Political Notebook: Gay Filipino aims to be first out immigrant CA legislator
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Educator Godfrey Santos Plata's family emigrated from the Philippines in the late 1980s to seek a better life in the U.S. and settled in Los Angeles County. Now Plata, who is gay, is seeking to become the first out immigrant elected to the California Legislature.
He is mounting an underdog campaign against incumbent Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), who has held his 53rd Assembly District seat since first being elected in 2014. The son of immigrants and the first in his family to graduate from college, Santiago easily secured the endorsement of the state Democratic Party at its convention last month.
Nonetheless, Plata sees a path to victory in the district that encompasses the city's Koreatown, where he is a renter, and the neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, Downtown Los Angeles, East Hollywood, Little Tokyo, MacArthur Park, and Pico Union as well as the cities of Huntington Park and Vernon. For starters, he points out that 85% of the people in the district are renters yet only one renter serves in the Legislature.
(According to the news website CALmatters, the lone lawmaker who rents is gay Assemblyman Todd Gloria, D-San Diego, who also happens to be one of two current Assembly members of Filipino descent. As for Santiago, he lives in Boyle Heights with his wife and their two children.)
"A lot of my intention to run has nothing to do with the incumbent and has all to do with the fact folks the incumbent is supposed to be representing are not represented in the Assembly at all," Plata, 35, told the Bay Area Reporter during a recent phone interview about his candidacy.
The cost of housing, argued Plata, is "the number one issue in our district, and I would say in the state in so many ways."
Yet, in looking over the scores of bills that Santiago has authored over his three terms, Plata said he found only one that directly addressed protections for tenants.
"It was a rent tax credit he looked at and it failed," said Plata. "He takes money from real estate groups and apartment owners associations. I was at the L.A. Pride parade and he was riding with the Greater Los Angeles Association of Realtors. It was their car he was riding in."
Santiago, 46, did not respond to the B.A.R.'s interview requests by Wednesday's press deadline. His campaign bio states that in the Assembly he "has worked to provide housing for Californians experiencing homelessness and stimulate the development of more affordable housing in his district and across the state."
So far Santiago and Plata are the only two candidates in the race, according to state elections officials. Thus, unless someone else files by Friday's deadline to do so, both will advance past the March 3 primary to compete on the November 3 ballot.
Santiago's 2020 campaign website lists him being endorsed by the LGBT political groups HONOR PAC, which works to elect both LGBTQ candidates and straight allies, and the Stonewall Democratic Club of Los Angeles. Asked about the endorsements, a campaign aide for Santiago told the B.A.R. Tuesday that he believed they were for the lawmaker's race next year.
Yet it appears the endorsement page is a carryover from Santiago's 2018 race, as neither of the LGBT groups' websites list endorsing his 2020 re-election bid. Contacted by the B.A.R., HONOR PAC President Mario Ceballos wrote in an emailed response, "Although the Assembly member has been endorsed in the past, HONOR PAC has not made any 2020 endorsements yet."
Jane Wishon, Stonewall's political vice president, confirmed with the B.A.R. Thursday (December 5) that the club has not yet endorsed in the race.
Perfect scores from EQCA
Although Santiago has yet to author any LGBT-specific legislation, he has earned perfect scores five years in a row from Equality California, the statewide LGBT advocacy organization. It means he is likely to receive a pro forma endorsement from EQCA's political action committee this month along with most other incumbent legislators running for re-election next year with perfect scores from EQCA. Its policy is to support those lawmakers who earn 100% on its scorecards in the two years prior to their election.
Plata said he has spoken to EQCA about possibly dual endorsing in the race. But EQCA Executive Director Rick Zbur told the B.A.R. the chances of that happening are "remote," especially since Santiago is a "strong" champion for LGBT rights.
Zbur explained that EQCA sticks to its endorsement policy for incumbents so that when those lawmakers it considers to be allies in the Statehouse "stick with us, we want to give them assurance we will stick with them. Even if someone comes up and would be a candidate we would like in a different year."
Plata presumably would be such a candidate. Not only would his election make LGBT political history, he would be the first Filipino state legislator from Los Angeles. (East Bay Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, is the other current lawmaker of Filipino descent.)
And Plata would help to expand the ranks of the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, which currently stands at seven and is set to lose two members next year due to one being termed out of office and Gloria running to be San Diego mayor. Plus, at the moment, there are no out lawmakers from Los Angeles County serving in the Legislature.
"EQCA has been great at showing on their website who has been leading on LGBT issues. My incumbent, despite being endorsed by EQCA, is not a leader on LGBT issues," said Plata. "It is interesting they would support someone not strong on our issues as opposed to an out person who can speak to these lived experiences on so many bills they are trying to get through."
Education a key issue
One of those issues, education, is another area in which Plata argues he would bring much needed expertise to the Statehouse. He has worked as an educator the past 13 years, first as a middle school teacher then as an organizer and now as a trainer for incoming teachers.
"So many Assembly members have no idea what they are doing on policy making when it comes to education and what public school teachers are facing," said Plata.
Plata, like his sister, attended public schools in districts based in Los Angeles and Long Beach, including the California Academy of Mathematics and Science, a high school located on the campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills. He earned a full scholarship to the University of Richmond in Virginia, graduating in 2002 with degrees in theater and American studies with a focus on ethnic studies.
He then took part in the Teach for America program and was placed with a public school in Houston for two years. In 2008 he enrolled in graduate school at UC Berkeley, where he earned a master's in performance studies, focusing on how race is constructed in school classrooms.
"As an immigrant, I feel I have always been building bridges across lines of difference. Most people I interact with are going to be different than me," said Plata. "Whether it is race, ethnicity, or immigration status, or also sexual orientation, with every identity marker I am constantly encountering difference. No one is talking about that in education. No student is created alike nor is every teacher created alike."
After moving to Boston due to meeting a boyfriend who lived there, Plata returned to Houston in late 2012 when the relationship ended. There he worked in the education field and helped form the advocacy group Organizing Network for Education Houston. He moved back to Southern California in 2016 to work for the nonprofit Leadership for Educational Equity as director of regional leadership development.
"We teach teachers to understand policy and how it is made. We teach them how to take action," said Plata. "So many legislators never worked in schools before and have no idea how to bring those lived experiences of teachers into policy."
Taking part in the Pahara-NextGen Fellowship program for educators in late 2018 was where Plata first thought about seeking public office. A conversation about how the right to an education is not guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution opened Plata's eyes to how who is sitting at the tables of power matters.
"I remember thinking in the 1700s a bunch of white men locked themselves in a room and came up with the rules. We need to get in there and make some rules for the country we are living in and our kids are going to be living in," recalled Plata. "We weren't there back in the 1700s to make those rules. I got a seed in my head to do something bigger than what nonprofits can do alone school by school. We need to go bigger than that."
In April, he returned to Houston to take part in a candidate training held by the LGBTQ Victory Institute, an arm of the LGBTQ Victory Fund. He now hopes to receive the group's endorsement in his race, as it aims to elect more LGBTQ people to public office.
On May 1 Plata officially launched his Assembly campaign. He told the B.A.R. he has since raised more than $90,000, significantly more than anyone else who has run against Santiago, who reported having nearly $500,000 in his re-election account as of August 1.
"It is not in the big leagues yet, but no one has run against the incumbent with more than $25,000 raised. We are the first actual campaign to attempt a challenge that will at least have more resources," he said. "I am really excited about the energy and the people power we are building. This is the first time I have done this, so I am learning along the way."
To learn more about Plata's campaign, visit his website at www.godfreyforassembly.com
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UPDATED 12/5/2020 with comment from the Stonewall Democratic Club of Los Angeles.