Palo Alto Councilwoman Liz Kniss, a two-time mayor whose political resume includes stints on the city's school board, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and the City Council, is gearing up for another political race.
Kniss announced Tuesday that she will seek for another term on the council in November, becoming the second candidate to enter the race for four contested seats. With Councilman Marc Berman now engaged in a race for the state Assembly, Kniss is poised to be the only incumbent who will appear on the ballot for the council.
Known as a moderate on land-use issues, the political veteran has often found herself on the opposite side of the debate from the council's slow-growth "residentialist" wing. At the same time, she has supported the council's cap on new office developments in Palo Alto's main commercial areas and, surprising some, voted earlier this year against a new Mercedes dealership that was planned for the Palo Alto Baylands.
But if there is one attribute that sets her apart from everyone else on the council it's her years of experience on regional and state boards. She is the only Palo Alto council member who has served on the boards of both Caltrain and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, two agencies on which Palo Alto has traditionally had a hard time winning representation. She also currently vice chair of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and, if things go as planned, she would become chair next year.
But as Kniss learned after 2012, when she won her fourth election to the council, things in politics often don't go as planned. With anti-growth sentiment gaining momentum and the 2013 referendum over a housing development on Maybell Avenue shaking up the the city's political scene, Kniss found herself increasingly on the defensive in the city's ongoing debate over new development.
Her changing role became particularly evident in January 2015, when then-Vice Mayor Kniss saw her path to a third term as mayor suddenly obstructed by the new political reality. Sensing that the city's long-held tradition of having vice mayors serve as mayors the following year was in jeopardy, Kniss took the initiative and nominated Karen Holman to the mayor's spot. Citing the "difficult election" and the divisions in the community, Kniss argued that Holman was the right candidate to bring the community together. The council unanimously supported the nomination.
Despite her support for Holman as mayor, Kniss has tended to align herself with members of the council who aren't as staunchly anti-growth as the residentialist wing. In June 2015, she voted to approve a mixed-use development proposed for 441 Page Mill Road, which advanced by a 5-4 vote (the four slow-growth members voted against it). And on May 23, she also joined the council majority in approving by a 5-4 vote a block-long mixed-use project at 2515 El Camino Real, best known as the longtime site of the Olive Garden restaurant.
On the council, Kniss has been guided more by political pragmatism than ideology. In January, she was part of the 5-4 majority that elected Pat Burt as mayor and Greg Scharff as vice mayor, opposing the slow-growth candidate for mayor.
Nor is she reliably pro-growth. Last month, she joined most of the residentialists (with the exception of Tom DuBois) in 50-foot-tall Mercedes dealership that was proposed for Embarcadero Road, near the Baylands. She has supported the annual cap on new office space that the council imposed last year for downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real. And while she initially voted in May 2015 against a citizen appeal of a proposed new development at 429 University Ave. (the appeal advanced by a 5-4 vote, with the four slow-growth council members and Burt supporting it), last fall she joined her colleagues in demanding a fresh round of public hearings on this development.
Even so, Kniss has faced criticism by residents eager to further clamp down on new development. The group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, which was formed after the Maybell referendum and which supports residentialist candidates, in 2014 rated council members based on "pro-resident" votes. While Holman and Greg Schmid each earned 85 percent, Kniss received just 38 percent.
In some ways, Kniss serves as a counterpoint to Lydia Kou, a Barron Park resident who declared her candidacy last Friday. Kou's campaign is endorsed by Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning and by the council's most slow-growth members DuBois, Filseth, Holman and Schmid, while Kniss' enjoys the backing of Burt and council members Marc Berman, Scharff and Cory Wolbach.
In discussing her decision to enter the race, Kniss pointed to her regional experience as a key qualification. In addition to the region's transportation agencies, she is the president of the Peninsula Division at the California League of Cities and a board member at Santa Clara County Family Health Plan.
"I have experience over a period of years in different government bodies," Kniss told the Weekly. "I have good contacts and a long history of constituent service."
Kniss has already amassed a list of big-name endorsers, including U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, state Sen. Jerry Hill and current school board members Melissa Baten Caswell, Heidi Emberling, Terry Godfrey and Camille Townsend. Even so, because of the recent resurgence of slow-growth sentiment in the community, the November election battle may prove to be more challenging for her than the one in 2012, when she received more votes than anyone else in the six-person field.
On this point, Kniss has no illusions. She told the Weekly she expects development and its impacts to be the most important issue in the coming election and in the next council term. She expects that the council will continue to grapple with traffic, parking and aesthetics.
She emphasized the need to have strong zoning laws and good guidelines for approving new development and rejected the notion of forbidding code-compliant projects just because the council doesn't like some of their features.
"I think decisions should be made based on sound planning parameters, with objectivity rather than subjectivity," Kniss said.
She also acknowledged that there has been a "sense of loss" in the community, with many local merchants and longtime residents being driven out of Palo Alto by high rents. She stresses the need for more housing, particularly housing tailored to seniors, low-income residents and young professionals. She told the Weekly that areas on which she'd like to focus on in a new term include sustainability, livability and viability, which to her connotes a sense of excitement people experience when they come to downtown Palo Alto.
"I like the sense of fun, the people in the street, the different languages being spoken -- it's a real sense of place," Kniss said.