By Karen Ocamb
In celebrating the birthday of Harvey Milk last Sunday, May 22, many forget that the assassinated gay icon repeatedly ran for political office before finally being elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. In fact, it was Milk’s victorious opponent in his California State Assembly race in 1976, strong gay ally Art Agnos, who taught Milk to stop being a “downer” in his campaign speeches and tell people how he would “fix things.” That soon translated into what became Milk’s theme and legacy, as The New York Times reported in 1977: “We have to make up for hundreds of years of persecution. We have to give hope to that poor runaway kid from San Antonio. They go to the bars because churches are hostile. They need hope! They need a piece of the pie!”
The LGBT community didn’t get a piece of the pie or a seat at the table in California until 1994 when Sheila James Kuehl became the first openly gay person elected to the state legislature. But so much progress towards full equality has been made since then—including having two successive out assembly speakers, John Pérez and Toni Atkins—that having out elected officials and maintaining the LGBT Caucus seems almost old fashioned. It isn’t. There are a record number of 11 openly LGBT people running for the state legislature this year, but winning the June 7 primary is still a daunting task and it is still immensely unclear whether the surge of youthful enthusiasm for candidates in the presidential contests will help or overshadow the important down-ballot races.
For the first time since 2008, when Barack Obama won the presidency and anti-gay Prop 8 passed, there has been genuine excitement about the June primary in the Golden State, since the Democratic contest between former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is expected to really matter. A Field Poll last month showed Clinton leading Sanders by only six points—47 to 41 percent—among likely voters. But an ABC 7-Southern California News Group poll released Monday, May 23, gave Clinton an 18-point lead (57 percent to 39 percent) among likely Democratic voters.
Poll-gazing during this curious primary season, however, has given a number of politicos headaches with their inexplicable inaccuracy. What has been provable is the significant surge in California voter registration on May 23, the final day to register, with nearly 200,000 new or updated online registrations. Young people ages 17-25 fueled the surge, accounting for 42 percent of the new registrations. There has also been a surge of confusion, with a spike in registration for the right-wing American Independent Party, which the Los Angeles Times pointed out was due to voters thinking they were signing up for the small “i” independence party. In California, independents register as “No Party Preference.” But voting is still complicated for those without a partisan preference: only Republicans can vote in the June 7 GOP primary while the Democratic primary is open, though independents must specifically ask for a Democratic ballot in order to vote.
“The fact that Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, regardless of delegates, still seem to be socking it out until the end — that continues to be a motivating impact,” Dean Logan, the out registrar-recorder/county clerk for L.A. County, told the Los Angeles Times. Logan told The Times that in L.A., young people under the age of 20 accounted for more than 61 percent of the new registrants. The second largest group was aged 30 to 39.
What does all this energy mean for the LGBT community, with an estimated population of 1,152,048 across the state? Of course every politician is elected to represent their district, as well as to work to improve the state as a whole. But minority elected officials are expected to assume the task of representing the hopes and needs of their often under-represented constituencies, as well. And while it may appear that California is so progressive, there still significant legislative equality still to be sought and achieved, a January, 2016 report by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law indicating that “some regions of the state report the same levels of socioeconomic vulnerability as in the Southern and Midwestern states.” But without LGBT-specific data, how can vulnerabilities be identified and corrective programs and policies created? Political research and election exit polling rarely ask voters about sexual orientation or gender identity so LGBT political power must be extrapolated through fundraising finesse or other means.
Which is why Harvey Milk was so adamant about LGBT people having a seat at the table of power, to represent the marginalized and “fix” the disparities. As the statewide LGBT lobbying organization, part of Equality California’s mission is to vet LGBT politicos and scrutinize politicians as would-be allies in deed or in name only. This election cycle, EQCA’s political action committee has prioritized electing or re-electing the five gay incumbents and seven seeking open seats, as well as supporting a first time LGBT candidate in a heavily Republican district.
EQCA’s endorsed incumbents are Susan Talamantes Eggman of AD 13, who is in a safe Democratic District; Evan Low in AD 28, who is running unopposed; State Sen. Ricardo Lara, who is running unopposed in SD 33; Toni Atkins, who is running unopposed since Marty Block bowed out of his re-election bid for the SD 39; and Cathleen Galgiani, who is facing three Republican challengers in SD 5, a district that leans Democrat rather than being solid blue.
Of the open seats, EQCA is working to elect San Diego City Councilmember Todd Gloria, who is running unopposed to replace termed-out Toni Atkins in AD 78; openly gay Latino Bryan Urias, who serves on the board of the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District and is one of three Democrats running to replace termed out Roger Hernandez for the AD 48; Sabrina Cervantes, district director for Assemblymember José Medina, who is running against two other Democrats seeking to defeat Republican incumbent Eric Linder in AD 60, an Inland Empire district that leans Republican.
The race to replace Carol Liu in SD 25 is also complicated. Though the district is considered “Likely Democrat,” termed out L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, a Republican with decades of name recognition, is running against two Democrats with solid LGBT backing: Anthony Portantino, whose late brother Michael published the San Diego Gay & Lesbian Times, is endorsed by the Stonewall Democratic Club; and out lesbian Katherine Perez-Estolano, who is endorsed by Equality California for her extensive experience as deputy mayor of Pasadena, as a member of the High-Speed Rail Authority, and as an environmental advocate, community planner and land-use expert.
EQCA is also supporting Greg Rodriguez, an LGBT activist and former staffer for CD 36 Rep. Raul Ruiz, who has a steep climb to overtake Republican incumbent Chad Mayes in the safe Republican AD 42 but who may be part of a developing LGBT political bench.
EQCA is also supporting two strong LGBT allies: Sharon Quirk-Silva in Fullerton, Orange County and Anna Caballero in Salinas.
Quirk-Silva lost the AD 65 seat she’s seeking to re-gain because of her passionate support for LGBT equality. Her race against conservative incumbent Republican Young Kim is considered a toss-up by political experts. “Sharon has already amply proved herself as a strong ally to EQCA and to the entire LGBT community during her time as an Assemblymember,” Zbur says. “She has a teacher’s understanding and compassion for LGBT youth, and has been a brave and vocal supporter of full LGBT equality and civil rights. We are looking forward to helping send her back to Sacramento.”
Caballero, former Secretary for the California Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency and a former assemblymember who received a an Equality Score rating of 100 percent each year she served, is running in AD 30 to replace termed out Luis Alejo. EQCA says: “Both as mayor [of Salinas] and as assemblymember, she was an early and vocal supporter of marriage equality in a socially conservative district. She was one of the first LGBT officials in the Salinas Valley to support LGBT civil rights and marched as grand marshal in 2007 in Salinas’ first-ever LGBT pride parade.”
Perhaps one of the most important races for Equality California—and the LGBT community state and nationwide—is San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener’s race to replace termed out LGBT legislative hero Mark Leno for SD 11. This district includes the Castro, Noe Valley and other nearby San Francisco neighborhoods—an area represented by a gay person since 2004, when Carole Migden was elected to replace John Burton. Scott Wiener has represented the area on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors since 2010. Leno has endorsed Wiener as his successor and Wiener was also endorsed by the Bay Area Reporter.
“Scott Wiener is a leader on many issues impacting the LGBT community,” Zbur says. “From standing up to and successfully stopping insurance companies from raising prices on life-saving HIV medications to fighting every year to ensure full funding for HIV care, to creating programs that address the housing and health needs of our LGBT seniors and homeless and at-risk youth, he leads the way for our community. EQCA is committed to getting Scott elected and maintaining LGBT representation from San Francisco in the state legislature.”
The BAR noted that, in addition to representing the San Francisco LGBT community, Wiener would also tackle problems that have plagued renters and housing advocates. “For years, lawmakers like Leno and gay former Assemblyman Tom Ammiano have tried to pass reforms to the Ellis Act, a state law that allows landlords to get out of the rental business by evicting tenants,” BAR’s endorsement reads. “Neither was successful, unfortunately. Now, with affordable housing becoming an issue statewide, the time may be right for Wiener to push through reforms. “I’m not a fan of the Ellis Act,” Wiener told us during an editorial board meeting, adding that it was “sold at the time” as a benefit for small property owners. “It’s gone well beyond that,” he said.”
Wiener’s primary Democratic opponent is Supervisor Jane Kim, no-holds-barred progressive who just received the endorsement of Bernie Sanders.
“This coming election year is especially important to the LGBT community, as several members of the LGBT legislative caucus are terming out,” Zbur says. “The current slate of EQCA endorsees will help us to maintain a strong LGBT caucus in Sacramento for the remainder of the decade, and also to re-elect courageous allies.”
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