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Political Notes: Palm Springs could elect CA's first trans city council person

by Matthew S. Bajko

Palm Springs council candidate Lisa Middleton. Photo:<br>David A. Lee.
Palm Springs council candidate Lisa Middleton. Photo:
David A. Lee.  

Palm Springs planning commissioner Lisa Middleton, a former Bay Area resident, is vying to become California's first transgender city council person.

Middleton, 64, is one of seven people who have pulled papers to run for two council seats that will be on the ballot this November in the Riverside County city. She will be in San Francisco this weekend for a campaign fundraiser hosted by a slew of local LGBT leaders.

"It is love of this city and the belief that I have the experience, the temperament, and the drive to be a very good city council person in Palm Springs," said Middleton, who moved there with her wife, Cheryl O'Callaghan, in 2011. "This is just an incredibly special town to live in. Cheryl and I have never lived anywhere better. We've never had more friends and never been more involved in our community. I want to give back to Palm Springs."

The desert vacation town, long a mecca for gay retirees, elects its four city council seats citywide, and its elected mayor is the fifth vote on the body. The council's two incumbents whose four-year terms are up this year, lesbian City Councilwoman Ginny Foat and City Councilman Chris Mills, who is straight, have yet to say if they will seek re-election.

It is believed at least one of them will decide not to run, creating an open seat on the council, whose other three current members are all gay men.

In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Middleton said her decision to seek a council seat would not change should both Foat and Mills decide to run for re-election.

"I am running and I am very hopeful to receive the support of one or both of the current incumbents," said Middleton, who in 2014 served as the Desert LGBT Center's interim executive director and serves on the nonprofit's board.

If she is elected, Middleton would make history as the first openly transgender person elected to a non-judicial office in California, according to Equality California. In April the statewide LGBT advocacy group early endorsed Middleton, who is treasurer of the board of the Equality California Institute.

"Lisa Middleton is one of the most qualified candidates whom we have supported in a local race," stated EQCA Executive Director Rick Zbur. "She is experienced, smart and a tireless builder of community through her work to improve quality of life for all Palm Springs residents. She has helped educate voters, make her city more environmentally sustainable and elect other LGBT candidates to city government."

A native Californian, having grown up in East Los Angeles, Middleton graduated from UCLA and received a master's in public administration from the University of Southern California.

She moved to San Francisco in 1994 when she was working for California's State Compensation Insurance Fund. It was at that time that she transitioned from male to female.

In the late 1990s through 2000 she was a parishioner at Most Holy Redeemer, the LGBT church then located in the heart of the Castro district, and served on the San Francisco Human Rights Commission's LGBT advisory committee.

Between 2001 and 2004 Middleton served on the board of Lyon-Martin Women's Health Services, the San Francisco-based health clinic for lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender individuals. During that time she and O'Callaghan moved to Belmont until relocating to San Diego in 2004 for work.

Middleton has two adult children: John Middleton, who teaches High School in Ventura County, and Lauren Medlin, who teaches middle school in Inglewood. In 2010 she retired from her job with the state agency after 36 years.

Yet she has not slowed down in retirement, chairing the Organized Neighborhoods of Palm Springs and serving on the Desert Horticulture Society's board of directors in addition to her LGBT advocacy and city planning work.

As a planning commissioner, she has called for sensible regulations on home vacation rentals and supported requiring homeowners to have at least four rentals during the summer offseason. Before capping the number of nights a house can be rented, Middleton wants to first see how the current regulations work out.

"No one who has ever run for office in Palm Springs knew more about the vacation rental issues going into office than I will," said Middleton.

In regards to a controversial downtown development plan approved by the planning commission, which later was the central focus of indictments against its developers and the city's gay former mayor, Steve Pougnet, Middleton said she would not vote to approve it today. Instead, she would like to see a different proposal for the land that would tie into the nearby convention center.

She applauded the city council's recent actions to regain ownership of the land. And should she be elected, Middleton would strive to return public confidence in the local government.

"I think I was disappointed, and the indictments have been a great strain on the city of Palm Springs," said Middleton. "And I am very proud of how this city council has responded to those indictments."

In terms of the historic nature of her council bid, Middleton is sure to receive national attention for her candidacy. But she doubts it will have much impact with the majority of voters come the fall.

"In Palm Springs this race will be decided on local issues and on voters' opinion of who is best to manage local affairs in Palm Springs," she said. "Palm Springs takes incredible pride in being a progressive and welcoming community. I think Palm Springs takes pride in the work I have done."

Among the hosts of the Bay Area fundraiser for Middleton are Transgender Law Center Executive Director Kris Hayashi; gay Palm Springs City Councilman Geoff Kors and his husband, James Williamson, a Palm Springs school board member; National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director Kate Kendell and her wife, Sandy Holmes; and gay former state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco).

The event, which is free to attend but donations starting at $50 are suggested, will take place from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, May 7, at Blush Wine Bar, located at 476 Castro Street.

For more information about Middleton's campaign, visit


Gay man joins SF transit board

Longtime Democratic Party stalwart Art Torres is now a member of the board that oversees the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency. At its meeting Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved Mayor Ed Lee 's appointment of Torres to a seat on the transit oversight body.

A former state assemblyman and senator, Torres led the California Democratic Party for 13 years. While it was widely known that he was gay, Torres did not come out publicly until after he stepped down in 2009.

He formerly served on the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and is currently the vice chair of the state's cell stem agency board. He is also on the board of the organ transplant foundation One Legacy based in Los Angeles.

He is succeeding Tom Nolan, a gay man who long served on the SFMTA board. Torres joins the oversight panel as the city's Muni bus and train service strains to handle its ridership and works to complete a subway extension to Chinatown and bring rapid bus routes to the Van Ness and Geary corridors.

Torres is also expected to use his extensive political ties to help bring the state's vilified high-speed rail project to the new $2.4 billion Transbay Transit Center San Francisco is building downtown. Without train service there, the city will be on the hook for millions of dollars to operate the megaproject, slated to open in December.

Political Notes, the notebook's online companion, will return Monday, May 8.

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



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