Political Notebook: South Bay LGBT political group revamps itself
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A South Bay LGBT political group has revamped itself as it prepares to play a larger role in the 2018 elections. BAYMEC, which stands for the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee, reconstituted its board this year and has had a more visible presence in the community in recent months.
It hosted a get-together following the Equality March for Unity and Pride in San Jose June 11 and BAYMEC leaders took part in a number of events in Santa Clara County held throughout Pride Month. Board members were present June 22, for instance, to witness the city of Santa Clara raise the rainbow flag at City Hall for the first time ever.
"We are just beginning to build momentum," BAYMEC board President James Gonzales told the Bay Area Reporter last month.
For 33 years BAYMEC has been the political voice for the LGBT community in Santa Clara, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, and Monterey counties. Yet last year the political action committee did not release an official endorsement list for any 2016 candidates, nor did it host its yearly fundraising dinner.
It did donate a total of $2,600 in political contributions split between three candidates running in the Bay Area and mobilized to keep a candidate with anti-LGBT views off the San Jose City Council. But as the Political Notebook reported in February, a number of resignations from BAYMEC's board led the group to strictly narrow its focus last year. Rather than a full complement of 17 board members, BAYMEC was down to nine by the start of 2017.
Today, the organization has a 15-person board of directors and is actively recruiting four more people to join it. The board includes people of different ages and minority communities who hail from the fields of politics, law, academia, and social policy.
"For me, I thought it was a great way to get involved in the community to work on projects I think, especially after the recent election, are going to be big issues not just locally but for California and nationwide," said Los Altos resident Dawn Cieslik , 52, a lesbian who works for Santa Clara County and is serving as BAYMEC's treasurer. "It gave me an opportunity to do something new. Not to mention I think it is a good cause and a good organization to be a part of."
BAYMEC co-founder Wiggsy Sivertsen is serving on the board, while gay Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager, who also co-founded the group, is advising the board members. He has suggested people the board should meet with and brought the members up to speed on the various LGBTQ initiatives he has pushed his county to undertake in recent years.
"I am very excited that BAYMEC is getting re-energized," said Yeager. "We seem to have many battles ahead of us, and it is all the more important to have LGBTQ organizations in the middle of the fight."
Gonzales, 39, who recently married and now lives in San Francisco, is planning to remain board president, a position he has held since 2012, through the end of the year.
"I think BAYMEC is certainly benefiting from all the energy surrounding protecting our rights," said Gonzales, referring to the LGBT community's concerns about seeing the Trump administration roll back the LGBT equality gains of recent years.
Paul Escobar, BAYMEC's new vice president, agreed that the group is seeing renewed interest in its work due to the president.
"I am looking forward to reinvigorating and getting engaged myself and getting more people involved in the conversation and moving forward LGBTQ rights," said Escobar, 29, director of policy and education programs at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. "Now is a really important time to do that, and I think BAYMEC is well-positioned to be a part of that conversation in a meaningful way."
BAYMEC has a number of new initiatives underway this year. It is developing a training for groups and businesses around the topic of religious freedom and discrimination in response to the push by conservatives throughout the country to allow companies and individuals to discriminate against LGBT people on religious grounds. The issue is at the heart of a lawsuit the U.S. Supreme Court will decide during its new session.
Aging issues are another priority for BAYMEC, with the board members visiting senior living facilities to talk about how to care for their LGBT residents.
"We are looking to work with developers, policymakers and seniors to really work on all of the issues that come up when an LGBT senior enters a care facility. Sometimes they are then forced back into the closet and experience discrimination again," noted Gonzales, who formerly lived in Sunnyvale and is vice president of the San Jose Police Officers' Association. "It is a big area we are diving into."
While Santa Clara County, in particular, has made strides on LGBT issues in the last two years, creating the first countywide LGBT affairs office in the country and appropriating $1 million for LGBT services this year and next, it still lags behind other counties in certain respects. It does not have an affordable housing development targeted to LGBT seniors and transgender individuals lack adequate health care services.
"We really feel this is the time to sort of ... we need to push to get a holistic approach to LGBT rights in our area," said Gonzales. "We have come a long way but there are still a lot of areas to close the loop on."
A main focus for BAYMEC is political representation in the four counties it covers. In terms of having LGBT elected leaders, the South Bay trails other parts of the Bay Area where the LGBT community has been making gains at the ballot box, especially in the East Bay.
"I would certainly like to see more of it," said Escobar, who has lived in San Jose the last four years with his domestic partner, Mark Bachman.
In Santa Clara County it has been years since an LGBT person has served on the San Jose City Council. BAYMEC board member Shay Franco-Clausen, a queer woman of color who had been working for Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), a former San Jose city councilman, is planning to run for the open District 9 council seat next year.
Yeager, the only out person to serve on the council, is set to be termed out of his District 4 seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors at the end of 2018. It does not appear an LGBT person will run to succeed him, leaving in doubt if the supervisors will continue to financially support LGBT programs at the same level that Yeager has successfully advocated for in recent years.
"We are going to be particularly interested in Ken Yeager's seat," said Gonzales. "The amount of impact from having a gay man on the county board can hardly be measured."
The issue will be front and center as BAYMEC decides which candidate to endorse in the June primary election for Yeager's seat. In all four counties BAYMEC covers, the board is planning a full endorsement process for the 2018 races, said Gonzales.
"We are changing our endorsement process this year. We are not looking for just supporters of LGBT rights," he said. "If you are not a supporter, we will work to keep you out of office. But we will only endorse a person who champions our rights and will put dollars and policies in place from day one."
An overarching goal for the new BAYMEC board is to energize and engage with LGBT residents in the quartet of counties it covers. It plans to revive its candidate debates next year and has asked Terry Christensen, a gay man and professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State, to serve as moderator.
It is also making changes to its gala fundraiser this fall in order to attract more attendees. The event will be a champagne brunch instead of a dinner and will be held sometime in October at the GlassHouse in downtown San Jose. It is still finalizing a date and time for the event.
"We cover four counties so we are looking at what are some new and exciting things we can do to make the gala bigger than it has ever been," said Gonzales.
For more information about BAYMEC, including a full list of the new board members, visit its website at http://www.baymec.org/.
Political Notes, the notebook's online companion, will return Monday, July 31.
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Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.