by Peter Gauvin
It was a bitter campaign for the north county seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, but it turned out very sweet for Joe Simitian--and in more ways than one. At 10 p.m. Tuesday, before any substantial returns had come in, Simitian announced to supporters tightly packed into the Tennyson Avenue home of Tony and Jan Di Julio, that regardless of the outcome of his runoff against Barbara Koppel, he could not lose on this night. Just 15 minutes before the polls closed at 8 p.m. he asked his campaign consultant Mary Hughes to marry him.
"And she said, 'Yes,'" Simitian, 43, said as the crowd roared. The two have been companions for eight years.
The icing on the cake for the Palo Alto City Council member and former school board member was that he won the District 5 seat by a wide margin. It was a significant turnaround from the primary, which he lost 40 percent to Koppel's 46 percent. (A third candidate, Mark O'Connor, received 14 percent and endorsed Koppel in the runoff.)
With all 315 precincts from Saratoga to Palo Alto reporting, Simitian turned that six-point deficit into a 15-point victory, receiving 57.6 percent (57,015 votes) to Koppel's 42.4 percent (41,935 votes).
Asked what turned the election around for Simitian, one party guest, outgoing District 5 Supervisor Dianne McKenna, cited his response to last-minute attacks made against him in the primary, the unprecedented move of the San Jose Mercury News switching its endorsement to him, and focusing an "effective grass-roots campaign" on the southern part of the district, where he wasn't well known.
In the March primary, Simitian lost in every city but Palo Alto. To correct that, he walked so many precincts throughout the district that he lost 35 pounds.
McKenna, who endorsed Simitian, is leaving because of term limits after 12 years in office. The Sunnyvale resident said she will take a three-month sabbatical and decide what she wants to do after that.
It was a rancorous campaign between Koppel and Simitian, fought more in the courts and in front of the Santa Clara County Ethics Commission than on the issues. Simitian first won a court decision against Koppel for making false and misleading statements on her ballot statement. Then he brought a handful of campaign finance charges to the Ethics Commission, which ruled Koppel had violated four provisions of the county's strict new ordinance and fined her $2,000.
Koppel, a former Cupertino Council member and mayor, retaliated by bringing several charges against Simitian to the commission, which ruled last week that Simitian had violated two provisions: not recording donations for his primary night election party and accepting more than the $350 limit from an individual donor.
"We all know this race has been a little bit more rough and tumble than we bargained for, but hey, if it isn't worth fighting for, it isn't worth winning," Simitian told his supporters.
Simitian said the Mercury News endorsement likely played a key role among voters because there are no party labels for candidates on the ballot, they are not well known outside their own communities and the supervisor's job is not particularly well understood. He also said it helped that the Cupertino Courier decided not to endorse Koppel as they did in the primary. "That says something when your hometown newspaper stays out of the fray," he said.
Koppel, reached Wednesday, blamed her showing on biased press coverage and dirty campaigning by Simitian. "I think it's really obvious that he was going to do whatever it took to win . . . I don't believe any person has to be trashed like I was to win the election. It hurt my family," she said.
"I think his hit pieces and his misleading statements had an impact, and probably the Mercury News switch. Another thing is I'm going up against the big Democratic machine here in the county," said Koppel, who aimed to be the only Republican on the board, although the office is ostensibly non-partisan.
"We all know that the press is liberal." she added. "There hasn't been any fairness. And that's probably the part that's most disturbing."
Koppel, 56, said she's going to take a vacation before figuring out what she does next, but she has no other plans for public office.
Hughes, Simitian's fiancee, said the timing of his proposal caught her by surprise. Her consulting firm, Staton, Hughes & Shafer, was in the heat of battle in nine local races, including the closely watched East Bay congressional race between Republican Bill Baker and her client, Democratic challenger Ellen Tauscher.
While the proposal was unexpected, it wasn't rash. Simitian, who has never been married, met Hughes in 1988, when she was Anna Eshoo's campaign manager during her first run for Congress. Since that initial defeat to Tom Campbell, Hughes' firm has managed all of Eshoo's successful congressional campaigns, including Tuesday's.
Late in the evening, Eshoo also stopped by Simitian's bash to congratulate him. Little did she know he was going to marry her campaign manager.
"It was a full day," Simitian said Wednesday.
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