‘When good people walk away, the bad guys win’: Joe Simitian knows the Bay

Feb. 9, 2024, 2:04 a.m.

This interview is part of a series with candidates for California’s 16th Congressional District.

Democrat Joe Simitian M.A. ’00, a Santa Clara County supervisor, is running to fill Rep. Anna Eshoo’s seat. Eshoo, who has represented the district including Stanford for the past 16 terms, announced her retirement last November and has endorsed Simitian’s candidacy. The top two candidates in the March 5 open primary will advance to a general election on Nov. 5.

Simitian attended Palo Alto High School, Colorado College and the University of California, Berkeley School of Law before receiving a master’s in international policy from Stanford. His career in Bay Area politics began as a member of the Palo Alto School Board and City Council, from where he became mayor of Palo Alto and was later elected to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

In 2000, Simitian won election to the California State Assembly and State Senate, where he remained until 2012. He returned to the Board of Supervisors that year and has since focused on housing, data privacy and climate change.

The Daily sat down with Simitian to talk about his legislative record, Stanford experience and career as a lifelong public servant in the Bay Area.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): How did you decide to run for Congress? You’ve had a long career in Bay Area politics — why now?

Joe Simitian (JS): The only reason to run for office at any level is to improve the lives of the people you represent. That’s what running for office should be about, certainly at the federal level in the House of Representatives.

This is a particularly daunting time in American history. A lot of good people, frankly, are walking away from participation in the system. When good people walk away, the bad guys win. We can’t let that happen.

At this time, it’s all the more important that good people step up, people who can do the job. I believe I am one such person.

TSD: Speaking of improving people’s lives, can you tell me about some achievements from your career that voters should know about?

JS: Let me give you two examples from my time in the state legislature.

Anywhere in the state right now, if you turn the lights on in a room, more than a third of that energy [will] come from renewable resources. That’s a result of legislation I authored and got passed under very challenging circumstances. I took on a big, challenging issue, looked to the future, and said, “We’ve got to make this happen now.”

Similarly, we have something called transitional kindergarten here in California. I wrote the bill that created that new grade. I did it in the middle of a recession … I found a way to make it self-funding. Hundreds of thousands of pre-K kids are going to be able to benefit from that program [and] be more successful in school every year, year after year.

If you are adept and determined, and the argument’s on your side, good things can happen. [I’m] proud of the fact that I’ve been able to make good things happen at every level where I serve. Most importantly, that’s proof positive I’ll be able to make good things happen in Congress, as difficult as that is.

TSD: What are your top policy priorities if you’re elected to Congress?

JS: There are some very clear and compelling issues that confront the next member of Congress from this district. 

Reproductive freedom — a woman’s right to choose — is clearly at the top of the list. We know we can’t count on the Supreme Court to respect the precedent of Roe v. Wade. That means we have to get the job done legislatively.

There are more than 20 states around the country who have already used the Dobbs decision as the basis for rolling back reproductive freedoms. That has an impact here in California as well, because a lot of those folks are left with no other choice but to travel to a state that respects their reproductive rights. Even if that weren’t the case, this is an issue of our time — one that calls out for congressional action and leadership. 

I mentioned climate change. In this district, people understand and respect the science. But this isn’t an intellectual or academic issue. The impacts of climate change are very real and very apparent in the 16th Congressional district. If you’ve been to Pacifica or Half Moon Bay, you have seen those communities literally crumbling into the Pacific Ocean. 

If you have walked along the bayside, you know that sea level rise is real. If you live in the wooded foothills of San Mateo or Santa Clara County, you know that the risk of wildfire is greater and greater, and people are understandably concerned. All of that cries out for a more urgent effort to address climate change at the federal level. We need to do more, and we need to do it faster.

Healthcare is an area that I think we’ve made progress, certainly the Affordable Care Act has proven itself. But there are still too many people out there who don’t have access to quality health care or health insurance. We still have far too many drugs that are life essential that cost too much.

TSD: You grew up in Northern California and you’ve been in public service here for your entire career. How have those experiences shaped your candidacy?

JS: There are 15 cities and towns in the 16th Congressional District and I have represented 14 of the 15 cities. I am uniquely positioned as a candidate to say that I understand the views, values, experience and needs of folks who live in all 14 of those 15 cities, including San Jose.

Knowing [and] being of the district is important. It’s also to my benefit, frankly, that people here have seen my work and, I hope, will vote for me because they know I’ll take the same energy, ingenuity and forward-looking approach to Congress.

TSD: You mentioned San Jose. What are the specific challenges and needs of San Jose?

JS: San Jose, uniquely among the 15 cities and towns, is a city of a million people. It means that the city is going to have urban needs that are somewhat different than some of the smaller, more suburban communities in the district.

The challenges of homelessness, for example, are going to be different in San Jose. That doesn’t mean that housing isn’t an issue across the district, it certainly is. But transportation issues are different and it’s an urban center. A quarter of the city of San Jose, roughly, is in the 16th Congressional District.

TSD: Rep. Anna Eshoo has endorsed your candidacy. How important should her support be to voters who are still making their decision?

JS: Voters will look for cues and clues in a lot of different places. I was tremendously grateful for Congresswoman Eshoo’s endorsement and support because she knows the people in this district. She knows my work and she knows what the work in Congress entails. That makes her a pretty credible judge of who is well suited to represent these folks.

TSD: Rep. Eshoo is retiring at 81. You’re of roughly the same generation, political generation—

JS: No, no, no, no, no. It’s more than a decade [of] difference. So let’s be clear about that.

TSD: Fair enough. But with all due respect, is it time for this district to have a new generation of political leadership altogether?

JS: More than 150 locally elected officials who endorsed my candidacy made that judgment. They said, “Joe Simitian is somebody with the energy, ingenuity and forward-looking perspective on the district to serve us well in the years ahead.” There isn’t another candidate in the race who has that kind of broad-based support up and down the peninsula. They come in all shapes, sizes, ages, varieties, and they all reached the same conclusion.

Undergraduates are going to have a different take on what the issues of the day are than parents in middle age, or folks who are worried about social security and Medicare. The job of [a] member of Congress is to represent all of those interests and to be effective. I have made that case.

TSD: Can you tell me more about your time as a master’s student [at Stanford]? Did anyone in particular influence you?

JS: I took a foreign policy class from Coit “Chip” Blacker who had served [on] the National Security Council staff back in the day. It was a great opportunity to talk to someone who had done foreign policy work in a hands-on way. There were a range of courses and offerings that gave me skills and subject matter knowledge that I use every day.

People forget that ours is a very international area … To represent this area, you need to have an understanding not just of the district, but of the planet. That was something I was able to enhance by virtue of the time I spent on campus.

TSD: What do you have to say to the Stanford community? Why should voters on campus support you?

JS: I have a master’s in international policy studies from Stanford. For me, that was a marvelous opportunity to get some intellectual exercise [and] hear from some of the finest minds in the country about the challenges we face on a global scale. Even though I’ve lived right next door to the University for many years now here in Palo Alto, spending the time on campus was a wonderful opportunity to get a sense of Stanford as a unique community. The unique identity of the campus community is something I very much appreciate and understand and would carry with me to Washington.

George Porteous ’27 is a news staff writer. He is from New York, NY, loves acting, and plans to study History and Creative Writing. Find him on X @georgedporteous. Contact George at gporteous 'at' stanforddaily.com

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