East Palo Alto Mayor Ruben Abrica and tech executive Regina Wallace-Jones have won the two open seats on East Palo Alto's city council, according to unofficial election results released Tuesday.
With 14 of 14 precincts reporting, Wallace-Jones garnered 795 votes, or 24.63 percent of the total, while Abrica had 780 votes, or 24.16 percent. Incumbent Donna Rutherford came in third, with 523 votes, or 16.20 percent.
The race for City Council brought out a diverse group of candidates, including Court Skinner, a former planning commissioner, Bernardo Huerta, a current public works and transportation commissioner, third-generation resident Patricia Ape Finau Lopez, and businessman Randal Fields.
Abrica, who has been involved in the city's politics since before its incorporation in 1983, said he was grateful for the voters' confidence in him.
"I've been addressing both historical issues and challenges like housing and the things we have to do: traffic, parking and new development. We have to make it work for the community," he said.
"As a city council, we have new people moving in. We have to come together with them," he added, referring to high-tech workers who are increasingly populating the city.
Vice Mayor Lisa Gauthier said that looking at multiple elections on Nov. 6, it was clear the voters wanted a change. The election had generated much excitement, which was good to see.
"I can work with anybody. If there's something new, let's talk about it. The voters have spoken. Let's move forward with it," she said.
William Webster, a longtime community activist and leading affordable-housing advocate in East Palo Alto, said he is not surprised by the results thus far in the multiracial city.
Abrica would win if Latino voters turned out to vote, he said.
"They love him," he said.
Webster campaigned for Skinner, but he said he was sure that Wallace-Jones would win.
"She's had the best or second-best campaign ever organized in East Palo Alto," he said, commenting that only Nevida Butler had a better-organized campaign in the last century.
"She was able to capitalize on that she is a high-tech person. East Palo Alto is gentrifying with high-tech people moving in," he said.
Rutherford, the incumbent who lost her seat to Wallace-Jones, could not be reached for comment. But Skinner and Huerta indicated the upset likely indicates a change in the city's political direction. For Skinner, it's not enough; for Huerta, it might represent a crucial change.
A longtime public servant, Huerta said he sees the emergence of Wallace-Jones as a test of the impact that tech residents will have on city's politics, culture and demographic.
"Are we still the community we once were? It's a test of the community identity," he said.
Looking forward, he said he hopes the city will ramp up the Parks and Recreation master plan and amenities that will improve residents' quality of life.
Skinner, who contributed to Wallace-Jones' campaign even as he was her competitor, said he supports her because she will ask many more questions while on the council. He sees her election as a beginning. But he isn't sure she will have enough clout to make effective change.
He faulted a sort of cultural NIMBYism that seeks to keep the city as a place that is reserved for the "serfs" and where some people want "only affordable housing" to be built. He is frustrated that not enough people see a broader vision that could usher in educational and economic change. The city needs a better mix of housing and small businesses that can serve the community, he said.
"We are far too dependent on nonprofits and other people's money," he added.
Tameeka Bennett, executive director of Youth United for Community Action, which has worked to protect residents being displaced, is cautious about Wallace-Jones.
"I'm really concerned that she has the support of Sandhill and Woodland Park, some of the biggest predatory landlords in this community. She represents, certainly, the newcomers, and one of our biggest problems in East Palo Alto is tech," she said.
Wallace-Jones did not return a request for comment. But she has said in online postings that she represents all of the people in the city and denies implications she can be "bought" by tech firms.
Also on the ballot, Measure HH, the so-called "tech tax," passed easily, with 1,423 votes, or 76.92 percent. The tax on large office properties needs two-thirds of voters' approval to succeed.
Abrica said he strongly supported the tax beginning in January when it came up during the council's retreat.
"It's a new page in our history where we're taking charge of our development. The voters are insisting that high-tech companies and offices, if they are doing well, share with us and help create affordable housing. These days, with the new economy, more city governments will have to do the same thing," he said.
Bennett said the measure brought out many volunteers, particularly young people who contributed much time and energy to support the measure.
"They wanted to pass this. They were phenomenal and helped people to get to vote at the polls. It was a huge team effort," she said.
In the past, residents passed supportive measures such as Measure J, the revised Rent Stabilization and Just Cause for Eviction ordinance; Measure O, a residential business license tax; and Measure P, a vital city services measure that funded neighborhood law enforcement. But now the city's demographics, and its priorities, could be changing.
"It's a different atmosphere -- it's a different East Palo Alto," she said.
"Before, we knew who we were and who our community was," she said, noting the solid support for the previous measures.
But with the changing population due to recent gentrification, she said, she wasn't sure if Measure HH would pass.
Voter approval of Measure HH "is extraordinary," she said. "We're coming after tech companies because they are coming after our community. HH is a tool in our arsenal. Gentrification is violence. It rips families apart and takes you out of being able to live in your community. That has so much trauma. Tech isn't the whole cause, but they play a big role. We need accountability," she said.
Jeffrey Poetsch, president of the Ravenswood Shores Business District, who authored the ballot rebuttal to Measure HH, said if the measure passes, then "that's the decision of the voters."
He said he would "seek to craft a cooperative way going forward with the City Council."
"There are a lot of infrastructure needs out there. My concern is there are only a certain amount of dollars," and if earmarked for affordable housing, then infrastructure improvements needed to develop the business district, such as for roads, sewer and water, might not get funded, he said.
But "everybody is here for the long term," he said.
In the semi-official final report for election night, the San Mateo County Elections Office had reported the results from 1,942 ballots, according to the elections website. The city has 10,276 voters in 14 precincts.
However, ballot counting continues: Vote-by-mail ballots postmarked on or before Election Day that are received by county elections officials by Nov. 9 will be counted.
Election results will be certified by Dec. 6, 2018, the Elections Office website states.