Out newcomers seek local council seats
by Matthew S. Bajko
Two out political newcomers are hoping voters' desire for change this election season will give them an edge in their races for local city council seats.
On the Peninsula, Stanford grad Chris Clark is seeking a seat on the Mountain View City Council. At age 25, the openly gay Clark would be one of the country's youngest out politicians should he win next Tuesday, November 4.
In the East Bay, Berkeley resident Phoebe Anne Sorgen is trying to make the jump from a city commissioner to councilwoman this fall. The Peace and Justice Commissioner identifies as bisexual and would become the council's third queer member should she be elected to the District 6 seat representing the Berkeley hills.
Both Sorgen and Clark face several obstacles to victory, not the least of which is their lack of political experience and name recognition. But neither should be counted out, say their supporters.
Berkeley council race
Longtime Councilwoman Betty Olds is retiring this year, and her aide Susan Wengraf is hoping to succeed her on the council. It looked liked she would be unopposed, until September when Sorgen jumped into the race.
"People kept pushing me to run," said Sorgen. "Betty Olds is one of the most conservative council members and her assistant is to the right of her."
Sorgen, 55, recently separated from her husband and has an 18-year-old son, Zach, who is a student at Vassar College. Raised in Culpeper, Virginia, she left to study music in Paris where she became fluent in French. After six years she migrated again to San Francisco.
After marrying her husband, the couple opted to move to Berkeley to raise their son. The professional singer and voice coach has lived in town 19 years and spent the last five on the Peace and Justice Commission.
Wengraf has tried to use Sorgen's commission record against her, attacking her for an inflammatory letter forwarded to the council calling for the closure of a marine recruiting office that had set up shop in downtown Berkeley. Sorgen, in fact, spoke out against the insensitive language, which called the military personnel "intruders," but failed to have it changed; she voted with the majority to send it on to the council.
"There were good things in the resolution, but I opposed that particular wording. We can stand strong for peace without offending those defending our country," she said, noting the council could have changed the letter but didn't. "The majority of the council voted in favor of it, including Betty Olds."
While she believes the council should voice its opinion on such matters, Sorgen stressed her first duty would be to quality of life issues residents expect the city to tackle.
"I want to make clear as a council member my very first priority would be the practical needs of my constituents, such as getting streets repaired, making sure fire stations stay open, and safety first," she said. "I still think there is room to weigh in on broader issues."
Openly gay Berkeley Councilman Kriss Worthington is backing Sorgen, as is the East Bay LGBT Democratic Club. The council's other openly gay member, Councilman Darryl Moore, has endorsed Wengraf.
"I think Phoebe is a very talented woman. She is giving people who think more liberally someone to vote for and feel good about it," said Worthington.
But he acknowledged that Sorgen has an uphill battle to wage in her race. It is rare for a progressive candidate to win in a district outside Berke
"I don't think the more progressive candidate wins in a hills district, that just doesn't happen," he said. "I think it is wonderful she is out there campaigning, getting people to think about her ideas."
Mountain View race
Clark's biggest liability in his race isn't his sexual orientation – no one blinked when the local paper reported he was gay – but his being relatively new to the city. He has lived in the area since 2000 in order to attend Stanford, which he graduated from in 2005 with a degree in political science, but didn't move to and register to vote in Mountain View until January of this year.
He is also the youngest candidate in a nine-person race for four open council seats. With two incumbents running for re-election – and expected to easily retain their seats – the race really comes down to who among the remaining seven candidates will take the other two spots.
With the city set to adopt a new general plan, Clark said he felt it was the right time to run for public office. He is hoping his age could be an advantage.
"Even though 18 to 36 years old is the largest population demographic in Mountain View, we don't have anyone on council from that age group," said Clark, who grew up on a farm along the Mississippi River on Illinois' western border with Iowa. "It is important that demographic is represented on the council. Not just for representing young people but that longer term perspective of people who will be here for decades to come."
In deciding this summer to jump into the race, Clark also determined he needed to come out to his parents. So he flew home to tell them he was gay.
"You can't be a good, open, honest public servant if you are not open and honest with your family," said Clark. "They took it pretty well. They were pretty surprised, but we stayed up talking about it for a few hours. It took years for me to accept, so it will probably take them several years to as well."
Despite his lack of experience, Clark has raked up some significant support. He has the endorsements of the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, the Silicon Valley LGBT Democratic Club, BAYMEC – the LGBT-led Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee, and as of last week, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund.
The former page on Capitol Hill said he feels confident going into the election next week. During one debate, he came in fourth place in the straw poll.
"This year, with a big youth turnout expected, it will be interesting to see what happens. It gives me a better chance than it normally would," said Clark.
Local LGBT officials believe Clark stands a chance at securing a seat. Even should he lose this race, they expect to see him in political office in the near future.
"I think he has a very good chance of winning. He has a lot of significant endorsements," said Clark Williams, northern California co-chair of the state Democratic Party's LGBT caucus. "He is a real new, bright, young leader. Whether he wins or loses, he is going to be around for a while."