Akbariâ€™s parents are from the state of Gujarat in India. Fremontâ€™s population is 18 percent Indian-American and just over 50 percent Asian-American. (Paresh Dave/Neon Tommy)
Fremont — a Bay Area city with 218,000 people — welcomed its first major movie theater within city limits just five months ago.
Itâ€™s not like theaters in neighboring cities are more than a short drive away. But 18-year-old Aziz Akbari has wondered why an upper middle-class suburb on the edge of Silicon Valley has been slow to develop key features such as a cinema. After all, Irvine, a Southern California city of similar size already has a handful of theaters.
â€œWhen we have a large population, easy access to transportation, a very competitive rent market and existing office space, why arenâ€™t companies coming to Fremont?â€ he asks.
Akbari, a sophomore at the University of Southern California pursuing a bachleorâ€™s in mechanical engineering with a minor in computer science, is running for mayor of Fremont this fall. Though the clear underdog among the five major candidates, Akbariâ€™s committed enough to spend three days a week away from his full course load in L.A. to campaign in Fremont. If elected, he would become the cityâ€™s youngest mayor ever and the first mayor of Indian heritage.
Akbariâ€™s not the most polished candidate. Put on the spot, he couldnâ€™t name the state legislators who represent Fremont. He hasnâ€™t reported any campaign contributions since announcing his candidacy a month ago, according to the latest documents made available by the city clerk. And he hopes of improving local schools in ways mayors probably canâ€™t affect. Yet, heâ€™s met at least a pair of congressmen, chatted with business leaders across California and is on the verge of having his story told by a national news organization.
Born in Long Island, Akbari said his earliest exposure to politics likely came as his dad followed the 1996 presidential race that pit Bill Clinton against Bob Dole. During a recent Sunday evening conversation outside his USC apartment building, he said his passion lies in politics.
â€œI think the world would benefit from another mechanical engineer, but I think this is what I need now,â€ he said. â€œI have the opportunity, and I see the potential in Fremont.â€ Akbari, pausing several times over the course of an hour to greet friends passing by, was especially critical of the cityâ€™s $4 million subsidy of a community water park. Finished in 2009, the park is open daily only during the summer.
â€œIt is the most ridiculous thing the city council has ever done,â€ he said. â€œAt the same time the school district announced pinks slips and libraries cut hours and staff, they said a water park would be a good idea that would attract enough people to pay for itself.â€
The park, Aqua Adventure, also was constructed using state grants and donations. Anu Natarajan, a councilwoman also running for mayor, has trumpted that the park earns $800,000 in revenues in campaign mailers.
Akbari started toying with both money and politics in middle school.
He turned a $50 investment into a $1,000 paycheck by selling video games and collectibles on eBay. And though now running as an independent, he volunteered at the time for the campaign of Rep. Pete Stark, a Democrat. Out of every 10 registered voters in Fremont, five are registered as Democrats, three have no party preference and two are Republicans.
Now in the thick of things himself, Akbari says thereâ€™s room for more restaurants, shops, starts-ups and manufacturing plants in Fremont. To be sure, though supportive of growth, also on his platform is a pledge to preserve the cityâ€™s historic districts.
Jobs in Fremont peaked at the start of 2001, when biotechnology companies were blossoming on land where vegetables once sprouted. At the time, the San Francisco Chronicle described Fremont as â€œthe first East Bay city to morph into a high-tech hub.â€
Employment held steady until the recession, just as the cityâ€™s population began to rise from a steady 200,000 people. Employment has been slowly returning to pre-recession levels the past two years. Fremontâ€™s 6.9 percent unemployment rate in July was still more than two-and-half times higher than figures in 2001, but was modest compared to Californiaâ€™s 10.7 percent unemployment rate in July.
A quick glance of data collected last year by an economic analysis firm for the East Bay Economic Development Alliance suggests Fremont has lost as many businesses as its gained in the last decade.
A separate study completed for the alliance found that speculative development in the 1990s and early 2000s left Fremont with a third of the East Bayâ€™s research and development space. But the market for such space hasnâ€™t fully rebounded, and â€œsome of the excess space in weaker locations may need to be adapted to other uses.â€
The figures give some credibility to Akbariâ€™s claims that development in Fremont has been stagnant for the past decade. But is the political novice (who will turn 19 shortly after the Nov. 6 election) the right person to attract investment to the city?
â€œI know exactly what I want to do and what needs to be done everyday in office to reach that vision,â€ he said. â€œA lot of young people feel they are not being heard, so in protest they donâ€™t vote. But thatâ€™s not how democracy works. Thatâ€™s what Iâ€™m trying to go out there and show.â€