Political Notebook: Lara launches bid for CA insurance czar
by Matthew S. Bajko
Gay state Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) this week made his 2018 bid to become California's next insurance commissioner official. Should he win the race, Lara would be the first LGBT person elected to statewide office in the Golden State.
Lara, 42, made the announcement Tuesday, March 21, stating in a news release that he would stand up to Republican efforts to strip Californians of their health care if elected to the post, which oversees insurance companies in the state.
"I'm running to be California's next state insurance commissioner because I believe at my core that California needs a strong defender, and a counterpuncher, who will stand up to fight our bullying president, Donald Trump, and his increasingly reckless federal government on issues from health care access to economic security and more," stated Lara, vice chair of the California Legislative LGBT Caucus. "If millions of Californians begin losing their health insurance because of actions taken by Donald Trump, I will be there to fight him tooth and nail at every pass."
Last month, Lara and lesbian state Senator Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) introduced the Californians for a Healthy California Act (Senate Bill 562) to create a universal health care system that would cover all 39 million Californians. Past efforts to establish such a system in the state have failed, and even with mounting public concern over GOP efforts to gut the federal Affordable Care Act, this year's bill is sure to face strong opposition from insurance companies and others.
The issue presents Lara, who was re-elected in November to a final four-year term in the Senate, a platform not only to boost his name recognition statewide ahead of next year's election but also to focus public attention on the often overlooked role of the insurance commissioner.
"As California's insurance commissioner, I'll work tirelessly to represent the great people of California, not the corporations, the billionaire class, the pharmaceutical or the insurance companies," stated Lara. "I plan to work with anybody who is willing to come to the table, but my allegiance will always be first and foremost to the consumers, the patients, our working families, and our most vulnerable communities in our Golden State."
Three other Democrats have pulled papers with the secretary of state's office to indicate their interest in the position and raise money for possible campaigns. They are former Assembly members Susan Bonilla of Concord and Henry Perea of Fresno, and Paul Song, a Santa Monica radiation oncologist and former leader of the California progressive group Courage Campaign. Bonilla, however, announced Wednesday that she wouldn't run and endorsed Lara in the race.
Lara is likely to be the only LGBT candidate running in a statewide race next year. Although gay former state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) pulled papers to raise money for a lieutenant governor bid, he is expected to announce his run for San Francisco mayor in 2019 later this year.
To date no other LGBT candidates have pulled papers to seek statewide office in 2018. Gay former Assemblyman Rich Gordon (D-Menlo Park) is running for the district 2 seat on the Board of Equalization, the state's tax oversight body.
The two past gay candidates to seek statewide office in California both lost their bids. In 2014 gay former Assembly Speaker John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles) failed to survive that year's June primary in the state controller race.
The first out candidate to seek statewide office is believed to be Tony Miller, a gay man and Democratic lawyer who was appointed to the vacant secretary of state position in 1994. Miller, however, lost his bid that year for a full term in the position, and in 1998, he again came up short in his bid for lieutenant governor.
Lara was born and raised in East Los Angeles and graduated from San Diego State University with a double major in journalism and Spanish. After working for a number of years as a legislative staffer, he was first elected to the Assembly in 2010 and then to the Senate in 2012, becoming the first openly gay person of color to serve in the Statehouse's upper chamber.
New CA AG slow to expand travel ban list
California's new Attorney General Xavier Becerra , confirmed to the position in January, is off to a slow start in expanding California's travel ban to cover additional states that have enacted anti-LGBT legislation in recent weeks.
Nearly two weeks after South Dakota lawmakers signed into law a bill that allows private adoption and foster care agencies to discriminate against LGBT parents, Becerra's office has yet to say if state employees will now be banned from using taxpayer funds to travel to the Mount Rushmore State.
In response to the Bay Area Reporter's March 10 inquiry on if Becerra would do so, his office sent an email late in the day Monday, March 20, that said, "It is evaluating South Dakota's legislation."
His office did not respond to the B.A.R.'s additional inquiry that morning if it would also place Kentucky on the travel ban list after its governor, Matt Bevin, signed into law a bill that allows high school and college student-run groups to bar LGBT people from being members based on religious grounds.
Gay state Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell), who authored the legislation creating California's travel ban, did not respond to a request for comment this week on if Kentucky and South Dakota should be covered by the travel ban.
Two months prior to its implementation on January 1, former attorney general Kamala Harris, now the state's junior U.S. senator, had alerted state officials that her office intended to name Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee to the travel ban list. Her office had also added Kansas when the list was officially made public at the start of the year.
The law is supposed to cover any state that has enacted legislation that discriminates against LGBT people since June 26, 2015 and applies not only to state employees and elected officials but also the University of California and California State systems.
The schools have said they will not schedule games during the regular season but also do not plan to restrict athletic teams from attending postseason games in the banned states, such as in the case of the UCLA basketball team's NCAA tournament game Friday in Tennessee. According to the Sacramento Bee, the teams often do not use taxpayer money to travel to certain competitions.
It reported this week that Assemblyman Matthew Harper (R-Huntington Beach), has asked the state Department of Justice to look into the matter, which it reportedly is doing. Meanwhile, LGBT advocates are asking UCLA to cover its NCAA trip with funds from boosters or other sources.
Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur told the B.A.R. in a phone interview Tuesday that the statewide LGBT advocacy group expects more states will be added to the state's travel ban list. But he cautioned the review process for doing so takes time.
"We are confident the AG will conclude that the ban will extend to" South Dakota and Kentucky, said Zbur, whose agency will be honoring Becerra at its San Francisco gala fundraiser in May. "We know the AG is very committed to making sure California uses the tool to combat this wave of anti-LGBT legislation that is sweeping the states."
With a host of states set to approve anti-LGBT legislation this spring, questions have been raised about the effectiveness of the state's travel ban as well as those adopted by several cities and counties in the state, such as Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. San Francisco not only adopted a travel ban but also will no longer do business with companies headquartered in states on its list.
(Last week the city added South Dakota to the four states it had already put on the list, which are the same as those on the state's banned list. It has yet to say if it will now add Kentucky as well.)
Even if states enact laws that discriminate against their LGBT citizens, Zbur argued the travel bans serve a purpose. They provide another tool for advocates to use to argue against anti-LGBT legislation, he said.
"We know that the fact the ban is in place in California has been one of the things folks in Texas are using to try to convince their legislators not to proceed with some of the anti-LGBT legislation being considered in Texas," said Zbur. "We don't have control over what legislatures will do, but for folks on the ground they appreciate this law is in place."
Cesar Zepeda, a gay Richmond resident who lost his bid in November for a seat on the East Bay city's council, also believes the travel ban policies are useful. He and the other members of the city's Richmond Rainbow Pride committee plan to ask their mayor and city council members to adopt a policy similar to San Francisco's that would ban Richmond from using taxpayer dollars to pay for travel to, or contracts with companies in, states that have anti-LGBT laws.
"These resolutions are backing people at the front lines and saying we have your back. That is hitting people in the pocket, but most important, is hitting people in their heart," said Zepeda. "When you have a closeted young individual who lives in one of these states, for this person to know that not everyone in the country is like the people who live around his or her state, there is hope somewhere else and we are coming to help."
The Richmond group expects its resolution will be voted on by the city council and mayor in either late April or early May.
Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings at noon for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on health experts's doubts of seeing California create a single-payer health care system.
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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.