Mountain View is home to Google and to a very polite city council. Margaret Abe-Koga served two terms on the council, took two years off, then was elected again in 2016. She talks about the negative stereotypes she faced initially, how people treated her during her year as mayor, and her positive experience phoning in to a council meeting from home.
Q: It’s interesting–a lot of European cities do what Mountain View does, where the mayor is not elected separately, but a council member has the position for a year and it rotates. One thing I heard is that when you’re only mayor for a year, you don’t get as much respect. What do you think about that?
A: I definitely felt more respect. A former council member in Palo Alto who served as a county supervisor said one time how very few people know what a county supervisor does. But everybody knows what a mayor is because every city in the world has a mayor. There was that recognition. I was vice mayor to Tom Means and I had to fill in for him oftentimes. But when I would call and offer to show up, sometimes I would get declines because I was ONLY the vice mayor!
Q: Do you think that council members who talk for too long have been a problem in the meetings? Or does everyone hate a chatty council member until you bring up something THEY care about? Then all of a sudden, they don’t think it’s so bad to talk for ten minutes about it.
A: I think everybody starts out thinking that chatty council members are challenging but I would say we all at some point have been that chatty council member. When I first started, I actually had folks come up to me and say, “why don’t you talk more?” I did feel like I had to speak up just to speak up. The public noticed when I didn’t say much.
Q: When citizens said that to you, did you read anything into that? About you being a young person, a woman, an Asian person–how they were projecting their ideas of how you should present yourself onto you?
A: Yes. I had folks who thought I was nice and sweet. Some thought I was too sweet to be an elected leader. That was what one of the newspapers said about me, so they didn’t endorse me. [I’m] fairly petite, Asian, I smile a lot, but there definitely were stereotypes. When I became mayor, I had a hate e-mail saying, “you folks are overrunning the city. Go back to where you came from.” I frankly, unfortunately, expected that to happen.
Q: I should point out, you were the only Asian person on the city council. It’s hardly an overrun!
Q: That makes me think about the rotating, one-year term for the mayor and I guess that’s a virtue of everyone having the chance to be mayor at some point. You get to try out a “nice” style. You know you’ll get your shot.
A: That’s true. It ties into the politeness of our council. The fact that we take turns is a very polite way of handling it….The downside is [the term is] short, but if you’re not doing a good job, it’s only a year!