Jennifer Stark's decisive run for Claremont City Council
CLAREMONT, California — Jennifer Stark is the first woman to run for Claremont City Council since 2007, but that doesn’t intimidate her.
“There are times when I do feel daunted, but not because it’s all guys,” she said in our interview. “It’s because I value this town and I sincerely want to do a good job.”
Claremont’s five-member city council has been made up entirely of men since 2011, when Councilwoman Linda Elderkin retired. Elderkin’s departure marked the first time that Claremont was without female representation on city council since 1961 — before Marjorie Spear and Margaret Gibbs were elected the following year.
Spear and Gibbs kicked off a 50-year period of strong female representation in Claremont’s local government. At times, women made up the majority of councilmembers. Between 1995 and 1997, Algrid Leiga was the only councilman — serving alongside councilwomen Judy Wright, Diann Ring, Suzan Smith, and Judy Coy.
Former Councilwoman Sandy Baldonado, who served from 1999 to 2008, said she was “not happy” about the council’s current gender disparity in a 2012 interview with the Claremont Courier.
Stark, 49, shares Baldonado’s concerns about the recent absence of women on city council.
“Ten years is a long time,” said Stark, who grew up in Claremont and recalls a general sense that women were well-represented in local government.
Both of Stark’s parents were prominent administrators at the Claremont Colleges: Her farther is former Claremont Mckenna College President (and the longest-serving president of any of the Colleges) Jack Stark. Her mother is former Dean of Students at Scripps College and current Director of CMC’s Athenaeum Jil Harris.
But out of the two, it was Stark’s mother who stood out as a leader in local government, too. Harris sat on the Council Commission on Aging and was instrumental in building the Joslyn Senior Center and Andrew Hughes Community Center in town.
Perhaps it was her mother’s high level of civic engagement, Stark mused, that lead to Stark’s personal complacency regarding the need to get involved in local government.
“I used have this idea that my mom and her friends were taking care of everything,” Stark admitted. “But now I realize it’s time to pitch in.”
On a community-wide level, Stark attributes the gap in female representation on Claremont City Council to a sense of complacency that bloomed among progressives during the Obama administration.
The 2016 election was a wake-up call. That’s when Stark decided to run for city council.
“I realized that democracy takes all of us,” she recounted, emphasizing the significance of that moment: “I truly was overcome by a sense of obligation; a sense of how necessary it is to participate at all levels.”
Stark is energized about civic engagement because of her Claremont upbringing. After graduating from Claremont High in 1987, she returned to Claremont to enroll as a New Resources student at Pitzer College. She got her degree in world literature and classics in 1998.
“I realized that everything I have in my life can in some way be tied back to Claremont,” said Stark. She went on to raise three children in Claremont, involving herself with organizing events and fundraisers for their schools and extracurricular activities.
“It’s not hard to be busy doing that kind of thing,” she said.
But Stark’s kids are growing up now, and she’s ready to serve Claremont at large.
Stark thinks her uniquely bifocal community involvement — on the city council side as a longtime member of the council’s Traffic and Transportation Commission, and with the Colleges as a yoga instructor for 14 years — will help her bridge the growing strife between the Claremont Colleges and city council.
“All relationships need to be maintained,” Stark said. “The relationship [between the Colleges and city] hasn’t been made a priority. It’s been un-tended.”
One glaring example of the state of that relationship: the annual meeting between the the Colleges and city council. It used to consist of the president of every college and all five members of city council. Now, that meeting only consists of two members of city council and one representative from the Colleges.
Stark also cited Pomona College’s difficulty in getting building permits approved for its new art museum, and Keck Graduate Institute’s struggle developing its property south of Claremont Village, as testaments to a tense “town and gown” relationship.
She’s hopeful about mending that relationship. As a lifelong Claremont resident, she’s come to understand that intellectual resources are a vital community resource.
If elected in November, Stark said she wants to promote “more gratitude and more understanding [about] how we now mutually benefit each other."
What she wants to see less of?
“Less promoted consternation from the people in charge.”
Making it happen
In order to do that, Stark needs to raise money. Claremont city council candidates typically spend between $12k and $15k on their campaigns. In recent years, some have spent more.
But, says Stark, doing so isn’t necessarily in a candidate’s favor.
“Flashiness doesn’t necessarily go over well in Claremont,” she explained, citing a town perception of big spenders as reckless.
“There’s a sense that if you need to work so hard for people to know your name, that you haven’t been working as hard at helping out,” she said. “That makes sense to me — people should know who you are because you’ve been introducing yourself and because you’ve been working really hard to pitch in.”
Stark doesn’t have a fundraising goal, but she’d like to run a frugal campaign.
“I’m going to get signs, and If I can afford them, I’d like to get the good ones — the ones that don’t get ruined in the rain. Besides that, I’m working really hard at pitching in.”
Until now, Claremont City Council elections took place in March of odd-numbered years. But this year, the general municipal election will happen on November 6.
That’s because, last fall, Claremont city council decided to shift the general municipal election date to November of even-numbered years, in order to coincide with state and federal elections. The four-month shift was spurred by California state mandate SB415, a law aimed at increasing voter turnout after local elections from the last four years, in many cases, drew less than 40 percent of the statewide election.
Proponents, including president of the League of Women Voters of the Claremont Area Tressa Kentner, hoped that the shift would increase voter turnout. Dissenters argued that it would shift the focus away from local elections.
“It’s just going to suck the wind out of our city elections,” Councilman Corey Calaycay said at the Nov. 14 council meeting last year.
One effect of the shift is the shortening of the five current city council members’ terms by four months. But how the shift will actually affect participation in general municipal elections remains to be seen. The election in November will be Claremont’s first general municipal election with the new schedule.
Claremont council member terms are staggered, with two or three positions up for election every general municipal election. This year, three seats will be elected.
Those seats are currently held by Joe Lyons, Opanyi Nasiali, and Sam Pedroza.
Pedroza, who has served three consecutive terms on Claremont city council since 2007, has already announced his intention to run for re-election. Lyons, who has served two consecutive terms since his election in 2011, will not be running for re-election. Nasiali, who has also served two consecutive terms since 2011 and who is the current town Mayor, has not yet indicated if he intends to run for re-election.
Councilmembers elected into their seats will join Calaycay, a four-term council member since 2005 and current Mayor Pro Tem; and Larry Schroeder, a three-term council member since 2007.
In addition to Stark and Pedroza, newcomers Jed Leano, Edgar Reece, and Zachary Courser have already announced their intention to run. The filing period for candidates opens July 16.