In a unanimous vote Monday, Santa Clara’s City Council appointed Kathy Watanabe to the seat vacated when Lisa Gillmor was named mayor.
Gillmor was appointed to be the top elected official just a few weeks ago, following Mayor Jamie Matthews’ mysterious resignation the day after the city hosted Super Bowl 50. He had more than two years left on his term, and the council unanimously selected Gillmor to serve the remainder.
This unexpected changing of the guard comes amid a civil grand jury investigation into the city’s dealings with the San Francisco 49ers and Levi’s Stadium. Meanwhile, City Manager Julio Fuentes became the second major resignation following a San Jose Inside report on City Hall dysfunction. His announcement came last week, after he accused city officials of creating a hostile and discriminatory work environment.
Seventeen people applied for Gillmor’s old seat. The mayor said said she chose Watanabe because, as one resident’s letter pointed out, she’s already considered the “Mayor of North Side.”
“I can tell you the reason that I voted for Ms. Watanabe is that I have worked with her well over the years,” Gillmor said toward the end of the meeting. “She has … quietly worked tirelessly for Santa Clara. She worked incessantly to get our north side library open with our city manager. She has done so much for our sister cities program. She’s just a work horse in this city.”
During her interview, Watanabe said she wants to prioritize affordable housing, homelessness and balance conservation with new development. In closing, she held up the council agenda and said, “I’m ready to go to work.”
“I’m really excited about this new chapter in my life,” she told San Jose Inside. “I admire everybody on that council. I’ve known them all for quite some time and consider it an honor to work with them—as long as there’s communication and openness and a sense of professionalism.”
Watanabe spent 30 years in the legal field, according to an online bio. In 2000, the Brooklyn native touched down in the Bay Area, where she worked as a legal assistant at Palo Alto-based law firm Simpson, Thacher and Bartlett.
She moved to Santa Clara in 2005 with her husband and daughter and began working with various community groups. Over the past decade she has served on the Santa Clara Library Board of Trustees and the Mission City Community Fund’s Circle of Pillars. In 2013, she was appointed president of the Santa Clara Sister Cities Association.
“Thank you to the City Council for selecting me,” Watanabe wrote on her Facebook page later that night. “I will be sworn in before the council meeting tomorrow and then it’s down to business.”
Kirk Vartan, a local activist and owner of A Slice of New York, called Watanabe’s appointment the most important action taken by the council next to Gillmor being named mayor.
“With things like billions of dollars in development in the pipeline, a couple billion dollar assets under their control, key city staff to fill like the director of planning and now replacing the city manager, this council will set the tone for the city of Santa Clara for decades,” said Vartan, who has attended virtually every council meeting in the past year. “Small town politics making big city decisions.”
The council will affirm the appointment when it meets tonight. Watanabe said she plans to run for election when the term ends in November. Click here to watch Monday’s meeting.