Only a handful of cities in the Bay Area have managed to elect one LGBTQ+ representative to their city councils. Even fewer cities have elected two. Sunnyvale joined the first group in 2019 when openly bisexual Alysa Cisneros won election. But it reached the second group when openly bisexual Richard Mehlinger won his race in 2022, thereby giving the seven-member council two queer councilmembers.
Richard moved to Sunnyvale in 2011 for a software engineering job. Born in Long Beach, he did his undergraduate studies at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA, double majoring in computer science and history. For his graduate work, he received his Master’s in European History at U.C. Riverside. “History has always been a passion of mine. It really informs the way I think about the world,” he said.
His first interaction with the local government occurred in 2014. A bridge he drove over each day on his commute to Moffett Park ran along a hillside that was riddled with trash. Wanting to get the debris removed, he emailed Sunnyvale Councilmember Jim Griffith, who then coordinated with Caltrans to get the area cleaned up. Seeing the city take action first-hand inspired him. “I just emailed my council member, and he actually answered my question and made a meaningful effort to fix the problem.”
But he wasn’t yet inspired to get involved with city government.
Fast forward to election night 2016, which he describes as one of the worst nights of his life. Following Hilary Clinton’s defeat and Donald Trump’s victory, Richard took a few sick days off from work to contemplate what role he could play in making a difference. He knew sitting around and watching was no longer an option for him. “I thought, there is nothing meaningful I can do at the federal or state level,” he surmised. “But I could actually get some things done at the local level.”
He aimed to tackle Silicon Valley’s top hot-button issue: the cost of living. He realized Trump’s election meant large numbers of queer individuals and people of color would be moving to California seeking a safer place to live. “We’ve got all these great civil rights protections, but who can afford to live here? Civil rights protections shouldn’t be a luxury.”
He noted the city’s empty promises of inclusion in an online op-ed he wrote. “You see signs like ‘Immigrants welcome here,’ ‘Love is love,’ ‘Black Lives Matter,’ etc. Yes, everyone is welcome if they have enough money. But if we’re actually serious about inclusion and civil rights, then we have to build enough affordable housing for working people to be able to live here.”
Then, a bicycle accident in May 2017 further prompted him to get involved with the city. On his commute home from work, he hit a crack in the pavement and was launched over the handlebars, breaking his arm in the fall. It got him thinking about how the smallest details, like safe biking infrastructure, make an enormous difference.
That year, Richard joined Livable Sunnyvale, a spinoff of the Sunnyvale Democratic Club. The group advocates for housing, green transportation, and sustainability. He was elected to the board in 2018. At that same time, he also joined the Charter Review Commission. In 2019, he decided to apply to Sunnyvale’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission. “Commissions are the training wheels and the pipeline for city council candidates,” he said. “It’s a way for people to get experience in city government.”
In late 2019, he met Alysa Cisneros at a BAYMEC brunch, and they became friends. Alysa run for and won a seat on the Sunnyvale City Council in 2020, giving Richard the opportunity to gain campaign experience as her assistant campaign manager. Then and only then did he decide he was ready for a campaign of his own. By that time, Sunnyvale had switched over to district elections, making the campaign more manageable.
Richard spent all of 2021 preparing to run for council by talking to the neighborhood leaders and current and former elected officials. But the conversation that impacted him most was the one he had with his 97-year-old grandmother shortly before she died. “One of the last conversations I had with her will remain with me forever. She told me to ‘keep on politickin’.’ That was really meaningful. She was a remarkable woman.”
By the time he launched his campaign on his 35th birthday in 2022, he had an endorsement list “as long as his arm.” The five years he spent building relationships, learning how the city works, and understanding the issues in his district had paid off. It also turned out that he was a prolific fundraiser. He raised a total of $40,000, all without accepting any corporate or developer contributions. From family and friends alone, he raised $25,000 Organized labor came through in a big way, contributing around $12,000.
In his campaign, Richard focused on addressing the needs of the residents in his district, running on pro-housing and traffic safety, which he calls “basic quality of life issues.”
Richard’s identity as a proud bisexual man was a “non-issue” in his campaign. He received support from organizations like BAYMEC and The Victory Fund that work to elect queer people to office. Though it seemed irrelevant to the issues he ran on, he made a point of speaking about being bisexual for the sake of visibility. “There’s erasure, especially for men. Hell, The New York Times ran an article about ten years ago, asking ‘Do bi men exist?’ I was just like, ‘Well, I’m right here!’”
There was only one other candidate in the race, who turned out not to run much of a campaign. Richard won handily, with 71% of the vote.
In his swearing-in speech, Richard noted the historic nature of his victory: “Tonight I stand here as the second openly queer Sunnyvale City Councilmember ever, part of the most diverse council in terms of background, geography, ethnicity, religion, in our city’s history. That diversity is a strength because it allows us to see and address issues from many different angles. The switch to districts, drawn with extensive community input and confirmed overwhelmingly by the voters, made this possible.”
“Serving on the city council is a tremendous honor, and it’s actually fun,” he said. “I am having the time of my life. We have an excellent council. I have great colleagues. We have a great city staff. And even when we disagree, it’s respectful. I think we’re doing some really cool stuff.”
Richard wants to encourage other people to run for local office. “It can be a tremendously rewarding experience. It gives you the opportunity to help shape your community for the better, which is a wonderful thing. I’m really grateful to be here,” he concluded.