By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
One has been in politics for 27 years and points to the growth of Bellevue as proof of his accomplishments. The other is a relative newcomer but describes a long career in business, which he says can transform into successful policies. Bellevue City Councilmember Conrad Lee and local business-owner Dexter Borbe are facing off for a seat in the Nov. 2 election for position 2 on the Bellevue City Council.
“I came to this country and found freedom, and liberty and justice for all,” said Conrad Lee. “That,” he added, “is why I want to serve, and the best way to serve the community is through being a member of the Bellevue City Council, and to do that, I have to run for the council position.”
Lee says he is fiscally responsible. He was raised by a widowed mother and the family “had to learn to pinch every penny.”
Lee has an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan and an MBA from the University of Washington (UW). In his 27 years on the city council, he has also served as mayor and deputy mayor.
One example of his work came at a time when cities were automatically allowed to raise property taxes by 6%. But he and others analyzed the budget and found reserves. So he and three other council members stopped the automatic increases, he said.
“For the next 10 years, we did not have an automatic 6% tax rate.” More recently, the city has chosen to increase the tax rate by 1%. Last year, as with years before, he voted against it. Lee said the city is well-run and able to take care of its finances without it.
“I did not feel it was necessary for many reasons.”
Last year, the city had a budget shortfall of $16 million due to the pandemic. Lee said because of the city’s financial policies, they were able to cover it. Looking forward, Lee said Bellevue will be “the technology center of the world.”
But critics have raised questions about his stance toward affordable housing. Amazon is expected to bring 25,000 jobs to Bellevue by 2025.
“In the last six months, we’ve done more for affordable housing than any jurisdiction in the state,” he said. “We need to accommodate people who work and live here. We wanted to do it right, we wanted to do it responsibly. Before we had a plan, before we knew what we were going to do, we didn’t want to just jump in. It’s not that we’re against affordable housing. The city of Bellevue has been working on affordable housing for 30 years.”
Lee also approached the issue of a homeless shelter in a similar way.
“We were against homeless shelters because people were doing it haphazardly. But if you look at what we have done, four years later, we have it in place. We are now a model.”
Asked to share more of his accomplishments, Lee said he “planted the seed” for the UW’s Eastside campus by suggesting the idea to UW President Michael K. Young. Tsinghua University (China’s equivalent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) also contributed money.
As for his politics, Lee said he doesn’t like labels. He calls himself “socially responsible.” Asked about criticism that he had been against Affirmative Action and LGBTQ policies, he said it was not accurate.
“I don’t support discrimination because I was once discriminated against. I bring people together.”
“Please look at what the city of Bellevue has accomplished, look at what Bellevue has become.”
While at MIT, where he received an MBA, Dexter Borbe met many classmates who gradually led him to a realization about the middle class.
Both parents had worked their way up through entrepreneurship in the Philippines, shaping his beliefs.
“I had very little sympathy for people whose plight was worse than mine because I was trying to make my own way in the world and I had worked hard to get to where I was,” he said.
But then he saw the inequities starting with the Bush administration, such as the elimination of taxes on the rich, leaving the middle and lower classes to bear the tax burden.
Borbe said he wants to promote the sustainable growth of Bellevue, and for that to happen, the city needs its middle class.
“Think about it, as this company that did a lot of sales and marketing on the front end and it looks great, but you also have to invest in fulfillment and distribution and Human Resources and accounting to go alongside,” he said. “It’s not sexy, but it’s part of the company. You need it.”
His support for affordable housing stems from this belief. Most Bellevue school teachers have commutes of an hour, he said.
“It’s okay to be a little premium, but when we are this off in terms of housing costs, we are pushing away all middle class professionals that are essential to make a complete society—your teachers, your nurses, your firefighters,” he said. “The majority of the Bellevue city management staff don’t live in Bellevue, and a great percentage of our police officers don’t live in Bellevue.”
He also believes the Eastside Homeless Shelter is necessary for sustainable growth.
“I don’t know any other place in Bellevue, which could be as insulated as where the men’s shelter is,” he said. “We cannot stick our heads in the sand and say the problem will go away because it won’t.”
Homelessness itself is an offshoot of an untenable housing market, he said. Home prices were up over 25% in one year this June, according to the latest data from the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller Index, one of the leading trackers of the housing market.
His father’s journey started in the lower echelons of society. As a teenager, his father found work at a hardware store in Manila’s Chinatown, where he slept and swept the floors and made tea in the morning. Now, half a lifetime later, his father is the second largest shareholder in the same company which has become a major wholesaler and distributor of electrical and mechanical construction products in the Philippines.
His parents’ stories inspired him to do what he is doing now. Three years ago, he bought a local franchise of a national health care company that provides caregivers for older people at home.
His decision to run for office—when the Democratic Party reached out—was two-fold. He wants to use the skills he acquired in his corporate career, which included mergers and acquisitions and working for energy companies in Texas.
“I’ve missed the intellectual challenge.”
He also wants to look back when he’s older and be able to say he’s made a difference in the lives of his community.
“This is basically a search for meaning.”
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.
I would like to know what your stance and position would be if elected regarding the rise in crime in Bellevue , and funding the police department?