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Election Analysis: Money and Endorsements Didn't Necessarily Pay Off

Gilbert Wong won a second term on council, but he couldn't convince voters to elect Marty Miller, who was beat by the grassroots organizing of Rod Sinks.

Cash may be king, but Tuesday night’s Cupertino Council election results proved that sometimes good old fashioned grassroots organizing trumps even a big campaign chest.

The results have yet to be certified by the Registrar of Voters, but initial results indicate that newcomer Rod Sinks won his first bid for election over both long-time Fremont Union School Board Trustee Homer Tong and three-time council candidate Marty Miller, despite raising less money than Mayor Gilbert Wong and Miller, and garnering less big-time political endorsements. Even heavy campaigning by first place winner Wong wasn’t enough to bring Miller onto council.

Initially Miller was right behind Sinks in the results, but on Wednesday updated results showed that Tong pulled ahead of Miller, who fell to fourth out of a field six. Donna Austin finished fifth, and Chris Zhang came in sixth.

What Sinks, a long-time scoutmaster and successful businessman, had was careful preparation, a broad base of volunteers and supporters, and a systematic approach to courting voters and key Cupertino leaders such as Councilmember Orrin Mahoney and former mayor Richard Lowenthal (Mahoney also backed Wong, but broke ranks with Wong and Vice Mayor Mark Santoro who were backing Miller).

It didn’t hurt that Sinks started the campaign with the support from possibly hundreds of members of the Bay Area Clean Environment (BACE) group, which he helped found.

His focus on environmental issues, especially possible pollution from the Lehigh Southwest Cement Permanente Plant, (which also endorsed Wong) and the League of Conservation Voters (which could have endorsed two candidates, but only endorsed Sinks).

Although that link to BACE and its primary founder Councilmember Barry Chang was at times a double edged sword. For example, the San Jose Mercury News dismissed Sinks as being “in league” with fellow candidate Tong, also backed by Chang, and the editorial board theorized that the two would “obsess” on the Lehigh issue to the exclusion of other city issues.

Earlier in the year for being abrasive, and it probably wasn’t a mistake that the editorial board and others tried to link Sinks and Tong to Chang as being a negative.

Voters didn't seem swayed by the attempts, giving Sinks and Tong enough votes to come in second and third. What worked against Tong was most likely the fact that he maintained a busy schedule as a De Anza instructor and a school board trustee while running for office. He did not build a broad grassroots group as Sinks did. Had Tong done that, Sinks and Tong might have been able to edge Wong out.

—he raised two to three times what other candidates raised—but he apparently lacked the influence with voters to convince them to bring Miller with him.

He campaigned hard for Miller, sending out a letter to voters, “From the desk of Mayor Gilbert Wong”, and donating $3,500 to Miller’s campaign from his own campaign fund. Miller had nearly every key endorsement from South Bay politicians that Wong had. Many of the same developers who donated large amounts to Wong in turn gave to Miller. Some developers had as much as $10,000 invested in the two men.

In addition, Santoro also pounded the pavement for both Miller and Wong, and sent a letter to the Cupertino Courier two weeks before the election urging voters to elect the two. At the same time his letter subtly attempted to characterize Sinks and Tong as “Barry’s boys”, linking them to Chang.

In the end, all their arguments in favor of Miller were not enough to convince voters to propel him to the council.

Yet it wasn’t the only failed attempt to influence voters. They were also not completely swayed by negative campaigning against Wong for numerous contributions from developers and landowners. Tong sent out thousands of flyers in the final week depicting shadowy figures backing Wong and Miller.

An unidentified source distributed unflattering political cartoons about Wong on the Internet, hammering him for his large developer contributions, and claiming he favored helping Lehigh, among other issues.

As Wong himself pointed out, a 2008 citywide survey showed that 93 percent of residents are satisfied with city services. Perhaps enough voters decided Wong had contributed to that high level of satisfaction and thus had earned another term.

So what’s ahead for the council in 2012?

Sinks will be sworn in Dec. 6 for his first four-year term, and Wong will be sworn in for his second term, and will step aside as mayor for the next council member to take over the post. Kris Wang will step down, having termed out of her time on council.

Vice Mayor Santoro is expected to be elected by the council to the position of mayor. Stranger things have been known to happen, however, like when the council blocked Chang from becoming vice mayor last year.

If he does win, Santoro will find himself leading Sinks, who he actively campaigned against, and Chang, who he has clashed with in the past.

Mahoney is in the last two years of his final term on council. He’s an independent thinker who is not afraid to speak his mind. He could be the deciding vote in issues where Santoro and Wong side on an issue verses Chang and Sinks, particularly when it comes to Lehigh.

Although despite what some feared during the campaign, don’t expect Sinks to vote in lockstep with Chang. Sinks distanced himself during the campaign from Chang at times. That flyer depicting the shadowy developers? Chang helped distribute the flyer. Sinks probably could have been included on the flyer, but wasn’t.

As to who will be elected vice mayor, it most likely won't be Chang again, since Mahoney and Wong didn't support him last year over Santoro. Patch is guessing Mahoney, if he wants it. 

Frank Geefay November 11, 2011 at 05:20 AM
The Cupertino Patch's appearing biased is a matter of repeated exposure by other local news media in praise of Gilbert's activities as Mayor. He has been raised to such a high level by repeated exposure and endorsements by such media as the San Jose Mercury and Courier that it seeing as if the Patch is biased when publishing uncomplimentary facts so obviously absent from these other local media sources. In fact the Patch states the same facts about all candidates. So an excellent argument can be made that other local news media are biased towards Gilbert by their lack to present unfavorable facts and their open endorse of him. I saw no endorsements from the Patch. If the San Jose Mercury cannot get reporters to report the news then how can a small news media such as the Patch do it and do it so well? The claim of bias is clearly being directed towards the wrong news media.
Rod Sinks November 11, 2011 at 06:28 AM
The Patch published the most interesting stories of the campaign in my opinion. Given the questions asked at the League of Women Voters and APAPA Forums on campaign financing, it was frankly surprising that only the Patch picked up the story. And it was told in a completely fair way, enumerating donors of over $1000 to all six campaigns. As for the headline of this story, I'm actually proud to have received a broad, diverse set of local endorsements rather than the county, state and federal politicians that Gilbert and Marty solicited. I also wonder if voters didn't tire of seeing the same headshots of Liz Kniss, Paul Fong and Joe Simitian on mailer after mailer. As I stumped the city, many voters told me that my mailers were actually interesting to read. A few voters showed me the "Vision" piece tacked up on their bulletin boards. One voter drove up to my home (the mailer return address) expecting to see the spectacular round building depicted in Apple's rendering of their new campus. I was sorry to disappoint him, but after several minutes, he left with a lawn sign, convinced I was worth supporting.
Frank Geefay November 11, 2011 at 07:35 PM
Very well stated. Too much of the same old thing can be monotonous and counterproductive. There is too much focus on matters not important to the community as a whole that also needs a refreshing change on City Council. Hopefully Rod can change the dynamics on City Council to refocus on the campaign promises made by all candidates. We must hold them accountable so they won't keep making the same mistakes over and over again.
Susan December 09, 2011 at 10:15 PM
A MUST see video! Sen. Bernie Sanders on Thurs. proposed a constitutional amendment to overturn a Supreme Court ruling that allowed unrestricted and secret campaign spending by corporations on U.S. elections. The amendment would reverse the narrow 5-to-4 ruling in Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Commission. Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9qZZVqSQdo Show your support - sign the petition at http://sanders.senate.gov/savingdemocracy
Frank Geefay December 10, 2011 at 07:07 PM
It is no surprise that politicians (including city council) do not want campaign donation reform. It goes against their self interest in raising money for their campaign even if they end up owing favors. Barry Chang, on the other hand, wants campaign reform because he is on a lifetime missions: to bring the will of the people, not corporate America, into focus in city, state and national governments. Isn't this the basis for America's democratic republic? It would seem unpatriotic to empower multinational corporations to pay for elections especially since they are a source for unlimited funds. This would simply give even more political power to corporations through favors owed by our elected officials. This simply makes me loose faith in our form of government. Maybe Democracy isn't all about empowering people but instead of giving more power to multinational corporations. So is this the idea we are trying to sell in our foreign policy to other nations. Is this what our young and brave soldiers are shedding their lives and blood for on a daily basis? Is this what we are really all about? I doubt this amendment will pass. But if it does then we the residents of Cupertino should demand campaign reform for our city elections.

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