Vice President Kamala Harris has nothing on Ellen Kamei when it comes to diversity.
The new Mountain View mayor is the daughter of a first-generation Chinese and Puerto Rican American mother from New York City and a third-generation Japanese American father born at Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Wyoming. She speaks English, Spanish, Japanese and Mandarin. So when she talks about wanting to preserve the city’s socioeconomic and cultural diversity, she really means it.
“It’s been my experience people will ask me the question at some point what my background is,” she said in an interview with the Town Crier. She sees her diverse background as a way to “open the door” to residents sharing their concerns.
The Harvard University-educated Kamei, elected to the city council in 2018, has a long history of public service. She’s worked under U.S. Reps. Anna Eshoo and Zoe Lofgren, Assemblyman Marc Berman and Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian. Prior to the council, she served six years on the city’s Environmental Planning Commission.
“What I so appreciate about Ellen is that she’s always trying to get better, to do an ever-better job, to learn more,” said Simitian, for whom Kamei worked as a policy aide from 2013-2016. “For her, good enough isn’t good enough. And it shows in the way she approaches her public service.”
Although she’s spent time in Japan and on the East Coast, Kamei’s first allegiance was to Mountain View, where her family once owned a 10-acre flower nursery. A fourth-generation resident, Kamei currently lives in the Moffett Boulevard/North Whisman area.
Kamei assumes leadership during a time in which Mountain View, like the rest of the world, continues to reel from the effects of COVID-19. Dealing with its impact on residents is her main concern.
“Top of mind is a road to recover from the pandemic, a road to relief from the pandemic,” she said.
The city has committed more than $3.8 million to provide rent relief for low-income residents who have lost their jobs. The city also extended an eviction moratorium extended through June for further protection.
Other allocations include $50,000 for food gift-card program through the Community Services Agency (the council Jan. 26 approved another $94,800 in CARES Act funding to continue the gift-card program), $100,000 for small landlord relief and another $100,000 for utility bill relief. The city also recently funded another $250,000, 50 grants at $5,000 each, for struggling small businesses.
Keeping a roof over people’s heads remains a main focus, even as a council ordinance, affirmed in the November election, limits the parking of oversized vehicles, forcing vehicle dwellers to look at alternatives to call home.
Kamei indicated solutions are on the way. The city’s safe parking program counts 101 spaces across five lots where vehicle dwellers can stay – the most of any city in the county, she said.
Recently, city and county officials agreed to partner on converting the Crestview Hotel site on El Camino Real to interim housing, with the county funding the purchase through Measure A housing bond funds. And the city is working with homeless nonprofit LifeMoves, through a Project Homekey grant, to provide interim housing for 100 households at a site on Leghorn Street.
Elsewhere, Kamei said many traditional services the city has provided have gone virtual under shelter-in-place orders. But some still remain popular.
“At Deer Hollow Farm, we got hundreds of residents to come on our tours,” Kamei said of the city-run program at Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve. “We’re trying as much as we can to pivot.”
She is proud of having played a role in bringing a county-administered vaccine program running out of the Mountain View Community Center that is administering an average of 1,000 doses or more daily.
Committed to helping
Kamei appreciates the city’s commitment to diversity though implementation of a multilingual language program. Budgeted last year, the program provides translations for residents in Mandarin, Spanish, Russian and English.
Asked what inspires her about public service, Kamei was straightforward.
“The ability to help people,” she said. “At times, government can be opaque and difficult to navigate. I want to help them navigate through the bureaucracy.”
Especially diverse populations for whom she can help bridge the communication gap.
“I knew what it’s like to learn another language,” Kamei said.
During her mayoral acceptance speech last month, Kamei reflected on Mountain View as a “welcoming place” for all people. She wants to keep it that way.
“I want it to continue for our kids, like it was for me when I returned after graduate school to live with my grandfather. … Mountain View is a special place – it’s a place where a person – this person – before tonight, used to have to check the other box to identify themselves, but can call the city home. It’s a place where the daughter of a Japanese American father born at an internment camp in Wyoming, and a Chinese and Puerto Rican mother from Harlem New York, is able to serve as your mayor.”