PLEASANTON CITY COUNCIL//PROFILE | “I’m curious to know do we have an imperial president, or, because of term limits, that’s not necessarily the case?” Olivia Sanwong asked a classroom full of seniors at Pleasanton’s Amador Valley High School choosing to spend their spring break at school, instead of doing things that teenagers do. Such a query would normally elicit a perplexed facial expression from a typical high school student, but not these.

“In anti-federalist 69, George Clinton argues, when is the president different from a king or a monarch? And this is countered, by Hamilton who writes that the president is not unlike the king, but only has powers related to the military, and I think through these crisis that we see today, the president acts more like a monarch as described in anti-federalists,” said a young student in rapid-fire succession, only to have the baton passed to another who picked off where the others logic may or may not have lapsed.

Sanwong, left, judging the Amador Valley High
School competition civics team last spring break.

“The anti-federalists did truly fear the idea of limited terms of a president, but I would argue the other side as a Devil’s advocate because the president has terms limits, he is insulated from public opinion, he doesn’t need to seek the whims of the people in a second term because he doesn’t need to try and get elected.” Well, okay, you get it. These kids are smart. But, the nationally-known competition civics team at Amador Valley High is more than an exercise for allowing college-bound senior an opportunity to pad their resumes and bone up on government and law, it may also be a fertile breeding ground for the next generation of public policy makers and elected leaders. I may also be a long-term investment almost ready to pay dividends.

In fact, this is where Pleasanton City Council candidate Olivia Sanwong first caught the bug of public service more than a decade prior with some of the same teachers grilling and poking her arguments in these mock congressional hearing exercises. Part prodigal daughter, part generational trailblazer, part-local cheerleader all lashed together in hopes of fighting off a surprising and serious takeover of the Pleasanton city government by conservatives.

It’s easy to forget the Tri Valley we know today is not very old. Pleasanton threw off the yoke of small town USA with a population explosion doubling its size since 1980. In terms of development, like the students at Amador Valley, the city is nearing adulthood. By 2025, Pleasanton’s footprint is will be indelibly cast leaving little wiggle room between its growth plates. It won’t get any bigger and likely not any smaller. How the city navigates its last few rounds of expansion may be one of the lasting legacies of the current city council and subsequent iterations. Sanwong thinks the baton should be passed to a product of Pleasanton instead of continually handing it over to transplants who built it from a little Tri Valley outpost to one of Alameda County’s almost recession-proof cities.

Sanwong, 33, and her family moved to Pleasanton in 1981. Her father, an immigrant from Thailand, was influenced by American military men stationed in the region following the Vietnam War. His admiration was so great that upon moving to the United States he adopted the name “Sam,” as in “Uncle Sam.” “It’s really kind of cute,” Sanwong says with a smile. A flood of civic pride and small town patriotism was stoked annually by the 4th of July parade and the return of the Alameda County fair every June. A family member recently reminded her of prescient words once uttered by Sanwong as an early teen envisioning the day she would become mayor of Pleasanton. Sanwong had forgotten the declaration and denies her childhood desire factored into any life decisions that may have led to her candidacy this year. “I just think the world works a certain way,” she says.

I grew up here. I’ve been in the city for a long time. I’ve seen it grow and change. I went to school here…and we take a lot of pride in our schools, But, we do nothing to make this town attractive to people in their 20s or 30s. So, it seems like we’re getting a pretty poor return on our investment.”

How Sanwong became one of four candidates to serve out the remainder of newly-elected Mayor Jerry Thorne’s council seat began a year ago after being named to the city’s economic vitality committee. What occurred next in Pleasanton politics stunned the Alameda County Democratic Party and left it scrambling not only to rexamine how conservatives hijacked the city council, but how it would wage a ground attack to take it back. Sanwong says former Pleasanton Mayor Jennifer Hosterman first contacted her about running for the open seat around the Thanksgiving holiday last year. Sanwong was flattered to receive the call from Hosterman, someone whose rise to mayor she had watched over the years and greatly respected.

Conversations not only with Hosterman, but others in the county featured uncertainty over how to confront the conservative challenge. “We don’t know what to do,” Sanwong recalls Democrats saying. “We don’t know what happened in the fall is an indicator of whether things are going in one direction and should we even try to change that direction.” In fact, much of the blame among Democratic leaders in Alameda County was placed on Eric Swalwell’s campaign decision to enlist the help of Tri Valley conservatives and Tea Party adherents in helping him defeat fellow Democrat Pete Stark. After stoking these conservative groups, party leaders were livid on Election night to see Pleasanton Councilmember Cheryl Cook-Kallio not only go down in defeat to the Republican Thorne, but also see the entire Tri Valley, save a single precinct, vote down Measure B1, the transportation sales tax initiative that lost by just 700 votes.

While Sanwong’s own resume may not be the most optimum for the party’s tastes (her business background in marketing is normally not a breeding ground for Democratic candidates) she is far more than just the only basket available for liberals to place all their eggs. Politics aside, Sanwong thinks it’s time for Pleasanton to begin reaping the benefits of its success over the last three decades.

“I grew up here. I’ve been in the city for a long time. I’ve seen it grow and change. I went to school here and we put a lot of time and money into our K-12 school district and we take a lot of pride in our schools,” Sanwong says. “But, we do nothing to make this town attractive to people in their 20s or 30s. So, it seems like we’re getting a pretty poor return on our investment.” She regrets only knowing a few people, who, like her, returned to Pleasanton to set strong roots in the area. After attending UCLA and living in Boston for a few years, she rented an apartment near Stoneridge Mall and purchased a home with her husband last year just blocks from Pleasanton’s quaint Main Street.

Her biggest complaint with the current administration is the perception it lacks council members with a total stake in the city’s future and a voice for its younger population. “Everyone is around the same age,” she rattles off. “No one grew up here. No one went through the school district here,” although she notes one candidate has children in the school district.

At a candidate’s forum Apr. 9, Sanwong put her civics training learned at Amador Valley to the test with a tight, reasoned argument for voters replete with accoutrements that would have made her teachers proud. In fact, it appeared Sanwong was the only candidate who received the memo to simply smile. She also maintained perfect posture while her main opponent, Pleasanton Planning Commissioner Kathy Narum slunk over her notes and read from prepared remarks and her more right wing challengers came precipitously close to demanding a life free from tyranny amidst the warm weather and elegantly manicured lawns of Pleasanton without a whiff of irony.

Aside from political ideology, the biggest difference between Sanwong and her opponents is strong support for affordable housing centered around the city’s two BART stations. In a few years, Pleasanton will be built-out, says Sanwong. “It’s a critical time for how the city is going to be developed and what it’s going to look like in the future.” She says the city needs to better exploit its geographical strength as a gateway to the San Joaquin Valley and its position equidistant between San Francisco and San Jose.

“How can we have a Walmart and not have housing for the people who work there?” Sanwong says. Utilizing affordable housing in these areas, she says, is “good for the workers, the environment and the city.” By doing away with the decades-old model of building large-scale business parks surrounded by seas of parking lots in favor of pedestrian-friendly designs featuring retail and dining options, the city will prosper, she says. “I see a lot of potential near our BART station to design this integrated community. I would really put us on the forefront of what the possibilities are for a traditional suburban community.”

Sanwong also does not ascribe to the belief among some conservatives that Pleasanton is nearing fiscal collapse any time soon. As a former actuarial analyst, she perused the city’s obligations and found little reason for alarm. “I don’t think it’s something to be worried about. We’re making very smart decisions in terms of our budget and where we’re putting our money,” she says. “We’re pretty well off as a city. I know there’s a fear about Vallejo, Stockton and San Bernardino, but I don’t think we’re ever going to be on that track. We’ve always been a well-managed city.”

Back in the classroom, Sanwong is listening to another student tackle the issue of a strong commander-in-chief. A whip smart young girl of South Asian descent says, “However, the framers believed the people should have the right to elect a president that is….” Sanwong is nodding affirmatively, but she shifts uncomfortably as another student grabs the attention of the judges and rattles off his own barrage of citations. Sanwong jots down some notes. Afterwards, she tells the girl to be more forceful in her comments and not cede the floor so easily. The young girl nods shyly. In that moment you can almost imagine the roles were once reversed. Olivia Sanwong, a young girl with a Thai father and a white mother, took those words to heart and assuredly this young girl will heed the same advice. It remains to be seen whether they will pay forward their promise to Pleasanton’s future or, tragically, be some other community’s gain. Either way, we probably all win.