LISA MOTOYAMA: El Cerrito’s first Japanese American mayor

FIRST JA MAYOR — Joni Hiramoto, the first Asian American Contra Costa Superior Court judge, (right) swears in Lisa Motoyama during the Dec. 20, 2022 city council meeting at El Cerrito City Hall. photo by John Stashik

Despite a long history of Japanese Americans living and working in El Cerrito, Calif., the city of 26,000 has never had a Japanese American mayor. On Dec. 20, however, City Councilmember Lisa Motoyama succeeded Councilmember Gabe Quinto to become mayor of the city for a one-year term.

Originally from Gardena, Calif., Motoyama is a Yonsei on her father’s side of the family, with a grandmother born in Hawai‘i. She is also a Shin-Nisei with her mother being from Japan. She refers to herself as “a fourth-generation Japanese American, with the extra reinforcement from my mom on all things Japanese.”

Professionally, Motoyama works as a senior affordable housing finance consultant at Community Economics Inc., an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit dedicated to helping build affordable housing, though she has cut back to working four days a week during her tenure as mayor. She first became interested in housing after her parents divorced when she was in high school.

“My mom was forced to sell the house that I grew up in when I was in college, and then it got me to think about housing, … getting really interested in how people create housing, how it’s funded and what kinds of housing … we create in the United States,” she told the Nichi Bei News. “And so, I was able to come to (University of California,) Berkeley, and at the time they had a specialty area in affordable housing development. And that really got me started.”

Since moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1990 to attend Berkeley, Motoyama has worked in affordable housing and worked on projects, big and small. She said she realized the city was a “different and special place” after she gave a presentation to the city council on a development.

“Lots of city council and planning commissions often times are very combative experiences, where you really have to convince people that, really, they need to do affordable housing,” Motoyama said. “And when I came to El Cerrito, I was explaining the development that we were proposing, and what we would like, … (longtime councilmember) Janet Abelson said, ‘You know, we really care about affordable housing here. We have some developments already. I hope you know that. We care about housing here.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, this is a different kind of town.’”

Motoyama and her husband moved to El Cerrito at the end of 2005 and have raised two children in the city. She said she keeps her kids out of the limelight given that one of them, still a minor, said “it’s awkward” to have a mother in city politics.

She joined the city’s planning commission in 2010 and served two terms through 2018, working on city planning issues such as the San Pablo Avenue Specific Plan.

One memorable project included the Hana Gardens senior apartments next door to city hall. Initially, the developers had hoped to redevelop the whole site with more housing, but the El Cerrito Historical Society and Contra Costa chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League rallied to save the pre-existing Contra Costa Florist building, previously owned and operated by the Mabuchi family.

“When I learned the story of the building, I was really moved. And I did get pressure from people saying, ‘Hey, you’re an affordable housing person. Why would you want to reduce the number of units? Your side is on the housing side,’” she said. “And then that’s when I realized, people are not realizing that I’m a Japanese American person, and this is really important to me for other reasons than my professional experience. And I think that it was so important to have places, not just memories of places, because when you have a place to remember and a place to gather and a place to learn, people do come.”

El Cerrito hosted a number of Japanese American-owned nurseries and florists before and after the war. According to Tom Panas of the El Cerrito Historical Society, 19 of the 20 Japanese American nurseries had loans with Mechanics Banks located in neighboring Richmond, Calif. The Downer family, who owned and operated the bank, did not foreclose on the Japanese American nurseries and paid their property taxes during the wartime incarceration.

Motoyama said the goodwill extended meant a lot to the Japanese American community. She said her father’s family, while not incarcerated in the camps, relocated to Utah during the war and returned to California to start over from almost nothing.

“It was a really horrible and traumatic experience for them. And when they came back, they had two boxes in the basement of the Buddhist church. And that’s where they had to start. Where to live, how to live, how to move forward. They had two boxes and that was it,” she said. “So I know the difference of what this means when someone will protect your home for you, or your community supports you. And I’m really proud to be part of that story, even a little bit, and I’m really proud to be in El Cerrito.”

Through serving on the commission, Motoyama said she learned more about what the city was doing and friends told her she should run for city council. After being asked multiple times, she ran for a seat in 2020.

“That was, I would say, probably not a typical experience, because there was nothing in person. Everything I did was by Zoom,” she said. People ran back into their homes when they saw her outside as she dropped off postcards for her campaign.

Since being elected in 2020, Motoyama said she and the city council have focused on fixing the city budget, and said El Cerrito is now “in a good place.” She said her mandate as mayor will include ensuring the city stays on track with its budget while looking at ways for it to invest in its future.

She hopes to bring back bicycle police patrolling the Ohlone Greenway and looks forward to working with BART on their El Cerrito Plaza station development project, where she hopes a new library will be built.

“We have a very small library right now, and it is one of the most frequently used libraries in West County,” she said. “We have collections that we can’t really display; our space is too small right now. We can have more gathering spaces, more access to computers, bigger collections for the children’s section, things like that, and that’ll be really exciting. That’s something I know everybody, myself included, would really love to see, as well as part of that development.”

Motoyama said it was exciting to be installed as the first Japanese American mayor, but also somewhat surprising and “a little bit sad” that there had been no other Japanese American mayors before her, given the long history of Japanese American families in El Cerrito.

“I was talking to someone and she said, ‘I’m impressed that you did this. Because being a Japanese American person, usually they say, don’t stick your neck out there. Don’t put yourself forward. And I’m glad you did that,’” she said. “And I said, ‘Oh, thank you.’ And I’m realizing, I think, probably, it was easier for me in a way to do this because I’m not from here. … I think if I had stayed in Southern California, I probably wouldn’t do this either.”

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