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Wiener Reflects on 1st Year in Senate

by Matthew S. Bajko

State Senator Scott Wiener sits in his San Francisco district office
State Senator Scott Wiener sits in his San Francisco district office  (Source:Rick Gerharter)

Having built a reputation as a policy wonk during his time on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) entered his first year in the Legislature determined to pass significant bills on a host of hot button issues, from housing and entertainment to criminal justice reform and LGBT rights.

He pushed through legislation that expanded protections for LGBT residents of assisted living facilities, reduced the penalties HIV-positive individuals face for transmitting the virus, and tackled the state's antiquated sex offender registry provisions. While all three legislative successes were hailed by LGBT advocates, anti-gay groups targeted Wiener with months of scathing critiques and false accusations about the bills.

"Scott has been amazing. He is one of the most gifted and effective legislators we work with," said Rick Zbur, executive director of the statewide LGBT advocacy organization Equality California. "He had some of the toughest bills of anyone in either house of the Legislature and he showed dogged determination and effectiveness in getting all the bills through."

There were also several stumbles, with Wiener having to pull his bill that would have allowed cities to extend alcohol sales at bars and nightclubs - he will be pushing a revised bill smaller in scope in 2018 - and watching legislation he co-authored that would have paved the way for safe injection sites fail to pass out of the Senate.

Nonetheless, Wiener had a total of 11 bills signed into law this year by Governor Jerry Brown.

"It was an eventful year. I am proud of what we were able to do," Wiener told the Bay Area Reporter during an interview in his office atop the State Building overlooking the city's Civic Center.

Looking back at his freshman year as a state lawmaker, Wiener said it exceeded his expectations.

"I wasn't sure what to expect or how hard or easy it would be to pass significant bills," said Wiener. "I have been really thrilled with the whole experience so far. I am proud we were able to pass significant legislation."

Wiener, who spends three nights a week in Sacramento as a housemate of gay City Councilman Steve Hansen and his partner, eschews the Capitol's social scene. He hits the gym early, heads to work in the Senate, then returns home to hang out with his housemates.

"I live a boring life," said Wiener, 47, who spends most Fridays through Sundays in San Francisco.


Committed to Fighting Abuse

The revelations in recent months about sexual harassment several of his legislative colleagues are accused of came as a complete shock, said Wiener.

"It was a very rude awakening to learn about some of the things going on," he said.

The mistreatment women have experienced is "unacceptable," Wiener said, adding he and his colleagues are "committing ourselves to stamping out the abuse of women." He supports passing legislation that would provide whistleblower protections to legislative employees who report abuse. The bill has repeatedly died in committee in the Senate, but Wiener believes it will pass next year.

"We should not be exempting ourselves as the Legislature from rules applying to private employers," said Wiener. "Employees should have retaliation protections in the Legislature, period."

He also backs having more transparency around settlements that are paid with taxpayer money but stressed the need for provisions to protect the privacy of the victims. Wiener would also like to see a hotline legislative employees could call to report abuse and seek counseling services if they have been victimized.

He said the Senate's incoming leader, lesbian Senate Pro Tempore-elect Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) "will be the perfect person to lead at the right time." Formerly speaker of the Assembly, Atkins is the first woman and first LGBT Senate pro tem in California history. Wiener co-authored legislation with her this year that allows people to choose non-binary as their gender identity on their government IDs.

"She is very respected in the Capitol. She is an understated person; people don't fully appreciate how strong she is," said Wiener, who has a photo on his side table in his office of himself and Atkins on the Senate floor.

Wiener doesn't expect Atkins to make many changes in the Senate's leadership once she is elected speaker next month. Due to the Assembly and Senate seats on next year's ballot, lawmakers are facing a short window to pass legislation before attention turns to the 2018 elections.

In addition to reviving his bill on extending alcohol sales, this time limited to a handful of cities that have expressed interest in doing so, Wiener is working on a bill that would increase state spending on services for homeless youth, many of whom are LGBT, but he has yet to determine a funding source. Last year California spent $10 million on homeless youth, up from $1 million several years ago.

"It will focus the state administratively on youth homelessness. There is no focus on it now, the state lumps youth with adults, which is not the best way to go," explained Wiener.

He is also looking at introducing legislation focused on transgender youth and HIV policies but declined to provide specifics. One bill he is talking with EQCA about would address a discrepancy in how California treats same-sex couples under its statutory rape laws. A provision that exempts straight couples where the adult is within three years of the minor from having to register as a sex offender does not apply to gay or lesbian couples.

"Those are the areas we are actively exploring," Wiener said of his legislative focus for 2018.

Having been elected last year to his 11th District Senate seat, which was previously held by fellow gay Democrat Mark Leno, Wiener will be focused on helping his legislative colleagues facing tough electoral battles next year. He has pledged to assist fellow freshman state Senator Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) beat back a recall effort against him and re-elect lesbian freshman Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes (D-Corona), whom Republicans have targeted for defeat in November.

"I think she will be re-elected. Next year will be a good year for Democrats everywhere, but especially in California," predicted Wiener.

He will also be out campaigning against efforts to repeal the gas tax lawmakers passed earlier this year should opponents of the funding mechanism for transit and roads succeed in getting their initiative on the ballot.

"Any time you put a tax on the ballot you have to make the case to the voters why it is important," said Wiener, adding that he is confident Californians will support the tax. "I think voters will side with us. In the end voters will vote for better roads and transit."

And when he is displeased with the goings on at San Francisco's City Hall, which he can see from his Senate office windows, Wiener plans to continue to speak out against his former board colleagues, as he did in recent months over proposed rules for recreational marijuana sales he opposed.

"I will take the Dianne Feinstein approach," Wiener told the B.A.R., referring to how the former San Francisco mayor has continued to watch the city's politics closely while serving in the U.S. Senate. "I don't get involved in everything. I normally bite my tongue at times, as you have to be selective. When I see a slow moving train wreck, like around cannabis, at City Hall, I felt I needed to speak up."

Plus, joked Wiener, the supervisors and mayor "tell me what to do all the time, which is fine. I take heed when they ask me to vote in a certain way."

Representing the city in Sacramento and protecting it from the policies of President Donald Trump and his administration over the last year has been "a deep honor," said Wiener.

"In this moment in time with this maniac tyrant in Washington, to be part of California government where we are the counterbalance, said Wiener, "and to represent San Francisco in the Legislature at this point of time, is such an incredible honor and just very humbling."

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