On Election Day this November 8th, there will be local and state elections in addition to the one for President. Local elections are just as important as national ones. In Northern California, there is one election with a person with a disability as candidate.
As Co-Partner of #CripTheVote, a nonpartisan online campaign encouraging the political participation of people with disabilities, Alice Wong interviewed Thida Cornes, Parks and Rec Commissioner and Candidate for Mountain View (California) City Council about her campaign. For more about Thida Cornes, go to her website: www.thidacornes.com.
According to your website, your involvement in politics started from your role as a concerned parent when your son fell at a park. Before you served in the Parks and Recreation Commission in Mountain View, were you always interested in politics and civic participation as a kid?
Thida: Yes, I was interested in studying politics. I majored in Political Science at Bryn Mawr College. I also was politically active in college, marching on Washington for LBGQ rights and as a woman of color. However, I never wanted to be a politician (they all seemed white male and macho) until I got involved in politics in Mountain View and met some women who were members of City Council.
In the Meet Thida section of your website, you mention your disability in the very first paragraph which is wonderful. There probably are many elected officials with disabilities but they do not disclose for fear of being ‘unelectable’ or for personal reasons. Do you think it’s important that people are open about their disability? Why does it matter to voters? Why should it matter to the candidate?
Thida: While I think it’s an individual’s choice whether to discuss their own disability, I think in general we need more discussion about disability. Being open about your disability is still like coming out as LBGQ was fifteen years ago and has risks as well as rewards.
I appreciate and admire the politicians and actors who are very visible like Tammy Duckworth and Michael J Fox. But I have no judgement about people who find it too risky.
For myself, I made the decision to be visible when I got a service dog. I also move differently than many people but that was fairly invisible to most people. However, as I’m new to running for office, my movements can become more evident.
I’d rather voters hear from me what that is about rather than someone making up their own reasons. I also have a reputation for being direct. Even so I find people are hesitant to discuss disability with me, and not talking about it can become a barrier.Maybe a few folks are put off by my putting my disability out there but they are probably not my likely voters. I also feel having a disability informs my perspective on life and politics. It makes very pragmatic and aware of how we are all interdependent.
I loved seeing the photo of you and your service dog on your website! Tell me a little about what it’s been like campaigning with your service dog and how important your service dog is to your life.
Thida: Having a service dog has changed my life. I find walking difficult without my service dog. Before I had a service dog, I have to focus attention on walking to compensate for my basal ganglia, I had to think about whether going on a particular surface was a good idea, and even so I used to trip and fall about once a week.
I sprained my ankle regularly, and was starting to break toes and I was spending more and time non-ambulatory. I never regularly used a wheelchair or scooter because it requires a lot of hand motions or are too sensitive and my hands are the most affected by my dystonia so being non-ambulatory was very difficult for me.
Last year I did go to Myanmar for two weeks without my service dog and I brought a walking cane and I had to be careful the whole time and I had to sit down if my walking rhythm was off. I missed my dog and my freedom. I didn’t realize how much time and energy I had spent on walking.
What is it like running for office for the first time? Did you encounter any barriers or accessibility issues while running?
Thida: The main accessibility issue I’ve had is around microphones which I find hard to use but I’ve learned to adapt. Before I fundraised my first $10,000, I encountered a lot of “Can you actually run?” While money shouldn’t matter to answer basic competency questions, it does seem to have stopped a lot of the overt questions. I also have a lot of great endorsements.
What’s been the most surprising thing you discovered during your run for office so far?
Thida: I did Emerge, which is training for Democratic women who want to run for office. They told us fundraising was important. I’ve been surprised and a little sad to see how fundraising addresses the competence issue.
As a resident of Mountain View, what do you love about this community?
Thida: I moved to Mountain View for its high tech and socio-economic and cultural diversity. I love our diversity of people, how most people really try to see other people’s points of view, not just their own, how people care for others less fortunate, and how most people appreciate and take pride in civic participation. I’m a nerd and I moved here for the high-tech industry and there’s a nerdy curiosity and delight in new experiences and new things. At the same time, we like our downtown, which has a retro feel with a lot of small businesses. I love how we’re small and my kids can bike by themselves to many places.
How did your interest in open spaces, urban planning/design, pedestrian safety and housing start?
Thida: It started when my then toddler son fell through a gap in the top of a tall play structure. Ironically the play structure recently had become accessible to him because the City added ADA compliant steps to a structure for 8-12 year olds. Previously you could only access the top of the structure by climbing it, which my son wasn’t capable of at that time. Before that time, I assumed that design was a lofty skill that experts had, and that wasn’t really a part of my skill set. But that incident showed me how my perspective can be important. That something that seemed common sense to me weren’t necessarily common to other people. Adding nice easy to climb steps would attract and enable young children to access a play structure so the structure should not have gaps that young children could fall through.
I then became to notice other safety issues in my City that I had assumed were only barriers to me as a person with a disability were actually barriers to other people. Things like our lack of curb cuts, long crosswalks with a short-time to cross and no median to wait.
Like much of Silicon Valley, communities are under pressure when it comes to demand for housing, growing inequality, the lack of accessible and affordable homes, and the displacement of working-class families as property values and rents rise. How will you balance the tensions between growth, development, and sustainability for all residents of Mountain View?
Thida: That is a complex question and one that is central to my campaign and I think is best answered on my campaign website www.thidacornes.com
What are some ways better signage, infrastructure and technology can improve pedestrian safety?
Thida: By making pedestrians feel more comfortable so they use designated crossings and claim their space instead of darting across. By making pedestrians more visible to drivers, slowing down drivers at the places where pedestrians and drivers interact, and allowing better communication between drivers and pedestrians.
More cities and organizations are adopting universal design principles in their public spaces and buildings. What are your thoughts about universal design and the importance of accessibility in Mountain View?
Thida: I support universal design principles. Sadly, this isn’t a topic that has come up in the campaign, because we’re still at the point of working on designing spaces and buildings for humans, rather than automobiles.
Most people don’t realize that children with disabilities are excluded from playgrounds socially or physically and that can impact their development and relationships. With your involvement with the Parks and Recreation Commission, what are your thoughts about accessible playgrounds? Have you been to the Magical Bridge playground in Palo Alto?
Thida: Yes, bringing a Magical Bridge playground to Mountain View is part of my campaign platform.
Why is it important for all people, including people with disabilities and other marginalized communities to vote and get involved in the political process?
Thida: We have important and different perspectives to share and the best way to have those voices heard is to vote and to get involved.
What is your advice to other people with disabilities who might want to get involved with politics in their local communities but might not know where to begin or feel hesitant?
Thida: Find something you’re passionate about. Search online to find a group that is involved in that issue. If you don’t see a person with a disability (and we are still few or hidden), talk to the people who are visibly different, whether it’s people of color, women, LBQT or some other difference. If you’re too shy to join a group, go online and find the agenda of your City Council meeting and go speak at a City Council meeting. Anyone can go speak for three minutes on a topic that’s on the agenda or there’s also a time for speaking on items not on the agenda. If you can’t access your City Hall then email City Council about that.
Elect Thida Cornes Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ElectThidaCornes/
September 14 2016, Los Altos Town Crier: Meet the Candidates for the Mtn View City Council