Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Political Notebook: Obama adviser visits local, state leaders


Nancy Sutley is the highest-ranking lesbian in the Obama administration. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, has the distinction of being the highest-ranking lesbian official in President Barack Obama 's administration. She may also be the shortest out nominee in Washington.

Whereas the president is 6 feet 1 inch tall, Sutley stands about 5 feet. The height difference has led to some ribbing from her boss.

"He does occasionally make fun of my height," admitted Sutley during a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter outside San Francisco City Hall. "He did when we had the June Pride reception at the White House and he was recognizing a few of the openly gay appointees in the room. He was looking for me and he said, 'She is here somewhere. She is vertically challenged.'"

Nonetheless, Sutley, 48, does have the president's ear when it comes to environmental policy.

"My job is to be the principal environmental policy adviser to the president, so on anything environmental that comes up," said Sutley, whose offices are housed in a row of townhouses across the street from the White House. "I have one of the best jobs in Washington."

It is also likely to become more stressful with House Republicans targeting environmental initiatives for spending cuts, from slashing the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency to an effort to defund the Presidio Trust, which oversees the Presidio of San Francisco National Park.

"The president has spoken out very forcefully about the need to protect our air and water. These are important protections Americans rely on for their health," said Sutley when asked about the funding fight in Congress.

Although she is not directly in charge of LGBT issues, Sutley defended the administration's advancement of federal rights and protections for LGBT people. While efforts to enact the Employment Non-Discrimination Act stalled and Obama's calling for repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act has gone nowhere, Sutley pointed to the president's signing a bill to end the military's anti-gay "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and numerous agency level pro-gay rules that have been adopted.

"The president has been clear about supporting ENDA, about supporting getting rid of DOMA. He worked hard to get DADT repeal passed," she said. "We see things like the rule on hospital visitations. It is a pretty simple thing but incredibly profound thing."

Sutley attended the DADT repeal signing ceremony late last year. She said it marked the first time in her lifetime that Congress had restored rights to Americans and not taken them away.

"Progress is never as fast as people want. I think we have made significant progress," said Sutley, who joined with other out White House staffers to record a video for the "It Gets Better" project aimed at educating LGBT teens they are not alone.

"We know how important it is for teens to know there is support out there. It is getting to be cliche but it does get better," said Sutley. "You can have a rich, rewarding life and have an impact on public policy, just hang in there."

The fact that she is out and not working specifically on LGBT rights is a signal that coming out of the closet professionally does not pigeonhole a person to working on certain issues, said Sutley.

"There isn't gay environmental policy," said Sutley. "It just shows Americans of all walks of life bring their talents and hard work to public service."

Prior to joining Obama's staff, Sutley was the deputy mayor for energy and environment in Los Angeles for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa . Much of her time was spent dealing with water issues.

She represented Los Angeles on the board of directors for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and served on the California State Water Resources Control Board from 2003 through 2005.

Sutley also served as former California Governor Gray Davis's energy adviser. Her duties included managing state and federal regulations, legislative affairs, finances and press relations. She also served as deputy secretary for policy and intergovernmental relations in the California EPA from 1999 until 2003.

Nor is this the first time she has worked in a presidential administration. During President Bill Clinton's time in the White House, Sutley worked for the EPA as a senior policy adviser to the regional administrator in San Francisco and special assistant to the administrator in Washington, D.C.

As such Sutley lived in the Bay Area between 1995 and 2005, the first half of which was in San Francisco. She handled policy issues ranging from air and water pollution to the safety of gasoline additives.

"Working in California, even for the federal EPA, was a lot of fun. California is a great place to do environmental work," said Sutley.

While in the Golden State this month Sutley made the rounds in Sacramento, where she met with John Laird, an out gay man and former lawmaker who was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown as secretary of the state's Natural Resources Agency.

As it happens Laird and Sutley both traveled together on an official state trip in 2006 to several South American countries billed as a fact-finding mission but which raised eyebrows among good government groups because the tab was picked up by a foundation financed by industry, environmental, and labor groups.

Apart from getting to know one another on the trip, Laird said that Sutley worked with him closely on several pieces of legislation dealing with water conservation and other water policy matters.

"She is a bright light in Washington," said Laird, who noted that "I think I talked to her my first full day as resources secretary or it was the second."

Sutley called Brown's decision to hire Laird a "terrific appointment," as "he is very dedicated to preserving California's natural environment."

Laird said the state and federal government coordinate efforts on a number of environmental issues, from water projects and habitat preservation to alternative energy and oceans protection.

"So it is great to have a partner like her in Washington," said Laird.

During her visit to San Francisco February 10 Sutley joined with Mayor Ed Lee, local air quality managers, and business leaders to announce the expansion of electric vehicle charging stations throughout the Bay Area. Local officials from all nine Bay Area counties have been meeting to map out locations for the "refueling" devices in order to create the country's first natural vehicle corridor.

"In a short couple of years you will start to see these charging stations roll out," said Lee during a press conference that day. "We are going to start the experiment with the taxi fleet so taxis will be able to go from San Francisco to San Jose totally battery operated."

Not only will San Francisco International Airport be installing 20 of the electric vehicle charging stations, it is also going to be home to a battery swap station where taxis will be able to change their batteries on trips between the city and the airport.

Asked about the LGBT community's penchant to be first adopters of new technologies, Sutley demurred, somewhat, when asked if she expected the electric vehicles to be attractive to LGBT drivers.

"I think they are excellent fashion accessories," she joked.

SF supervisors honor gay man

At its February 15 meeting the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution naming September 22, 2011 Oliver W. Sipple Day.

Introduced by out Supervisor David Campos and co-sponsored by out Supervisor Scott Wiener, the honor will recognize the heroic actions taken by Sipple, a gay disabled vet, on September 22, 1975 when he is credited with saving the life of President Gerald Ford during a visit to San Francisco.

Known among the city's gay circles, Sipple happened to be standing nearby Sara Jane Moore outside the Westin St. Francis in Union Square that day when she took aim at Ford with a gun. Sipple thwarted her assassination attempt.

His quick thinking brought him national attention. His sexual orientation was subsequently disclosed in the news media, and Sipple never fully recovered from the public outing. An alcoholic, he died alone in a Tenderloin apartment on February 2, 1989.

The day named in his honor will be the first time the city has officially recognized Sipple's heroism.

Board set to name out Port commissioner

At its March 1 meeting the board is expected to approve Leslie Katz's nomination to the city's Port Commission. The three-member Rules Committee unanimously voted last Thursday, February 17 to send her appointment on to the full board, which did not meet this week.

As one of his last duties as mayor, Gavin Newsom nominated Katz, an out lesbian and former supervisor, to the oversight body. She would be its first known out member.

On her Facebook page following the hearing, Katz thanked Supervisors Sean Elsbernd, Jane Kim, and Mark Farrell for their support. She also thanked class=messagebody>her "friends who showed up for support and who spoke on my behalf."

Along with having a say on the management of the city's waterfront, the Port Commissioners will be tasked with overseeing plans for the America's Cup boating race set to sail here July 13 to September 22, 2013.

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check Monday mornings around 10 a.m. for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBT political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @

Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail mailto:.

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