Benny Lee Becomes San Leandro’s First Asian American Councilmember

SAN LEANDRO CITY COUNCIL DISTRICT 4 | San Leandro’s demographics of a generation ago is a well-known secret. In 1970, 99.9 percent of the East Bay city was white. Times have changed when it comes to its City Council, which has integrated both women and certain minority groups since, except in one glaring category. On Tuesday, Benny Lee became the first Asian American council member in San Leandro history. The result makes room on the council for a member of the city’s largest minority group and a chance to keep up with the changing times.

“It almost feels like a Jackie Robinson experience,” Lee said Thursday. “A lot of other cities have already done it; we’re the last to do it.” The shift from government by white men-only is not only a national reality, but also a local one in the East Bay. In nearby, Alameda, its new City Council next year will feature three Asian Americans among its five-person council. In Oakland, change on its City Council is flowing in reverse. Dan Kalb’s election to the seat in District 1 represents the return of a white male to the body in a decade.

The makeup of the next council in San Leandro will likely contain three white males, one African American, two white women and one Asian American male. However, it will still be searching for its first Latino—another large, under served voting bloc in San Leandro.

Lee said, while Asian Americans in the city were indeed energized to attain a voice on the City Council, he praised his campaign’s strategy for reaching out to voters. “Our ground game made a huge difference,” Lee said. The game plan from the start was to reach out to voters in the city’s more conservative Broadmoor area, said Lee. “Voters in Washington Manor were familiar with me,” he said,” but in other areas they didn’t know who I was.”

Just as San Leandro Mayor Stephen Cassidy was attempting to push through three preferred candidates to stack the council in his favor, including opposition to two sitting colleagues, Lee said the strategy was to pick off voters in Cassidy’s District 5 stronghold, while also teaming with District 2 candidate Councilwoman Ursula Reed. The move appears to have worked on two fronts. Not only winning a seat for Lee, but possibly gaining the endearing gratitude of Reed, who appears likely to stave off an upset in her race against Morgan Mack-Rose.

In hindsight, the once-believed tight race in District 4 turned into a laugher with Lee winning nearly 60 percent of the vote over Chris Crow, after ranked-choice votes were tabulated. His clear victory was buoyed further by the fact Lee didn’t even need the support of his preferred second-choice candidate Justin Hutchison, who finished fourth with 10 percent. Hutchison’s second-place votes didn’t even favor Lee in the end.