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Political Notebook: Queer volcano expert runs for Congress

by Matthew S. Bajko

Congressional candidate Jess Phoenix. Photo: Courtesy Phoenix for Congress campaign
Congressional candidate Jess Phoenix. Photo: Courtesy Phoenix for Congress campaign  

With California routinely devastated by natural forces, from wildfires and earthquakes to floods and droughts, Jess Phoenix aims to be a powerful voice on environmental issues on Capitol Hill should she win her bid to represent the state's 25th Congressional District seat.

The queer geologist and expert on volcanoes is one of dozens of scientists running for political office this year, fed up with Republican denials of climate change and other anti-science stances. Her target is Representative Steve Knight (R-Lancaster), the son of the late state Senator Pete Knight, who in 2000 led a successful campaign against same-sex marriage in the Golden State.

According to Equality California, the statewide LGBT advocacy organization, the younger Knight is also an opponent of LGBT rights. It gave him a score of 25 percent (out of 100) on its 2017 federal scorecard for members of Congress. He earned a 16 percent on the most recent scorecard from the Human Rights Campaign, the national LGBT advocacy group.

"I was moved to step out of my work boots and into the race for Congress because people like Donald Trump and my representative Steve Knight are threatening that future by destroying some of the most basic things we all agree are important," states Phoenix on her campaign site. "Education, scientific research, disaster preparedness, critical parts of our communities like roads and bridges, national parks, and wildlife are all under assault."

Phoenix is one of several Democrats running to oust Knight, 51, from office, including bisexual homeless advocate Katie Hill, who earned EQCA's endorsement in December. Knight is one of the southern California Republican Congress members being targeted for defeat this November as Democrats seek to regain control of the House.

"This seat is one of the top three that has a chance to flip in the next election," Phoenix, 36, told the Bay Area Reporter in a recent phone interview. "In the 2016 election, this district was one of the closest in terms of Hillary Clinton won the district by 7 percent and Knight hung on by 6 percent."

This is the first time Phoenix has sought political office. Her parents were both in the FBI, and the family lived in 10 different states and three countries before she enrolled in high school in Florida. She earned a B.A. in history from Smith College and then a master's in geology from California State University, Los Angeles.

Phoenix lives in Acton with her husband, Carlos Phoenix, 37, who telecommutes for his job with a Silicon Valley computer software firm. They have a trio of rescued dogs, two cats, three birds, and two racehorses they rescued from Golden Gate Fields. For 15 years they have saved racehorses from being slaughtered and retrained them to be adopted.

While she is now in a monogamous marriage, Phoenix said she is attracted to anyone of any gender and has had relationships in the past with people of the same gender. Since launching her campaign last April, she has been out about her sexual orientation in various media interviews.

"I don't want anyone to think you can just sort of half-ass being an out member of the community. You have to go and speak out proudly for who you are," said Phoenix.

To date, however, there is no mention of her being queer on her campaign site. It is something Phoenix told the B.A.R. she does intend to include but wasn't sure how to do that when she first created the site.

"I want people to be focused on my platform," she said.

The website covers her ideas to address health care, education, the economy and the environment. While LGBT issues are not listed, she told the B.A.R. the two big issues she would push for if elected is the inclusion of questions about LGBTQ people on the U.S. Census and the passage of federal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

"I don't want to be a career politician. I want to go to D.C., solve problems using evidence and facts, then go back and be a scientist," said Phoenix. "I want to be in office long enough to get the job done and leave a legacy."

But first she must survive the June 5 primary race, where the top two vote-getters regardless of party affiliation will advance to the November election. Despite the national media attention she has attracted for her campaign, Phoenix faces an uphill climb to winning the seat, as she lags in financial support and backing from Democratic groups.

Phoenix raised $282,434 last year and had $110,187 in her account as of January 1. Hill raised $696,987 last year and reported having $382,848 in cash on hand at the start of the year. She is also the beneficiary of several super PACs working to elect her and defeat Knight.

Hill lives on a farm in Agua Dulce with her husband and several rescue animals. Under the header "representative government" on the issues section of her campaign website, she identifies as being bisexual but does not list any specific LGBT issues she would work on in Congress.

In announcing its endorsement of her, EQCA Executive Director Rick Zbur explained it was "because we believe she will be the strongest candidate to defeat Congressman Steve Knight, who has a failing pro-equality record."

Another well-funded Democrat in the race is attorney Bryan Caforio, who lost to Knight in 2016 and is poised to win the state Democratic Party's endorsement at its convention later this month. He raised $660,062 in 2017 and reported having $377,203 in his bank account.

As for Knight, he raised $809,762 last year and had $794,747 in his account as of January 1.

Should Phoenix or Hill win the seat, they would be the first out woman in California's congressional delegation and only its second member from the LGBT community. The first was gay Congressman Mark Takano (D-Riverside), who is expected to easily win re-election this year.

He reported raising $511,122 in 2017 toward his re-election bid and started 2018 with $200,449 in his bank account.

Another out congressional candidate is Mountain View resident Terra Snover, who is running as an independent against Congressman Jeff Denham (R-Turlock). Believed to be the first transgender person to run for Congress in California, Snover is not expected to survive the June primary.

She raised just $428 last year and reported having $590 in her bank account. In the fall she told the San Jose Mercury News that she knew she was "a long-shot candidate, but we need to be getting out there and having our voices be heard."

Alice endorses Mandelman for D8 supe
As expected, gay attorney Rafael Mandelman is the first candidate seeking the District 8 seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to be endorsed by both of the city's LGBT Democratic clubs since supervisors reverted back to being elected by district 18 years ago.

The Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club voted Monday, February 12, to approve the recommendation from its political action committee that it sole-endorse Mandelman in the special election on the June 5 primary ballot. The more progressive Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club voted in January to early-endorse Mandelman in the race to represent the Castro, Noe Valley, Diamond Heights, and Glen Park at City Hall.

Mandelman, a member of the City College of San Francisco board, is running against gay District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, who was appointed as the board's first known HIV-positive member last year by the late Mayor Ed Lee. The two are running to serve out the remainder of gay former supervisor Scott Wiener's term, which expires in early January 2019.

Wiener resigned after being elected to the state Senate in November 2016. No matter the outcome of the June race, Mandelman and Sheehy are also expected to compete for a full four-year term on the board in the November election.

As the B.A.R. noted last month, the Alice and Milk clubs have never before endorsed the same candidate in the District 8 races since 2000. When Mandelman first ran for the seat in 2010, he had the Milk club's endorsement but not Alice's.

In a February 13 email to supporters with the subject line, "This Never Happens," Mandelman highlighted the significance of his endorsements from Alice and Milk this year.

"Last night, we made San Francisco political history," he wrote. "I'm honored beyond words to have the support of both of these organizations."

Last week's article "Alice LGBT Dem club split over SF mayor race," incorrectly reported the club's PAC had already voted to suspend its bylaws in order to vote later this month on a dual, unranked endorsement of gay former state lawmaker and supervisor Mark Leno and Board of Supervisors President London Breed in the special mayoral election June 5. When it next meets, the PAC will first vote on whether to suspend the club's bylaws in order to consider the double endorsement.

If it does, it will then vote on recommending that the club split its support between Leno and Breed. The club's members would then vote to finalize the endorsement recommendation at its meeting March 12.

The online version of the article has been updated.

Political Notes, the notebook's online companion, will return Monday, February 26.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBT political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @ .
Got a tip on LGBT politics? Contact Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or


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