S3E9 - A Legacy of Election Communication, Collaboration and Martial Arts with Tommy Gong in Contra Costa County, California
In this episode, hosts Eric Fey and Brianna Lennon speak with Tommy Gong from Contra Costa County, California. They spoke about Tommy’s long history working in California elections, about his work with Bay Area Votes – and how they’re trying to educate and connect with voters – and a little about his unique connection to Bruce Lee.
High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits:
Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith
Managing Producer: Aaron Hay
Digital Producer: Mark Johnson
Transcription of the episode is as follows:
Tommy Gong: And it's like, how do I know that my vote was counted accurately? You know, it's the type of question that the public is going to have – speaking, responding to that question. What’s the knowhow that we have, what are the procedures that we have today that we can use to explain, answer that questions. So, the question has to come from the public.
[High Turnout Wide Margins Introduction]
Brianna Lennon: Welcome to another episode of High Turnout Wide Margins. This is Brianna Lennon. I'm the County Clerk for Boone County, Missouri. And with me is my co-host –
Eric Fey: Eric Fey, Director of Elections in St. Louis County, Missouri.
Brianna Lennon: And today, we're really excited to be talking to –
Tommy Gong: Tommy Gong, Chief Deputy Clerk Recorder for Contra Costa County in California.
Brianna Lennon: So Tommy, usually we start off with a “How did you get into elections,” but you have a really interesting background, so we want to know even more than how you got into elections – we want to know a little more about yourself, your background and your career and how it’s progressed and how it ultimately ended up in elections.
Tommy Gong: Oh, great. So, yeah, so when I was growing up, you know, in – and we were the only Chinese family and in kind of an agricultural land in California in the Central Valley, and, you know, so you're always looking for, you know, heroes, you know, on TV, and, at the time, the only one was Bruce Lee, because he was on the Green Hornet show. And my sister, my big sister, who's nine years older than me, you know, she falls in love with Bruce Lee. Then he makes it to Hong Kong, and he's in the films there, and you know, that, of course, he dies tragically...
And so, you know, he was a childhood hero because of his movies and all, and so, when I went to Cal, I had the opportunity to actually learn his martial art, and got to a point where – I think it's just part of my nature that I'm really curious about, you know, meeting people who knew him and, you know, just like, even my elections career kind of goes the same route, meeting as many people as I can learning from them, and also, I like, basically met and learn from practically every student of Bruce Lee's, and as a result, I was asked to serve on the Bruce Lee foundation board that was founded by Linda Lee, his widow and their daughter, Shannon Lee.
It was so amazing when you met the ones who say, “Well, I only teach what Bruce taught me,” so I proposed doing a book where I would work with each of these students to document what the training was and what he taught them. So, that book is 10 years old. I worked on that book in 2012, during that presidential election, and so, I was like writing like crazy – every waking hour I could, you know, in the morning, at lunchtime, after work
And I'm doing a book right now about Bruce – with his last student, and so, as I finished up that book, I actually met his last student, and we started to talk a lot over the years, and so, he really wanted to write his book and I said, “Okay, let me help you, you know, put some thoughts together, and we'll start writing that out.” And he has a really interesting history because he's from Hong Kong, he speaks the same Cantonese dialect as Bruce, so they really got along. He hung around with Bruce a lot when they were, when Bruce would be teaching like James Coburn, and, you know, travel up to this home or Steve McQueen. And so, what's happened is like, I've served on the Bruce Lee Foundation Board – probably starting in around 2000s or so, and so, it's really kind of come full circle for me, because, you know, Bruce Lee was a childhood hero for me, studied his martial art and now [I am ] kind of responsible for his legacy, and what that means for future generations in trying to, you know, continue that legacy. So, it's just kind of cool to be involved in that process.
Eric Fey: And here, I only thought you were famous because of your election work, so – all these things.
Tommy Gong: It's funny when I google myself, I say, “Well, what's the top headline? Is it the book? Or is it something about elections?” So, the time when I resigned my post in San Luis Obispo, obviously that was at the very top of search results.
Tommy Gong: You always wonder what your life is defined by.
Brianna Lennon: So, how did you get involved in elections in the first place? I know you have a very illustrious career you can take us through.
Tommy Gong: So, I guess where I have to start that is with the 2000 election, you know, of course, the 2000 election is a watershed moment for elections, you know, across the country, and I wasn't in elections at that time, but I was glued to the TV to see what the results of the election was, you know, who our president was going to be and what was happening in Florida, and what was happening at the Supreme Court. And it was really an intriguing experience that was happening in the country. And only but a year or two later, I was looking for a new career. My family and I were in the family business, I grew up in the family business, and I took it over in the 90s, and actually, I thought I was gonna retire like my folks as a grocery man and that didn't happen, you know, when you have large change starting to take over communities and all – that was my opportunity to get out and I didn't want to stay in any type of grocery business.
So, I was looking for a new career, and, you know, looking at, you know, just looking at the classifieds, I see this job for elections manager, and I said, “Oh,” you know, and it was fresh in my mind about that 2000 election, so, you know, “Come on – elections. What does that take? The job couldn't be that difficult?” And so, I applied and I was lucky that the newly elected Clerk Recorder was really making an effort to hire some new blood, some folks from outside of the government, outside of the local government. And I came with, you know, management experience and an MBA, and so, she hired me and I was just really fortunate in that way, cutting my teeth there in Stanislaus County, which is in the Central Valley, Modesto area.
So, that's where I landed first, but then I was seeking other opportunities – I wanted to learn more, I wanted to advance further. So, you know, it's funny, you know, you kind of talk to the vendors, the vendors kind of know, like, who's retiring, and I wanted to, you know, I was seeking mentorship, I wanted to find someone who I could really learn my craft from. And so, out of the blue, they said, “Well, San Luis Obispo, San Luis Obispo has a person named Julie Rodewald. She's been there for about 16 years or so, and she really knows her craft. And I didn't know about her as much because she was a little bit further south, then. There's kind of like this dividing line – Northern California, Southern California – and so I went to meet Julie and expressed my interest, and so, sure enough, she hired me for her newly created position of assistant clerk-recorder, assistant county clerk-recorder.
Brianna Lennon: So, California’s a large state and obviously that can present some interesting challenges. I'm curious what you've run into in your work, how you and your office have overcome them and if you’ve got any advice for others on how to handle unique challenges?
Tommy Gong: We're always problem solving, always something's coming up that we’re looking to, you know, to implement a new law, a new curveball that's thrown at us. And that curveball for me in San Luis Obispo was in 2020. We had an early primary March election in the 2020 election, so COVID had not really, you know, been prevalent yet at that time. And, you know, it was only like a day or two after that – I believe was March 3, that it really started to take shape, and so, we were able to conduct the election, we did have to take some safety precautions, but still things were so early, nobody really knew what was happening, so we were able to complete our canvas, but in so doing, then I was like really watching to see the primaries that are happening in other states and the cancellations of poll workers and in the polling places, and, you know, the long lines that were happening as a result, the increased number of absentee requests that, you know, states that don't have the infrastructure for that type of volume – how were they able to keep up and fulfill those requests? And to process that number of absentee ballots that are returning? So, it was really becoming a concern in California as we're watching it on the sidelines.
So, the Secretary of State in their wisdom started to facilitate a weekly or actually multiple calls during the week, and this started up in April, and we were really talking through – like broke it down by topic. How are we going to handle in-person voting? What type of safety procedures might we do here? What are some changes that you guys might request so that we can actually get through this for the November election? The governor's office is listening, they're ready to make some concessions and some changes for us to be able to safely conduct the election, and so, what resulted was that they were going to give, they were going to send every registered voter a ballot in the mail automatically. In California, you have what is known as a “permanent vote-by-mail status” where you’ll get a ballot by request every election automatically, you don't have to request it every election, and so, just wholesale – everyone's going to receive a ballot in the mail.
And so you want to have the technology there to be able to check on the status of the voter’s vote-by-mail, and given that it wasn't returned, then you can suspend that ballot and then the voter can vote in person. And so, we had to make a major investment in technology and equipment for our, I believe it was 18 locations in San Luis Obispo versus our 75 polling places, which is typically what we would have. You know, there was so much effort that was going in, there was a lot of community effort, I realized that I was going to have to really up my game in terms of outreach and education. It's not something we really did hardly ever in San Luis Obispo. So, I made it a conscious effort that, “Okay, I am really going to have to get out there. Explain to the public what's going to be different.”
Brianna Lennon: So, what kind of impact did all of that have on your turnout?
Tommy Gong: At the end of the day, you know, we had the highest turnout we've ever had, and it was at 88.65%. We, I was trying to find a metric because, of course, every county had an increase in turnout, of course, right? So, I was trying to find what metric could I find how we might have done better than our counterparts in California. So, I looked at like – how did we place in the order of, you know, from highest to lowest in turnout? And I looked at past data too. So typically, San Luis would finish around 12th, 11th or 12th compared to previous elections, and we leapfrogged to, like, third or fourth place. So, we were doing something that, you know, illustrated that, you know, we had an increase in turnout, and I attributed it to because of all of the outreach and education we were doing, and so, it was just really fascinating and I considered it a real success with all the effort that had gone into it.
So, after the election was over, you know, we were done, certified and all, and, you know, January 6th happens, of course, and it was starting in February that our – and we had a lot of observers, I should say, we had a lot of observers of the election observing what we were doing in our office and all – but starting in around late February, March, I had a request from our local Republican Party to perform, requesting for allowing, for me allowing them to perform a forensic audit on our ballots from the 2020 election. Vetting it through with our county council, with our Secretary of State's office, it was like, “No, none of this is allowed,” you know, because your election is certified, and it shall remain, you know, stored and untouched for 22 months unless you have a court order, and, you know, they weren't happy to hear that.
And so, then came this email campaign, you know, urging me – and it's just kind of like this form email, click on this button, and you get this, you know, I get automatically sent this email – the next thing I know, driving to work one morning and it's on the radio show, you know, “Tommy Gong does not care about your elections,” you know, “and doesn't care about elections integrity,” and it's like, “Wait,” you know, “What?” It just takes you aback and, you know, makes you a little angry as well. It came to a head when we had a board of supervisors meeting for a presentation of the 2020 election and what we're considering doing going forward. It became a marathon public comment affair with many recorded and many, you know, live comments. At the end of the day, you know, it starts, you know, you kind of see the mob mentality that's going on, and, at some point, someone who, you know, joined the bandwagon to, you know, make a comment and, you know, say a few things: “I wonder if Tommy Gong is a secret member of the Chinese Communist Party?”
And so, it was like, “What?” And it was really kind of, like, shocking, you know, I didn't know how to react to this at first, and, you know, it was really kind of insulting – you know, I'm a third generation American. My grandfather arrived here. My parents, my mother was born here, and so, it was, like, I haven't even stepped foot in China, I don't speak the language, and so, I'm as American as can be in that way, and so, it just was really kind of taken me aback.
And in reflection, you know, like, you try to, like put this all together – it's all happening so quickly. At the same time, I realize there was some, you know, the violence that was that was happening against Asian Americans, and so, in the back of my head, I was, like, you know, “If this thing's escalates to some potential violence, this is something I have to be really careful about because that's not only that, some, you know, violence could be directed at me just because of the nature of my profession, but also now, because of my ethnicity. It can be even, you know, more so, an issue.” Nothing became of it, I will say. I was very fortunate, but it did cross my mind. And actually, I had to, you know, have a talk with my family, my two sons and my wife, and just, you know, being extra vigilant, and careful, aware of your surroundings, and all.
And so, where that ended was – my boys and I play trumpet. I started it up again after my oldest started, and so, we made it a tradition of playing taps at, you know, Memorial Day or on Veterans Day, and so the community always really loved it, [us] doing that. And so, it was May’s Memorial Day. They called me and said, you know, “Tommy, you're gonna do this with your sons, right?” And I go, “Are you sure that you want us to do it?” And he goes, “What do you mean?” And [I] go, “Well, you know, I've been in the headlines here a little bit.” “Oh, no, no, no, no, I,” you know – and this is actually a fairly conservative group, you know, community and all – “No, no, no, we're counting on you.” And I said, “Okay, sure, I'll do it, then,” you know, “we'll do it.” And so, we showed up that morning, kind of looking around because it’s a, you know, a lot of people are there, and we play our taps at the end of the event, and, you know, people come up to you and they thank you and everything, and so, this elderly lady comes up to me, and she goes, “I'm so and so, and I'm the one that, you know, made that comment about the Chinese Communist Party,” and she goes, “You know, I just really want to apologize and, you know, it kind of got the best me and everything.” And so, you know, I wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary about this experience, and I ended on that note, and I said, you know,”There is hope for our Republic after all, you know, once we come to terms of, you know, our actions and reflecting on our actions and all.”
[High Turnout Wide Margins Mid-break]
Brianna Lennon: So Tommy, I know you've been at a couple of different elections offices – especially in California, in Stanislaus and San Luis Obispo – Have you, can you give us the quick rundown of how you ended up in Contra Costa County and doing some of the work you're doing now?
Tommy Gong: So, Contra Costa had an opening for chief deputy here, and I was having this big guilt trip during COVID because my folks were in Northern California and we couldn't even visit them because a COVID at all, and so, I was having this real guilt trip of not being able to see my folks who are still around. And so, by relocating back to the Bay Area, I'd be a lot closer to be able to see them, and Contra Costa is a much larger county with 700,000 registered voters, so a much more robust operation, and so, you know, it was really kind of like a step up for me, and I think, at my time in my career now – that for me to perform a role more as an advisor to the, you know, to the group, as a mentor for the next generation, and it really kind of made me feel that this is a good move to have. And so, that's exactly what has happened. It's given me the opportunity to really kind of think outside of the box. I joke, you know, to look up and smell the roses because we were in such a small office in San Luis Obispo that we were doing everything, my nose was to the grindstone, I had to do all kinds of additional things. just with our very small group. But you're at a point where you can only take on so much more, and I just realized that it wasn't going to be sustainable, that job wasn't going to be sustainable at my point in my career, and so, where Contra Costa, I think, was gonna give me that opportunity. Sure enough, it has. And what it's been able to enable me to do is to find out more of what's going on, you know, nationwide. What's going on more, you know, across the state of California, what's happening across the nation, and to really be able to interface with other election officials. It’s just a really perfect timing, for my time in my career right now, to be able to really interface with them and to, you know, leave that lasting mark on my career. Not that I'm looking at retiring anytime soon.
Eric Fey: I know we did want to talk about Bay Area Votes, and so, I’m gonna let Brianna key up that next point –
Brianna Lennon: The reason why I wanted to talk about it, and it did – I was going back through election center awards, and I did notice that it won the election center award last year, the democracy award – the importance of working collaboratively in order to serve voters, not just to make sure that the offices are doing everything efficiently, but to make sure that voters have a good opportunity to get accurate information. So, can you talk a little bit about Bay Area Votes and what it is and how it came to be?
Tommy Gong: Yes, you know, so harkening back to, you know, that 2020 election and seeing that there's really a need for building public trust in elections – I've never experienced that type of situation before in all of the years I was in elections, you know, you would have observers who would come, and generally, when they leave, they're satisfied observing what they observe.
But what you said – sorry about the train, I’ll give it a second here – but yeah, it was a real concern for me, and it was something I was recognizing, something that I was stating to our Board of Supervisors in San Luis Obispo, that there is this real need for outreach and education and all of that to really build the trust in the process. You know, it really has become a crisis in the United States of being able to – what do we need to do to advocate for our profession, and to explain all of the things that we do? Recognizing that the public actually knows very little about what we do, and can be victimized to the mis and disinformation – as we had seen, as we are seeing today – it's very easy to just plant the seed of some doubtful idea about the election, which is totally, you know, not true.And so, I came to Contra Costa with that thought in mind, number one – is there some way I can help contribute in that way? And then secondarily, you know, once I landed here, you know, waking up early in the morning, well, “what new station am I going to watch?” In the Bay Area, there's multiple stations that you could watch, and so, that was my genesis of an idea – why don't we band together and try to find a way that we can take advantage of this? Because whether we're talking to one station or another station, it’s going to get broadcast across the across the entire Bay Area, and, at the same time, why don't we pool our collective thoughts together, and maybe, in concert, we can actually come up with a campaign of what are the things that we feel we need to educate the public about and so, we started off with that. And so, it really became this collaboration – talking about, you know, “We have this situation with this particular member of the public that, you know, has this issue and so let's break this down into, you know, bite sized chunks and figure out, you know, what is it about vote by mail voting that someone has questions about? What are the things that we should talk about? The process of vote-by-mail voting that we should let the public know about, that they may have never known about? What about our voting systems? You know, we need to create our own narrative to be able to get out there in the public because otherwise, if we're not saying anything, then anyone can say whatever they want to the public and make them believe it.
Brianna Lennon: So, I know we’re talking about Bay Area Votes, what are you all looking at heading into this 2024 election cycle? And what would you give as advice to other counties across the county trying to do some of the same work?
Tommy Gong: I should back up. November's election – what we decided we would do is, you know, like we have all these facts sheets, and they were kind of long and that sort of, you know, and lengthy and you know who's going to be reading that entire fact sheet? So instead, we decided that we're going to break it up in bite-sized chunks on social media, and we did this “Did you know campaign?” So, did you know this about your vote-by-mail voting? Did you know this about your voting system? Now, we're taking a step back and saying, “Okay, what do we want to do for 2024?” And that was the whole thing, 2022, we recognize was just a dress rehearsal for the real show in 2024 –in talking with media and with communication teams. Now it's like, you know, how do you plant a story? How can you get a story covered? So, we're learning more about those types of strategies that I didn't necessarily know two years ago. And so, that's making us stronger and stronger in that way, and we came up with these different campaigns that we're working on now, and it's like – How do I know that my vote was counted accurately? You know, it's the type of question that the public is going to have – responding to that question. The question has to come from the public. In other words, we're not going to say, “Here's all the things about vote-by-mail voting.” We have to think of the question that the voter is going to have – How do I know that my vote-by-mail vote, my vote-by-mail ballot is going to be counted? How do I know it's trustworthy, so to speak? And so, it's trying to approach it in that manner. So, we have four topics that we plan to tackle, including crossover voting.
Number one – crossover voting. So, what's going to be the options for voters who are given the opportunity, meaning, they're unaffiliated with a political party, meaning their no party preference, so to speak in California, or a party that's not recognized by the Secretary of State's office, and they're given the opportunity to vote on a party's ballot that is allowing them to crossover. And it's ever more important now in California because this is the first presidential primary partisan ballot that we're going to send a ballot to every registered voter, you know, the first time we did this was the 2020 general election. So, it was a general ballot in every election since then. So, this is the first time that it's going to be, you know, a partisan ballot that we’re going to be sending. We want to get the right ballot into the hands of the voter from the get-go.
Another one is – Why does it take so long to certify the election? Or to count the ballots? Why does it take so long?
Another question is – How do you prevent voter fraud? That's something that we get asked all the time. So, let's really think, break this down and find a way that we can, you know, communicate some real talking points that will resonate in them – that's the other piece is, what is the wording that we can use? What's the answer that we can provide? That will resonate in our public’s mind, not in election officials' minds but in the public's mind. What's the type of wording that we can, how we can communicate our answer that they will clearly understand and say, “Oh, I get that now.”
Last one is – How do I know that my vote was counted? So again, explain – though that is going to take pieces out of the vote-by-mail section and it's going to take pieces out of the voting systems and, kind of, distilling it so that it's only hitting on the high points of the messaging, you know, of those resonating messages that we hope can address the concern that they have.
Eric Fey: I have no idea how we're going to condense this episode because like everything, everything was relevant and interesting.
You've been listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, a podcast that explores local election administration. I'm your host, Eric Fey, alongside Brianna Lennon. A big thanks to KBIA for making this podcast possible. Our Managing Editor is Rebecca Smith. Our Managing Producer is Aaron Hay. This has been High Turnout Wide Margins. Thanks for listening.