Fremont’s top political prospect becomes a Democrat, party leaders are ambivalent

Fremont Mayor Lily Mei networked and mingled with California Democratic Party officials and activists two weeks ago at its convention in San Francisco. Her appearance turned some heads among the East Bay insiders at the weekend-long event since the first-term Fremont mayor has often been portrayed by critics as a conservative. It’s an assertion she often quickly corrects, noting her registration as “No Party Preference.”

But Mei switched her party affiliation recently to Democratic, a move that coincides with an uptick of public appearances at local Democratic events and among progressive special interests groups. Even before the switch, East Bay politicos sensed Mei was angling for higher office. But, which office, remains unclear.

If Mei is, indeed, seeking another office in 2020, according to the line of thought going around the East Bay, the time to switch party affiliation would be now. Doing so later would appear opportunistic. Mei is also slated for re-election as Fremont mayor in November 2020. Politically, however, this time frame is an eternity.

Mei resides in an area of the East Bay that is currently politically advantageous on several fronts, four, in fact. She could be a formidable candidate to replace Assemblymember Kansen Chu in the 25th District. Chu is not seeking re-election to his seat next year. Mei is popular in the Asian-American community and the 25th District, which includes Fremont at its most northern point, is viewed as an “Asian” seat in the Legislature. Mei reportedly owns property in both the 25th and 20th Assembly Districts that cover Fremont.

Some believe Mei is also monitoring the race in the 15th Congressional District, if it should occur in earnest. Mei’s moderate politics could be play well in the Tri-Valley half of the district, insiders say. This scenario, however, is increasingly unlikely as Rep. Eric Swalwell appears certain to end his presidential hopes sooner than later and run for re-election to his congressional seat.

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors is also a possibility, although, probably not immediately. Fremont Councilmember Vinnie Bacon is challenging Supervisor Scott Haggerty in the March 2020 primary.

Over the past six month or more, Mei has sought to take a higher profile role on homelessness. She was critical of Mayor Libby Schaaf’s play to direct a larger portion of state funds for combating homelessness to Oakland over other Alameda County cities. Fremont is the second-largest city in Alameda County, but often overshadowed by Oakland to the north and Silicon Valley to the south.

Somewhat surprisingly, though, Mei joining the Democratic Party is not being met with open arms, at least, among Alameda County party officials, who have somewhat shunned Mei. For example, at a Asian Pacific Islander Democratic Caucus meeting last month in Alameda, two people at the event said Alameda County Democratic Party Chair Robin Torello suggested they ignore Mei, who was also at the event. Similar direction was suggested at the party convention two weeks ago, according to those who attended the confab.

It’s unclear why the party leadership is opposed to Mei, but historically, party insiders have been weary of local politicians who seek to bolster their stature outside of the Democratic Party’s hierarchy . Like Mei, Rep. Eric Swalwell and Hayward Councilmember Aisha Wahab, for example, have been labeled as officials “not wanting to wait their turn.”

Mei received criticism from Democrats last fall when she endorsed Yang Shao for the Fremont City Council. Shao had been slammed by opponents for comments he had previously made against the LGBT community while serving on the Fremont school board. Conversely, Mei is also supported by progressives like Rep. Ro Khanna.