Note: This is one in a series of stories on candidates for the state Assembly's 21st District seat in the June 8 Democratic primary. The district includes The Almanac's entire circulation area: Menlo Park, Atherton, Portola Valley, Woodside, and nearby unincorporated areas.
By Gennady Sheyner
Palo Alto Weekly
Of the three Democrats running for Ira Ruskin's seat in the 21st Assembly District, Yoriko Kishimoto is the only one who can boast of being a "proven futurist."
It's been more than two decades since Ms. Kishimoto co-wrote the book "The Third Century," which predicted that America's entrepreneurial spirit, democratic system and tendency to attract the best foreign talent would give the nation a major long-term advantage over Europe and Japan. These days, she is struck by how many of the prophesies in the book came true.
For Ms. Kishimoto, California presents the same challenges and opportunities as the nation at large: a dysfunctional Legislature, fierce competition from abroad, and an education system that's gradually slipping. But she believes that, of the three candidates, she is uniquely positioned to lead the state forward. She didn't just study the statistics about foreign workers succeeding in America, she became one.
Ms. Kishimoto, 54, sees herself as the "face of California." Born in Japan, she immigrated to America as a child, learned English, earned a master's degree in business from Stanford University, and started a management-consulting business. She was elected to the Palo Alto City Council in 2001 and had what she calls her "watershed moment" six years later, when she became the city's first Asian-American mayor.
"Of the 15 mayors in Santa Clara County, five were Asian and all five were first-generation Americans," Ms. Kishimoto said in a recent interview. "That's a true testament to the robustness of our economy."
During her eight years on the Palo Alto council, Ms. Kishimoto never shied away from pushing for her top priorities: walkable neighborhoods, safer bike paths, a functional public-transit system, climate protection and land conservation. She routinely subjected developers and planning staff to grueling Q-and-A sessions and voted against any project that she felt was inconsistent with the city's long-term vision.
Last year, she voted against Palo Alto's three largest proposed developments: Alma Plaza, the College Terrace Centre, and the proposed hotel for the Palo Alto Bowl site. All three were ultimately approved despite her opposition.
Ms. Kishimoto has also emerged as one of the Peninsula's leading critics of the proposed high-speed-rail system. In October 2008, she joined the City Council in passing a resolution urging residents to support the state-wide Proposition 1A, which provided $9.95 billion for the project. She now says she regrets casting that vote.
Ms. Kishimoto said she still supports having a high-speed-rail system, but is disappointed with the way the planning process for the new system has played out. In February 2009, she attended a few public outreach meetings on the project and found some of the information coming out of the meetings vague and troubling.
In the coming months, she reached out to neighboring communities and helped found the Peninsula Cities Consortium, a coalition that includes Menlo Park, Atherton, Belmont and Burlingame. She thinks the consortium may have played a role in persuading the rail authority to eliminate the "berm" option (known locally as the "Berlin Wall" option) from its list of considered designs.
Ms. Kishimoto said a seat in the state Assembly would give her more power and influence over the controversial $43 billion project. She supports demanding a better business plan from the rail authority; ensuring that the rail authority's work undergoes peer reviews; and making sure the system's design doesn't harm the quality of life in local communities.
"It has to be a solution that leaves the communities better and protects the walkable and livable aspects of our community," Ms. Kishimoto said.
Ms. Kishimoto also supports tackling the state's $21 billion budget deficit by instituting an oil-extraction fee (a position shared by her two Democratic opponents) and raising taxes on cigarettes and alcohol. She also said she would support reining in pension costs for state employees and trimming expenditures, though she couldn't cite any specific programs she would eliminate.
She acknowledges that holding office in Sacramento would be more difficult than serving in Palo Alto, but says she's up to the challenge. She recalls that when she joined the City Council, the body was also dysfunctional and polarized. She takes some credit for the growing spirit of cooperation and cites herself and former Mayor Bern Beecham as the two council members who were willing to cross the proverbial aisle and build constructive relationships.
Ms. Kishimoto believes her ability to find common ground helped her govern in Palo Alto and build alliances around the Peninsula. If elected, she expects these same skills to help her tackle some of California's steepest challenges.
"California has some very serious short-term issues and challenges that we have to face head on," she said. "But we do have the single best long-term system in the world — a system that is amazingly resilient; a system that allows us to pick up and reinvent ourselves."