Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

LGBTs eye Newsom staff picks


Mayor Gavin Newsom and SF Public Utilities general manager Susan Leal at a Tuesday news conference on solar power. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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Is there room for LGBT staffers in Mayor Gavin Newsom's second term? It is a question gaining more prominence as news leaks out on just who is in and who is out in the mayor's administration.

Reports last week that Newsom had asked Susan Leal, head of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the city's highest ranking lesbian, to resign stunned many LGBT politicos and brought to the forefront concerns that LGBT voices within Newsom's administration are being diminished.

Leal, as of Wednesday morning, had yet to exit her post, and it remains to be seen if she will indeed be pushed out. Standing together at a press conference Tuesday, the mayor and Leal were all smiles. Newsom did not take questions from reporters, and Leal joked she "got a paycheck" that day when asked about her job status.

"I do have a job and I am very happy to have this job," said Leal, who declined to answer any other questions about what she called a "personnel matter."

Aides to both said the two politicians, who had been out of town over the weekend, had no meetings planned to discuss Leal's tenure.

Should she resign, Leal would follow on the footsteps of Virginia Harmon, an out lesbian Newsom forced out as executive director of the city's Human Rights Commission in September.

In Room 200, the mayor's cadre of offices within City Hall, gay and lesbian aides have made a steady exit all year long. His closest remaining out adviser, Julian Potter, a lesbian and Newsom's deputy chief of staff for public safety, is reportedly being sent to a job at the airport, though mayoral press aide Giselle Barry would not confirm the job transfer this week, saying at this time Potter is still working at City Hall.

As for ensuring his inner circle includes LGBT people, Barry said the mayor is committed to hiring a diverse team.

"The mayor's office is absolutely committed to diversity issues on his staff and in his administration," said Barry. "He is taking that into consideration."

Newsom made no secret this fall that he plans to make sweeping changes to his administration as he plans for his next four years in office. Even before he won his re-election last month, the mayor required all of his staff, department heads, and city commissioners to turn in their resignation letters.

Barry would not say when any announcements of who is being let go would be made.

"All decisions as to the reorganization will be made in due time," she said.

But there is no question that the current roster of Newsom staffers is strikingly different compared to when the mayor took office four years ago and named Steve Kawa, a gay man, as his chief of staff and gays and lesbians to other top posts. Kawa left the post earlier this year.

Now some are wondering if the LGBT community will have as strong a presence in Newsom's second term.

"I think it is a huge problem. You don't really, in this city, want to have the LGBT community against you," said Rafael Mandelman, a member of the Democratic County Central Committee. "Having done the work he did to get the community on his side after the 2003 election, this is just blowing it all away. It just seems to me the community should really be organizing around this lack of representation in this administration."

DCCC member Bill Barnes, who is gay and served as former Mayor Willie Brown's AIDS czar – a position Newsom eliminated – said the disappearance of high-ranking LGBT staffers in the administration is a cause for concern.

"When the mayor makes new announcements and new appointments, we will have to see whether they reflect the diversity of the city. But the last four years have been very disappointing," said Barnes. "With Steve Kawa in the room we had gay marriage, but it is unclear how LGBT issues will be handled in a second term."

Luke Klipp, the openly gay president of the San Francisco Young Democrats, sounded a more measured approach, saying, "It would appear, at least for the moment, that there will be fewer LGBT people within the mayor's inner circle and leadership team."

Klipp, who is creating a new group for young LGBT Democrats, countered that he doesn't see the transition in the mayor's team as "a statement on the mayor's commitment to LGBT issues, generally, as he has been our ally and gotten plenty of flack from the Democratic Party, nationally, for his work to support gay marriage in 2004."

Out Supervisor Tom Ammiano said seeing the LGBT community reflected in a mayor's administration is always a concern.

"I always think it is important to keep that in mind. Even unwittingly that can happen, the presence could be in some way diminished," said Ammiano. "My impression is it is always better for a mayor – whoever the mayor is – to always check in with that community, to have regular scheduled meetings on those kinds of issues."

Ammiano added that the issue "is something we need to be very, very careful of. If there is regular communication and the community takes responsibility for that, there is no reason to lose out."

Others contend it is too premature to raise such questions until the mayor begins to announce his staff changes. Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club President Brian Basinger said he is taking a wait and see approach.

"I wouldn't want to immediately jump to any kind of conclusions," said Basinger. "I believe that the mayor has been strong on LGBT issues and so I do not want to immediately go to a place that is questioning that."

But he did add that, "Definitely, it is something that is going to be on our radar screens, and definitely, something we are paying attention to."

Openly gay Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who has seen his close relationship with the mayor strained at times, said he did meet with Newsom last Thursday to urge him to reconsider asking Leal to resign.

"It came as a shock to me that there were significant rumors she was going to be leaving the department," said Dufty, who has long been close friends with Leal. "My feelings for Susan are very strong. There are huge issues facing the city and I think she has been doing a great job."

As for expressing concerns about hiring more LGBT people, Dufty said he did not address the topic with Newsom.

"While I have concerns, I am just going to sit and wait and see what occurs," said Dufty. "I have no knowledge of who he is going to name as department heads. At this point, it is pretty premature for me to comment."

Dufty did point to the fact that several LGBT people do hold high posts in the administration, including airport director John Martin; M�lange Matthews, interim director of the mayor's Office of Community Development; Mirian Saez, the Treasure Island Development Authority's director of island operations; and incoming planning director John Rahaim.

Newsom also appointed openly gay Jose Cisneros as city treasurer to fill the vacancy that occurred when he asked Leal to take the PUC job. He also appointed a gay majority to the Health Commission.

But he did oppose transgender woman Theresa Sparks's becoming president of the Police Commission this year. And early in his first term he passed over deputy chief Mindy Pengel, the police department's highest-ranking lesbian officer at the time, and picked Heather Fong to serve as police chief. Pengel subsequently retired from the force.

Oddly enough, openly gay Health Director Dr. Mitch Katz, who has served in the position for more than a decade, has made no secret he wants out, but is likely to remain. He has been planning a 2009 departure and was the first person to tenure his resignation to the mayor.

Yet many doubt the mayor will ask Katz to resign. But as seen with Leal, anything is possible, as Newsom himself has warned.

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