Ellen Kamei, 34
While many have flocked to Silicon Valley in the last few years, Ellen Kamei’s family has lived in Mountain View for three generations. She’s running for Mountain View City Council to make her hometown livable and inclusive for newcomers and long-time residents.
What was the best advice you received before you ran for office?
The best thing I heard before I ran was to still have fun. Running for office is a lot of work, time and commitment. You spend time away from your family and friends. It can be difficult to compartmentalize the campaign but it is important to make sure that you're also still enjoying yourself and have fun.
What's your favorite place to hang out in Mountain View?
I love being outside, especially on Stevens Creek Trail. It connects you to Shoreline Park and the Baylands. I'm an avid runner and I enjoy running along the trail. It's really nice that in Mountain View we still have access to open space and parks, especially where you can take City sponsored recreational classes like stand up paddleboard yoga, kayak water polo and all sorts of things.
Tell me one interesting fact about yourself that has nothing to do with politics?
My mom is Puerto Rican and Chinese, and my dad is Japanese. So I grew up going to Chinese school, speaking Spanish and then I took Japanese in college.
If you could get a beer with any politician, who would it be?
Kamala Harris, she's from the Bay Area, so I've been able to observe her career really grow from the local, state, and now federal level. She’s a great example of a female leader, especially a female politician of color trying really hard to fight for unity in the policy issues that she tackles. She’s very concerned with bringing equity to all Californians. I'm sure she has stories to tell.
What inspired you to run?
I have been working my entire career in the public sector and what I have found is that government is here to work for residents, to work for people, and I really want to help people. I’m somebody who's here to listen to the residents and to work for the residents. I was inspired to run when I was looking at our regional housing needs assessment and saw that for the last three years, we've created zero middle-income housing in our city. 25% of the population is millennials, many of whom are people who are married or starting families and want to see a future here in the city. I think it's really important to create a conduit to ensure that is happening.
The Bay Area has a shrinking middle class. Many people make too much to qualify as low income or very low income but still can’t afford market rate housing. I want to be a voice for residents concerns and making sure that everyone who wants to stay here can stay.
How do you see city council helping to address housing affordability?
Mountain View is a leader in providing affordable housing in the Bay Area. Creative solutions and regional partnerships are necessary to continue to address housing affordability. It will also require cities produce a variety in the type of housing stock created.
The last six years I’ve been on the Environmental Planning Commission advocating for more included affordable units in a project. Units created is better than in-lieu fees.
A couple years ago the city approved a project that's a co-housing style project that was targeted towards the senior population. There is a community room, communal dinings, and there are gardens, but you have your own unit. It created that sense of community and was a different type of housing that we haven't seen before.
Regarding your work on the Environmental Planning Commission, for people who haven’t heard of them before, what is a commission? How do you get on one and what's particularly does the Planning Commission do?
In other cities, they are just called planning commissions. But Mountain View added “environmental” to the title with the idea of trying to bring an environmental and sustainability focus to our projects.
In Mountain View, we have a Planning Commission that is appointed by the seven members of the city council. We deal with land use and zoning in the city. We also handle parks plans, bicycle, and pedestrian circulations plans and a bit around transportation.
You’ve worked in many places. You taught in Japan, worked on the Hill, then the NYC Mayor’s Office and then went to grad school in Philadelphia. Why come back to Mountain View and run locally? Why not be in DC or Sacramento or international?
My dad's side of the family is from Mountain View. My grandparents met here while cutting flowers in the 1930s. They were then interned in Wyoming, at Heart Mountain Internment Camp during WWII before they came back to Mountain View.
I think that speaks to how special this city is. It’s a place that people want to come back to.
My grandfather washed dishes and was a gardener. He saved enough to open his own flower growing business, so we had a nursery here in the city for over two decades. ur nursery moved from Mountain View down to another city called Morgan Hill. So all growing up, I was getting shuttled between Mountain View and Morgan Hill, and I saw the changes in the cities firsthand.
Seven years ago when I was graduating from Penn, I was applying for fellowships all over the country and I got matched with one in the city of Fremont. My grandfather was living in Mountain View alone and I wanted to be with him, so that brought me back.
As soon as I got back to Mountain View, I started volunteering more in the community.
Both my grandparents have since passed away but just like them, I've made Mountain View my home.
Where were you the moment you realized you wanted to run for office?
I’ve just been so inspired by women running for office and who are not listening when they’re told they have to wait their turn or to get in line. A council member decided not to run for reelection, so there was a there was an open seat. I was sitting on the Environmental Planning Commission meeting and we were sitting and reviewing our annual housing needs assessment. I saw there was zero created for middle income. I wondered who is going to be the one who's fighting for families, millennials and our future. There's an assumption that millennials statistically are apathetic or don't care. But if we're not at the table helping make decisions for our future, how do we make sure that we’re included? So that was the water watershed moment for me.
From your perspective, how do we get more young people involved now?
In my career in public service, I've been working with interns for over a decade. Something that I really learned is that an intern’s experience with you or your office can really affect their future. If they have a good time, if they feel like they're contributing and truly helping people then this can inspire them to continue work in public service. You can really continue their path forward but if they have a bad experience, they can be turned off to government and politics and therefore not be engaged. I think as much as possible making sure young people have good interactions with government is a way to engage them and make sure that they join groups.
I think the other way is realizing that the traditional outreach for politics should be up for revision. We need to be more creative to engage the next generation and go beyond having people do precinct walking and phone banking. We need to ensure that young people don’t have to engage in politics in one single way, but instead pivoting to their strengths. It’s really harnessing their that energy.
I try to tell people that just coming to an event or voting is participation. You've already made the first step and it's about what finding what works for you versus rather than having to conform for a party. I think there's room for all of us.
You’re in a competitive race. There are 6 candidates running for 3 seats, including 2 incumbents. What do you think are some of the biggest doubts people have about you as a candidate? What are you going to say to people who think you’re too young to run?
I believe running as a woman, and as a woman color particularly, people might think that they know your story. What I've been trying to do at every opportunity whether it be knocking on their door, going to a community event, or going to coffee, is having people understand and meet the real candidate, not just who they may think I am.
I ran four years ago and lost. One of the contentious items at the time was a housing development for a project in the North Bayshore. I had had some concerns related to the lack of infrastructure, amenities, and environmental issues. Four years later, the school districts are talking with the city, working with the majority landowner on really creating a neighborhood. So I support the project and support the development We make the make decisions with the best information available, and sometimes projects change and you grow as a person and I think that's going to be something that I want to share.
Speaking to your multi-racial background in your writing as women of color, how do you think that diverse background informs the work that you do?
Well, I think that as a country and despite our administration, we are a very diverse place and people are increasingly multiracial. One of the things we have in the city of Mountain View is a variety of translation services available for our community and community events. language is a really pivotal gateway for people to engage with government. If English is not their first language, we need to make sure that we're providing tools so that they can understand and be informed of what's going on. My background informs this perspective.
I also understand, having worked in the public sector for over a decade, that by the time people engage with government, they have a problem or something has happened or has frustrated them, and they need help -- they need a solution.
What advice would you give to someone else considering running for office? What do you wish you had known before you'd ever run?
For me, I have been a campaign volunteer since elementary school. My parents are both politically active.
But when you run yourself, being a candidate is very different. You’re the person up front versus being the person behind the scenes. People will tell you that you won't know until you're in it.
Another quote that I think of often is from Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Women need to have rhinoceros skin.” And just having that thick skin, staying true to yourself and not necessarily letting other commentaries get to you.
Millennials have a negative stereotype. How do you think millennials should be characterized instead?
Millennials are invested, they’re engaged. We can be effective in changing what past generations and others before us have done and try to reach solutions for the future. People might see millennials as a problem, but our engagement is the solution.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the candidate, and do not reflect the beliefs and views of Ballot Breakers or its staff.