On October 20, 2016, I attended Cupertino Teen Commission’s Pizza and Politics event, a gathering where students could meet with panels of local politicians and ask them questions about developments in our community. I came to the meeting burning with excitement, ready to take part in the political process and voice my concern about issues on this year’s ballot. But after 90 minutes and three slices of pizza I left the meeting, flame extinguished. Any attempt I made to question the way our politicians act was completely disregarded.
My first question was directed towards Cupertino Vice Mayor Savita Vaidyanathan, about Proposition D — a project to replace Vallco with an enormous office-mall complex called the “Cupertino Hills.” According to the Cupertino Citizens’ Sensible Growth Initiative, the 30-acre green roof on the Hills complex is estimated to use up to 86,000 gallons of water a day. I decided to ask whether she supported construction of the Hills complex in spite of its environmental concerns.
Vice Mayor Vaidyanathan glanced at the moderator before responding, “I can only give you facts. I cannot give an opinion here, because this is something that’s going to be on the ballot, and as a city council we have taken the position that we will not take sides, and I cannot opine.”
Her choice to remain unbiased made sense to me, but later during the Q&A session she and the other council members gladly expressed their opinions on less controversial ballot proposals.
When asked about Proposition 63, a proposal for increased gun control, she stated quite firmly, “any kind of restriction we have to safeguard the children, I am for it.”
Curious about her sudden change of mind, I decided to ask Vice Mayor Vaidyanathan another question about a rising issue in our community: Clowning, and whether she would support our school’s decision to ban clown costumes in response to the nationwide phenomenon.
She simply stated, “That’s between the principal and the students. I don’t think the city can question that.”
Once again, Vice Mayor Vaidyanathan was unable to take a stance on this issue. Throughout the event, she was willing to respond to other students’ questions that could help her public image: Whether she wanted to support veterans, or whether she wanted to keep our neighborhoods safe. It seemed awfully convenient that only when I tried to bring up something controversial, it fell out of her jurisdiction. Despite being a leader of our community, it apparently is not her job to speak on events that could elicit any disagreement from her audience.
It’s not that I’m surprised the questions I asked were either negated, avoided or completely ignored. For the past year, we’ve seen presidential candidates dodge and spin past similarly controversial issues on a daily basis. But to see our own community leaders pull the exact same tactics in front of a group of kids in a hall smaller than our school gym was certainly disappointing.
Disheartened, I still held hope for the the next segment of the event: a panel with the two candidates for the California 15th District State Senate seat, incumbent Jim Beall and challenger Assemblywoman Nora Campos. During the brief recess, I did some research on the candidates on my phone and found that, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Assemblywoman Campos received over $339,000 in campaign contributions from oil companies including Chevron, Valero and Tesoro.
Now, strict campaign finance laws prohibit these companies from donating such large sums of money directly to a candidate. However, they can spend unlimited money supporting a candidate by covering auxiliary costs, such as running TV ads or hiring lobbyists.
Unsurprisingly, Assemblywoman Campos also had a history of voting against environmental reform bills while in office, such as a recent vote this September against a bill to raise a tax on gasoline, or a refusal to vote on another bill in August to create a committee in the State Senate tasked with air reform. I decided to ask Campos about her massive campaign donors and whether they were influencing her votes in the state senate.
Campos denied her connection to these gas companies. “I did not receive that money. That is an independent expenditure. I have no control over that. I didn’t know that they were doing that for me. So, those are moneys that come in that you are not accountable.”
I briefly considered leaning into the mic and yelling “WRONG!” presidential-debate-style, but held back. While campaign contributors are supposed to remain neutral, it’s hard to argue that money has no sway over a politician’s actions. However, Campos denied any correlation between the hundreds of thousand of dollars spent on her by oil companies and her anti-green voting record.
Campos continued, “But I think the question you should be asking is, maybe, we should be forcing assemblymembers and the senators to say that we are responsible for the plan of what California is going to be moving forward in renewable energy.”
Nice pivoting, I thought. I tried to bring the question back to her contributors, and asked “So, would you say that companies like Valero and Chevron, who spent money to support you as a candidate, are actually not indicative of your views?”
Campos was quick to respond, “They spent ads? Yeah, they did. But that wasn’t in my control. But if we’re going to get into that discussion, I also know that Senator Beall went to [the oil companies]when I got in the race. And they told him they would not support him, because that’s not where they wanted to go.”
Well, the Sierra Club of California recently rated Senator Beall at 100 percent on environmental reform. So I was pretty sure I knew why those oil companies weren’t willing to support him.
Campos went on to congratulate herself: “When they came to me I said look—If anything, probably the good thing that I did, he wasn’t paying any attention to you then, and now he’s at the table, wanting to talk to you about what your views are. So I think in the democracy of the world that we’re in right now, it’s good to have two people because then you’re not weighed to one end.”
By this point Campos had completely derailed, lecturing me on the democracy of the world and how her oil money was balancing the campaign. It’s not like I expected Campos to come clean about her contributors, but what irritated me was the way she tried to cover up her flaws by lying to me about how the political system functions. Her response had the tone of a patronizing elder, telling me that I was simply mistaken about how these contributions worked.
Students like me may not be old enough to vote, but we are old enough to understand the rules of the game, Assemblywoman Campos. Yet any attempts we make to question the political structures we are soon to be initiated into are met with evasion, lies and condescension. It’s no wonder that 18 to 21-year-old voters have among the lowest turnout in America. In a country where our voices are constantly stifled by those running it, politics quickly becomes an apathetic struggle that burns out any desire to fight for change.
Pizza and Politics is a good idea. It’s just unfortunate that politicians like Assemblywoman Campos and Vice Mayor Vaidyanathan took advantage of an opportunity for students to get involved in the city. To them, it was nothing more than a media opportunity—a quick way to be filmed with some local kids, assure us we have a say in the government and then get on with their agendas as usual.
Before the debate, Campbell Mayor Jason Baker assured us of the power youth wielded in our community:
“Even if you can’t vote, we know that you’re our community members, we know that you’re leaders of tomorrow, and we will listen to you.”