Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Big Government / Small Government

Civic engagement is fun!

I enjoy going to rallies. Partly because it taps into one of my personal quirks: I'm a shy and introverted person who really enjoys crowds. Rallies expose me to a sense of camaraderie and togetherness that doesn't require a whole lot other than the ability to clap and cheer. It's also a fun, low-stress way to get connected with like-minded individuals. Hey, you already have something in common with everyone else there: you care enough about a candidate or a cause to give up some of your time and attend it.

I actually agonized a little bit about whether to attend the Obama rally in San Jose on Saturday. Not because I'm unsure of my support... heck, I voted for him weeks ago. But he wasn't going to be there, and instead was sending Kerry in his stead. I have complicated feelings towards Kerry. I supported him in '04, and even took some vacation time to help him (through MoveOn.org) in Get Out The Vote efforts in Missouri. It was all for naught, and I felt crushed. Additionally, while I believe Kerry would make a far better president than George W. Bush, he was far from my first choice among the Democrats, and truthfully I never forgave him or Gephardt for their slimy, mudslinging attacks against Howard Dean.

All water under the bridge, though. Kerry redeemed himself in my view by strongly endorsing Obama, and when I learned that other local supporters, including Zoe Lofgren, would also be in attendance, I was sold. Best of all: it was being held in the Mexican Heritage Plaza, near Ground Zero for good Mexican food in San Jose. I could conceivably turn down Kerry, but not the combination of Kerry and tacos.

The turnout was quite good, filling the theater we had. It's the first time I've been to the MHP, and I was impressed by the architecture. All the walls are glass, letting in lots of natural light, and the entire back can be opened up, which they did so that everyone would be able to see and hear. I arrived just in time to grab one of the last seats.

The event began almost on time, a rare occurrence for this type of thing. First up was Congresswoman Lofgren, who isn't my representative but who is a really solid legislator who I admire for several reasons, not least among them her resistance to the war in Iraq. She gave a really eloquent and striking speech extolling Obama's virtues, revealing that she had decided to keep her commitment to this rally even though her mother-in-law had just passed away. After she wrapped up, she left the plaza with a lot of applause to speed her way to the visitation.

Next up was state Senator Elaine Alquist, who also doesn't represent me. She was probably the weakest speaker of the bunch... not bad, but she just wasn't all that compelling either. I cringed when she said, "It isn't a fairytale to say that Barack Obama voted against the war... because he did!" No, no.... he was in the state Senate in Illinois at the time, and unfortunately, the Illinois senate didn't get to vote on the declaration. It IS true, though, that he spoke out forcefully and publicly against the war at the time, and has maintained his opposition since then. I wish she had done her research and not let something like that slip out.

Next were two Latino union organizers who spoke in succession... I don't recall either of their names, but both were excellent. They spoke passionately about their personal history, working in the fields of the Central Valley, fighting for migrant workers' rights, and the hopes that Obama offers to immigrants and the working class. The second speaker in particular did an excellent job: fiery and passionate, he whipped up the crowd and threaded call-and-response into his introduction. "Viva!" "Obama!" "Se Puede!" "Si, se puede!" "Fired Up!" "Ready to go!"

SEIU, one of the largest and certainly the most active of unions in the state, had been backing John Edwards. At the 11th hour, after Edwards dropped out, they voted to back Barack. The organizers assured us that their resources would be put to use: they would be doing all they could to get out the vote on Tuesday. That made me happy, of course. As I learned in Missouri, the ground game is incredibly important in close elections.

As much as I enjoyed the speakers, I also enjoyed surveying the audience. To my eyes it was mainly white, but maybe a quarter Asian and perhaps a tenth African-American. I didn't see many hispanics at all, which was probably disappointing to the campaign - they've been making a big push for Latinos in California, which was probably why they chose this venue in the first place. Ages ranged all over the place, but it looked like a majority were young. I felt a little underdressed - most guys were wearing dress pants and shoes, while I was slumming in my standard oversized bluejeans and dirty sneakers. Of course, sitting in my chair and keeping my coat on (it was unusually cold), I didn't feel too visible. I'm really bad at judging audience sizes... I'd say definitely more than 400, and definitely less than 1000.

Just paying attention to my immediate neighbors was interesting as well. To my left was a young Japanese woman who was really... earnest, in the best possible sense. She would clap at the right times and say "Yay!" in a small voice. I don't mean that she made affirmative noises: she actually pronounced "Yay!" In front was a family with adorable kids. To my right were some quiet guys, probably in their late 20's or early 30's. Behind me was someone who loudly talked into his cell phone during the speeches, and when people asked him to be quiet or take the cell outside, would say "Baghdad! Baghdad!" I tuned him out and stayed focused on the action.

Kerry arrived, and the last speaker turned it over to him. Kerry was in much better form than I'd ever seen him during the '04 cycle: warm and funny, he opened with a few jokes, many at his own expense, before launching into an eloquent endorsement of Obama. He stressed that he wasn't opposed to Hillary, and that everyone should support whoever the eventual nominee was, but said that Obama was the best choice for the party and the country. He laid out all the reasons we've come to hear: a better understanding and engagement with the world, a passion for community-level improvement, intelligence, character, and judgment.

Listening to him talk, I reflected on the recent phenomenon where failed presidential candidates always get way cooler. During '96, Dole was dour and boring; afterwards, he became pointed, funny, and dry. During '00, Gore was stiff and programmed; afterwards, he became fiery and inspiring. During '04, Kerry was sonorous and passive; the man I was watching now had discovered how to connect with a crowd and keep them engaged.

He wrapped up the speech and then, to my surprise, took questions from the audience. I guess that this was more of a "Town Hall" than a standard rally, which is cool. He was pretty good at this portion, although he seemed to slip more easily into his standard system of giving long and round-about answers. Some specific ones I recall:

The first question was from a man who asked how he could ask someone not to vote for the first woman President. There were actually a few "boo"s in the audience. Kerry said, "It's a fair question," and launched into his response, which boiled down to: both would be a historic choice, and we can't really say that one (race or gender) is "more important" than the other.

This got me thinking to the curious bifurcation of responses to Obama's race. Among supporters, you often hear two things, and sometimes both from the same person. On the one hand, "Race doesn't matter:" Obama is post-racial politics, draws support from across the racial spectrum, isn't running on "black" issues, and so people shouldn't be concerned about it or factor race into their choice. On the other hand, people talk about how an Obama presidency would, on Day One, improve American stature in the world by forcing others to see another side of the United States. It would show that we as a nation can get beyond our ugly racist past, that we have a leader who has seen poverty in the global South, that a new kind of politics is starting in the most powerful nation on Earth. So I guess it boils down to, people want to say that race isn't important within the U.S., but could be a significant asset in our foreign relations.

A teacher talked about how bad "Nickleby" had been, and how children aren't learning. It took me a while to realize that he was saying NCLB, for No Child Left Behind. As soon as Kerry started his answer, he explained exactly that to the audience, which was great... I'm sure everyone in Congress uses the lingo, but he's connected enough to understand that not all of us would make that connection. He did an Obama-esque thing here, giving a straight answer that combined what the questioner wanted to hear (teaching is important, Obama will increase funding for education, we need to get away from test-focused evaluation) with things he may not have enjoyed hearing (standards and accountability will continue to be central). I have allergic reactions to pandering, so I was happy to hear this straight (albeit long-winded) answer.

A woman mentioned that her son was serving in Iraq, and asked what Obama's plans for that conflict were. This was probably Kerry's best response of the day - he engaged the woman, asking for her name and her son's name, and what combat unit he served with (100-and-somethingth Airborne). He then led the audience in a standing ovation for the service of the armed forces. This has become Democratic boilerplate in the last seven years - be very careful to show a lot of respect for the military while arguing against the war, and it seems to be effective. Kerry highlighted Obama's work on the Veteran's Affairs Committee, where he has had to battle Bush to get enough money for the veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Kerry closed with a strong statement that a President doesn't show he's pro-military by starting wars; he shows he's pro-military by taking care of soldiers after they come home. Great response.

An eloquent young woman said that, as an Arab American, she is disturbed by the steady climb in hate crimes over the last several years, and asked what Obama would do in response. Kerry's answer was kind of odd - he never directly answered the question, but instead launched off on a bit about how to fight Islamic terrorism. It was a good response, but not to the question she asked. He ended strong, saying that the US needed to empower moderate Muslims throughout the world, so that they can promote "Islam for what it is: a religion of peace."

The same annoying impeachment crowd was present for this event that crowded the town hall Mike Honda held several months ago. I sympathize with these people - yes, Bush and Cheney have been poor leaders, some of their actions (particularly wiretapping and Guantanamo) may be illegal, and there should be a reckoning. That said, in the large sense, I totally disagree with their actions: an impeachment would, at most, shave a few months off this presidency, and in any case there aren't the votes in the Senate necessary for it. If they want to use impeachments as discovery, then it will take even longer, and we should be able to learn more once the new President moves in anyways. On the small sense, I find them annoying, disrespectful, and disruptive... they pretty much ruined the Honda Town Hall, they eat their own, and I wish they would just shut up and let people talk.

Anyways! They started up their annoying interrupting and yelling during Q&A, and Kerry earned my admiration when he politely but firmly shut them down. He explained why impeachment wasn't an option, they started yelling again, then he said, "Let me say one final thing. If you want a Republican elected in November, then keep up with this impeachment talk, because that's the way you'll make it happen." Everyone applauded, and either ashamed or enraged, the impeachment groupies kept quiet the remainder of the time.

Someone asked if Kerry could convince John Edwards to endorse Obama before the Tuesday primary. That got a chuckle. (They were running mates in '04, obviously [well, obvious to everyone except the San Jose Mercury News] but disagreed over strategy during the campaign and have fallen out since then.) Kerry said that John Edwards deserves to make his own decision, and nobody, except for Elizabeth, will be able to influence him. So, no, he won't be calling Edwards. He did say that he thought endorsements are important now, but they will become much less significant after Tuesday. Endorsements are a tool to get to know candidates better, but after the big round of election coverage, voters will have gotten to know the candidates and won't be as affected by endorsements.

The last question was an amazing one from a little kid, who gave what sounded like a well-rehearsed question, but delivered without any notes. It boiled down to "How will Obama stop the influence of lobbyists on controlling Washington legislation?", but was extremely articulate and intelligent. Kerry bantered with the kid a little, learning that he was in seventh grade, before saying, "Do you want to be President tomorrow?" He then gave his answer: to fix the problem with lobbyists, we need to start by stopping their influence on campaigns, which Obama has done by refusing to take any federal lobbyist or PAC money during this race. The second thing, a theme he mentioned multiple times, was the importance of individual citizens (that's us!) in holding politicians accountable. He talked about his work against the Dirty Dozen after returning from Vietnam, how a grassroots movement identified the twelve senators most hostile to the environment and worked for their defeat. Nothing, Kerry said, is more important than citizens keeping track of what their legislators are doing, and complaining when you don't like it, because they listen to you.

And on that note he finished the town hall. Music started playing and people either surged towards Kerry or filed out. I followed the latter route.

Oh! One more thing. During one of the questions, someone handed Kerry a sheet of paper. He read it and made an announcement that the next night (Sunday the 3rd), Michelle Obama would come to San Jose State University for another town hall. This got a lot of applause - everyone loves Michelle. I resolved to go.

I tried. Doors opened at 7 and the event started at 8. I arrived around 7:30 - by my calculations, I came 30 seconds too late to get into the ballroom. They had roped off the hallway leading to the event, and there was no communication at all about what was going on - nobody said "We're full, go home," nor did they say, "We're going to set up an overflow room for you." I waited for about ten minutes, getting more frustrated by the lack of information, before giving up and left. It was a curiously poorly run event by a campaign that's been doing such a great job throughout the year.

However, I wouldn't long be without a political fix. The next night was a meeting that had been on my calendar for weeks: my councilmember, Pierluigi Oliverio, and the District Seven representative, Madison Nguyen, were hosting a Parks forum that would address the Willow Glen Spur Trail. (This is a very local issue, so even if you've made it this far, feel free to stop reading.)

I'm a big fan of the Los Gatos Creek Trail, which I've taken to commute between my apartment and work. The trail starts in the Santa Cruz mountains by Lexington Reservoir, and currently stretches as far northeast as Meridian, a bit south of 280. The eventual plan is to connect it with the other trail systems that run in the area. A critical portion of that connection will come through the Willow Glen Spur Trail, also known as the Three Creeks Trail. It doesn't exist yet, but it is planned to connect the Los Gatos Creek Trail with the Guadalupe River Trail and the Coyote Creek Trail. This is hugely important, and also supremely hard. Although this connection has been planned for years, San Jose's budget deficit and legal issues have kept it from moving forward. The meeting was intended to connect with the community and keep them abreast about the current state of things, as well as solicit input.

I had agonized a little before going to the meeting. It was scheduled to run from 6:30PM-8:30PM on a Monday night, leading me to wonder: would they serve food? At the prior meeting on neighborhood parks, on a Saturday morning, they had served pastries and bagels. It seemed less likely that the city would spring for dinner. Still, starting at 6:30, it seemed like the perfect time to serve food. I agonized a bit before deciding to forego my meal. Turns out it was a postponement instead - no food was to be seen. On the other hand, they ended the meeting around 8:15, so I still had time to eat.

(I think way too much about food.)

Arriving in the Gardner Community Center, I did a double-take. Was that Chuck Reed? Yes: the mayor of San Jose had dropped in for a visit. I have a confession to make: I did not vote for him, but I now wish that I had. His first year in office has been a promising one: low-key, but he has been a solid performer, pushing through ethics reform and managing the city well during a difficult period. My fear at the time of the election had been that he would lock horns with the city council and nothing would get done, but he swept some reformers into office in his wake, and while he doesn't have Gonzales's solid backing, he can certainly take care of business. I didn't introduce myself, but I could have: he was standing right there!

The meeting started with the Mayor giving a quick mini-speech, in which he said, "In years of working on the City Council and now in the mayor's office, I have come to one conclusion: trails are hard." Every government agency that gets involved seems to double the amount of time involved, and he said that with the Willow Glen Spur Trail, there are often three or four levels of government involved. He asked us for two things: patience, and persistence.

Next, Oliverio and Nguyen gave brief introductions. Pierluigi has grown a beard since the last time I saw him, which looks good on him. As in the earlier meeting he was friendly and brief; he mostly stayed out of the way during the night. Nguyen, who has come under fire recently (undeservedly, in my opinion) for an issue involving the local Vietnamese community, also thanked people for coming, and remained quiet for the remainder of the night.

The main feature of the meeting was a 20-minute Powerpoint presentation given by the city's trails director, which reviewed the project and the issues with it. Major points that I recall include:
  • The land, which is currently owned by Union Pacific, was tested several years ago and found to be contaminated. The State of California is now working with the railroad to determine how to fix it. This could go a lot of ways: the railroad might clean it up and then sell it; the city might buy it and then cap it; or the state could get involved in some way. In any case, though, that process needs to finish before work can start on the trail.
  • Developers are interested in several parcels along the trail. For parcels that are part of large residential projects, the city can require the developer to build a trail, at no extra cost to the city. But, for smaller parcels or ones zoned commercial or industrial, the city can't make such requirements. It must buy the property or secure an easement.
  • Most of the land between Los Gatos Creek and Coyote Creek / Highway 87 is zoned residential, while most of the land to the east is zoned light or heavy industrial.
  • Crossing the railroad by Highway 87 could be a problem. We can't cross at the grade, because there are 3 tracks there, and can't build a tunnel, because of the river. An elevated crossing is possible, but complicated because the proposed high-speed rail system that would connect San Diego, Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco would run through here. Such a rail would have to be elevated, making it hard to plan for a trail crossing.
  • Most of the land to the east of 87 runs behind factories and warehouses, with no windows. This forms an "alleyway", which has the Police Department concerned: there's no easy way on or off the trail, and nobody keeping an eye on what's happening there.
  • Also on the eastern reach, the old railroad crosses several streets in the middle of the block. The city can't do an at-grade crossing here because it's too close to the traffic signals. It also can't do a bridge or tunnel, because they're already at the grade. Typically, they would direct people to cross at the signal. However, they know from experience that many people would cross the street directly, leading to safety risks.
  • Union Pacific is asking $20 million for the whole stretch from Los Gatos Creek to Kelly Park. We won't know the actual price until negotiations begin, but it seems to be reasonable, based on the cost of comparable properties. The city thinks that it can probably get the western reach of the project for about $5 million, which is what they currently have budgeted for the project.
At the end of the presentation, he presented an alternative that the city has started looking at: complete the western reach of the trail as planned, but instead of following the railroad to the east, follow Alma avenue instead. Alma is a road in poor condition that runs through a neighborhood with gang problems. However, it would avoid many of the problems with the other route: it's a more visible location, with lots of access on and off, all crossings at signals, and no need for environmental cleanup. This approach would involve working with the Transportation Department to redesign the street: adding bike lanes and widening sidewalks to make them more distinctive. The result wouldn't be a "trail" in the sense we think of, but would accomplish the goal of linking together the desired points.

After this was done, we had a good hour or more of questions and answers. During this time, various people from different agencies in the room pitched in as the inquiries were all over the map: zoning policies, funding options, inverse condemnation, and other fun bits of arcana. I won't recount EVERYTHING, but a few moments stand in my memory:
  • One semi-irate man lives near Reach 4 of the Los Gatos Creek Trail, which just opened a few months ago, and has been dismayed by the increase in crime that the trail has brought. The presenter acknowledged the problems, and said that the city is in the process of hiring trail patrols that will take care of a lot of these problems. They are also working on a new system that will help the police respond to reports, by making trail mile markers, recording their GPS coordinates, then integrating this information with the police's maps and the 911 dispatch system. Others in the room pointed to the older sections of the Los Gatos trail, which had similar problems when they first opened, but which everyone now loves.
  • Most of the people were pro-trails, but a few were mainly anti-development. One graying 60's radical spoke at length about the absurdity of developing along Coe Avenue, and seemed as willing to leave the ground fallow as to build a trail... anything but letting houses in there.
  • More on inverse condemnation: as a Supreme Court case has decreed, the city can make demands on developers only if they are in proportion to the the project and benefit the owner. This comes from an Oregon timber warehouse that resisted a demand that they build a trail: they pointed out that nobody buying lumber would use the trail, so it was useless. The Supreme Court agreed. As a result, on a case-by-case basis, cities need to establish that a condition is (1) appropriate for the property (for example, a trail that residents will take), and (2) not onerous to the developer (you can't require them to build a whole trail if they're only developing a single home).
  • The city would gladly name the trail after Bill Gates or Larry Ellison if they paid the $20 million for the trail.
  • However, even if the city got a check today, they wouldn't be able to start building immediately. They would still need to do environmental cleanup, determine the safest place to build the trail, etc.
  • Man oh man, Chuck Reed wasn't kidding about government agencies. This didn't come out until the Q&A, but it sounds like there's some serious friction between the city and Santa Clara County. Some county representatives in the room said that they have $2 million that they are planning to put towards the spur trail. However, they are only interested in it if it covers the whole property: in other words, it sounds like if the city pursues the Alma road solution for the eastern reach, they may lose that money. At the same time, that $2 million is a small chunk of what might be $20 million for the whole project.
The overall tone of the meeting was civil, with just a few minor outbursts. I'm really glad I went. This is kind of a micro-issue that only affects a small portion of people, but it also feels very real in a way that large national issues sometimes do not. This meeting made it clear that this would be a years-long endeavor with an uncertain outcome. If we finish it, it will be extremely satisfying to have seen the whole process unfold.

Finally, for full disclosure, I should explain my vested interest in this: I am a passionate user of the Los Gatos Creek Trail. My dream is to be able to ride my bike downtown, and eventually, out to the Bay Trail, a network of bike trails that should eventually encircle the Bay. Because of this, I could care less about the eastern reach: what I really want is to be able to get from the LGCT to the Guadalupe. Because of this, I'm actually more concerned about how the existing trail from Meridian, or the bike lane along Willow, will eventually connect with the Spur Trail. That being said, I recognize how selfish this is... the eastern reach is just as important for people who currently use the Coyote trail as the western trail is for me, and I hope that in one form or another, the project is eventually completed.

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