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Political Notebook: Lara looks to break CA's political 'pinkceiling'

by Matthew S. Bajko

State Senator Ricardo Lara. Photo: Rick Gerharter
State Senator Ricardo Lara. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

It is a milestone several out LGBT lawmakers have failed to achieve over the last 23 years, winning statewide elected office in California.

The first to try to break through the Golden State's political "pink ceiling" is believed to have been 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.

Sixteen years later gay former Assembly Speaker John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles) failed to survive the June 2014 primary race for state controller.

Now gay state Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) is looking to prove that California voters will elect an openly LGBT person to serve in the state's executive branch of government. He is running in the 2018 election for the open insurance commissioner position, as the incumbent, Dave Jones , is term-limited from seeking re-election next year.

"We still in our state, we never have had an LGBT constitutional officer that has been elected," noted Lara, 42, who pulled papers to run in March. "I want to test where we are as LGBT elected officials and test our ability to be elected at the state level. If I win, it would be monumental."

His doing so "opens the door," said Lara, to seeing an LGBT person someday be elected attorney general or governor of California. In terms of next year's races, however, Lara so far is the only LGBT candidate running for a statewide office. He likely will be the only one.

As of now, it looks like Lara could potentially cakewalk into higher office as no one else has yet to announce a bid for insurance commissioner.

"I don't want to jinx it, but I am expecting someone to run and that I will have an opponent," he said.

The Bay Area Reporter sat down with Lara Friday, June 16 while he was in San Francisco for a news conference to announce state lawmakers had granted California Attorney General Xavier Becerra the authority to inspect facilities in the state used to house people facing deportation by federal authorities. He also attended a fundraiser that night co-hosted by Bay Area Latino LGBT leaders, his first official campaign event in San Francisco.

While he was unable to return for this year's Pride parade, which he previously has participated in, Lara does plan to spend significant time in the Bay Area campaigning. He already has held several events in the East Bay.

"Name recognition will be a challenge in my race," said Lara, as he is running for a down ballot position that is sure to be overshadowed by the race to succeed Governor Jerry Brown next year. "I look forward to meeting voters here in San Francisco and throughout the Bay Area."

Born and raised in East Los Angeles, Lara 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.

He also won election in a city not known for having a sizeable LGBT population. He moved to Bell Gardens, he said, because he had many friends who were living there, and, "when I was working as a legislative staffer, I took a liking to it."

The city's residents "embraced me," added Lara, "and have been supportive of me and who I am."

His main interest in serving as the state's insurance czar is "to ensure insurance companies are kept honest," said Lara.

The position oversees the California Department of Insurance and regulates the California insurance market, which at $288 billion a year in premiums is the nation's largest. The commissioner oversees the rates insurance companies want to charge customers for everything from auto to homeowner insurance and prosecutes those conducting insurance fraud.

Issues Lara expects to tackle should he be elected include how to insure owners of driverless cars and drones who either hurt themselves or others. He also pledged to address the barriers transgender individuals and people of color face in accessing affordable insurance.

"It really allows me to really continue the work I have been doing in terms of consumer protection and looking at health care policy," said Lara, adding that the position would give him a platform to weigh in on the national debate around health insurance.

This year Lara made national headlines for co-authoring, with lesbian state Senator Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), legislation that would have created a single-payer health care system in California. But Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) shelved the bill last month citing the senators' lack of a plan to pay for it. He has encouraged the co-authors to bring it back in 2018 with a spending plan.

Of the bill's projected annual cost, Lara said, "Yes, the price tag is estimated at $400 billion, but we as a state already spend $368 billion a year on health care. We are not that far off."

Last week he introduced Senate Bill 396, the Transgender Work Opportunity Act, which would make California the first in the nation to require training about gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. The bill would amend the state's existing two-hour sexual harassment training requirement in the Fair Housing and Employment Act to include training on gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation for supervisory employees at companies with more than 50 employees.

"Transgender workers have so much to give to our businesses and economy yet too many struggle with high unemployment because of discrimination and lack of opportunity," said Lara in announcing the legislation. "Education is the first step toward inclusion, and the Transgender Work Opportunity Act will help California businesses to open their doors to these valuable workers."

SB 396 would require businesses to post a poster developed by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing on transgender rights. Last Saturday, July 1, the state agency issued new rules requiring businesses to abide by their employees' preferred names and pronouns. Employers also can't restrict a person's style of dress unless they prove it is necessary to do so for work purposes.


Political Notes, the notebook's online companion, will return Monday, July 31.


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Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail mailto:.


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