Joe Simitian Makes His Mark With a Lifetime of Public Service
April 20, 2022
A well-established figure in Santa Clara County and California politics, County Supervisor Joe Simitian has a successful history of advocating for the many critical issues facing the state, including education, social justice, and the environment. This track record of service and success has earned him “Legislator of the Year” awards from organizations as diverse as the California School Boards Association, American Electronics Association (AeA), California Library Association and the National Organization for Women (NOW). In addition, he’s been a beacon for affordable housing solutions, most recently advocating for affordable housing with the Mitchell Park Place for individuals with developmental disabilities, and supporting the selection of Eden Housing as the developer.
Among the public offices, he has held in addition to his current role as a member of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors are as California State Senator, 11th District; California State; Assemblymember, 21st District; Mayor of the City of Palo Alto; and President of the Palo Alto School Board. He has also held a number of positions in regional leadership as President of the Santa Clara County School Boards’ Association, President of the League of California Cities Peninsula Division and Chairperson of the Santa Clara County Intergovernmental Council (IGC). An active volunteer with numerous community groups, Simitian is also an attorney, businessman and city planner.
We had the pleasure of chatting with Supervisor Simitian to learn more about his path to politics, why affordable housing is so important to him and some of his most satisfying successes.
Q. What led you to pursue a career in politics?
A. The short answer is that I realized governmental service was the best way for me to have an impact, given my set of skills and talents.
The longer answer is that it’s a combination of factors from my formative years. I grew up in Massachusetts in the “cradle of liberty,” surrounded by American Revolution history, with a father who was a social studies and government teacher. I was a voracious reader of biographies as a young kid and remember thinking as an impressionable seven-or eight-year-old that maybe I could similarly make an impact, despite humble origins. My interest intensified when I moved to Palo Alto in 1967, which was a particularly vibrant time on the political scene, with events such as the Vietnam War, the draft, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement and the environmental movement all coming to fruition.
All those factors combined to point me to public service, where I felt I could make a difference.
Q. You’ve had a prolific career, serving at all levels of state and local government. What accomplishments are you most proud of?
A. Having held office at many different levels, I’ve had the opportunity to focus on a range of issues important to me and my constituents, including the environment, education, water, energy, highway safety, privacy and elder abuse.
And I’m fortunate to have worked with great people to find solutions to complex challenges on a number of fronts.
In the arena of energy, I authored California’s 33% renewable portfolio standard, which means that when you click on the lights anywhere in the state, at least a third of the energy is coming from renewable resources, rather than fossil fuels. At the time, I started with 20%, but we were able to prove we could get to 33%, and hopefully we’ll continue making progress at an even faster rate. Our renewable energy work was the most ambitious goal in the country at the time it was passed.
Moving to education, I authored the Kindergarten Readiness Act, which changed the age for starting kindergarten and created a new grade – transitional kindergarten. Now each year 100,000 young fives get a year’s worth of early childhood education that didn’t exist before. Because of its success, the program is being rolled out to all young fives, which means 400,000 to 500,000 kids will have the benefit of that extra important year of early childhood education.
While these two achievements positively affect large numbers of Californians, one of my most gratifying moments during my time in the state legislature was a smaller, more personal one. It came at 3:30 a.m. on the floor of the state legislature when I was able to get some measure of justice for an individual constituent of mine who had been wrongly convicted of murder and served 12 years for a crime he didn’t commit. While it impacted only one person, there was a larger impact in showing how we could make the system work for someone who had been so badly wronged.
All these years later, I’m in a different venue, but I had a similar satisfying experience when we were able to announce that more than 400 residents of the Buena Vista Mobile Home park in Palo Alto were not going to be evicted, because we managed to put together a deal to acquire the park and preserve 117 units of affordable housing.
That’s the reason I’m so gratified to be in this line of work – to help make large-scale changes, yes, but also to see our work have very immediate and personal impact for individual families and members of the community.
Q. You’ve been an advocate of affordable housing for many years. Why is this issue particularly important to you?
A. I feel strongly that government can and should be about creating opportunity for all, and I believe people can only realize both their personal and financial potential through access to affordable housing. It’s the foundation on which the real world of opportunity rests, from great schools to jobs, healthcare and more.
It’s also a very personal thing for me because as a toddler I lived in a government housing project for a few years while my single mom was trying to figure out how to make ends meet. In fact, my earliest memories are from a place called Roosevelt Towers in Cambridge, run by the Cambridge Housing Authority, where our two-person household could stabilize and allow my mom to figure out what the next steps would be. This gave my mother the opportunity to get back on her feet, and led me to eventually pursue a career where I’m in a position to work collaboratively with like-minded organizations to try to assist others who may be in a similar situation.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. I’m termed out in 2024, which creates an even greater sense of urgency about getting the work done. That includes advocating for housing and health clinics in my district, which is the only one of the five districts in our county currently without a county health clinic. My “hurry up” mode is usually pretty high anyway, but with the clock ticking, I want to make sure these positive changes are made before I have to walk out the door.