Lopez ultimately performed the best at vote centers out of all seven candidates, receiving 485 and 450 votes, respectively, through in-person votes. The rest came from mailed and drop-off ballots. (In contrast, Lincoln outperformed Lopez with mailed and drop-off ballots, though only marginally by 20 more votes, according to the latest data.)
Perhaps the biggest upset of the race was Council member Larry Moody's loss, which was apparent at the outset of election night when the first set of results were released.
Like Gauthier and Romero, who both attributed their win to their long history in the city, Moody is a prominent community figure — with experience in East Palo Alto going back as far as 1993 — who was seeking a third term on the council. Support from residents, endorsement from the county's Democratic Party, and the nearly $15,000 raised all through donations pointed to signs of the candidate's status as a local household name and his strong chance of retaining his seat.
But latest results showed Moody only landed the sixth most votes in this election, with 266 more votes than Stewart Hyland — a nonprofit director and first-time challenger who came in last for the race — and 396 less votes than Juan Mendez, another younger, first-time challenger who raised substantially less money than Moody.
"I haven't taken it all in yet," Moody said on election night. "This might be the first time on Nov. 3 that I went to bed not certain that I was going to be reelected."
During the Weekly's live broadcast of the election results, Moody said he was unsure where his future role in the city lies next but was certain that he will pay close attention, as a council member or not, to the city's relationship with the East Palo Alto sanitary district.
"I think that's a conversation that my wife and my family certainly need to have," Moody said. "I don't think there's any rush to make a decision."