In a shifting of the power dynamic in our community not seen for more than 40 years, Palo Alto's traditional political movers and shakers suffered a humiliating defeat this week as unhappy voters expressed their desire for change, more transparency, broader representation, less arrogance and greater accountability.
The realization that voters would opt for a new direction set in among political insiders during the final days of the campaign, mostly as a result of feedback candidates were getting as they talked to voters door-to-door.
Incumbent Karen Holman, whose strong concern about growth and development has put her on the losing side of many council votes and who is often marginalized by her colleagues, was the big winner.
She was not only the top vote-getter among the 12 candidates, but substantially out-polled her colleagues Greg Scharff (currently in third place) and Mayor Nancy Shepherd (seventh).
With the election of neighborhood activists Tom DuBois (currently second) and Eric Filseth (fourth), those who favor tougher restrictions on development will make up a majority of the new council come January.
The fifth seat is currently too close to call and may take days to settle. Lydia Kou, a Barron Park resident and Realtor who has been active in emergency-preparedness efforts and opposed the Maybell development proposal last year, is about 30 votes ahead of Cory Wolbach, a Palo Alto native who is an aide to state Sen. Jerry Hill and whose campaign focused on bridging political divides in the community and moving forward with greater civility in addressing issues.
The election results were an embarrassing blow to two officials who weren't on the ballot: Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilman Larry Klein.
Each of them worked hard to recruit and campaign for candidates they felt would most closely replicate the political perspectives of the current council.
Klein, who is termed-out and will leave the council, even spearheaded an independent campaign committee of previous council members and other well-known city leaders to support a slate of four "independent" candidates: Scharff, Shepherd, Wolbach and attorney A.C. Johnston (who finished eighth).
Ads placed by the group, calling itself Palo Altans for Good Government, criticized the use of political labels such as "establishment" and then attacked the "slate" of candidates (DuBois, Filseth and Kou) as advocating no-growth and asserted that, if they were elected, it would mean no new public safety building, fewer new housing opportunities and a "serious hit to our economic vitality."
Kniss similarly attempted to energize her political boosters to support these same four candidates, in part because her ambition to be elected mayor in January hung in the balance. Now, in a remarkable turnaround, it is likely that Karen Holman will be elected mayor and lead the newly constituted council majority.
Perhaps the most interesting and surprising result from the election is the decisive passage of a measure reducing the size of the City Council from nine to seven beginning in 2018.
The proposal hadn't generated much interest nor was there any opposition campaign, but civic activist and former Silicon Valley Bank founder Roger Smith single-handedly (and at his own expense) waged an effort first to get it on the ballot and then to convince voters the reduction would save the city money and improve the efficiency of city government decision-making.
The measure's passage is especially surprising given the concerns raised during the council campaign that Palo Alto politics is overly dominated by a relatively small and insular group of insiders. Some viewed the council-size-reduction measure as designed to preserve this structure.
But voters seemed to be more motivated by their unhappiness with the inefficiencies of having a nine-member council, long-winded discussions and meetings that go late into the night. The reduction will directly affect the five candidates elected this week because when they reach the end of their terms in 2018, only three seats will be available.
Palo Alto elections rarely center around meaningful differences on issues, instead tending to focus on the touting of resumes and endorsement lists. This year, voters seem to be emphatically saying they want more than well-meaning, likable candidates. They want people who are running to fix problems, broaden community engagement and transparency, and preserve the qualities that make Palo Alto unique.