Obituaries » News

Political Notebook: Onetime SF homeless advocate seeks East Bay Assembly seat

by Matthew S. Bajko

For five years in the late 1990s Judy Appel served as director of the civil rights legal division at the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness. She then spent four years focused on drug policy reforms while working at the Drug Policy Alliance before becoming executive director of Our Family Coalition, a nonprofit focused on LGBT families that she oversaw for nearly a decade.

Now Appel, who serves on the Berkeley school board, hopes voters in the 15th Assembly District will elect her next year to the state Legislature, where she would be the first LGBT lawmaker from the East Bay and the second lesbian married mother serving in the lower chamber.

"My experience is deep, real, and progressive. I turned Our Family Coalition around to have a larger focus than just white families," said Appel, 52, who left the agency last fall and now works for the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, having parted ways in August with the California School-Based Health Alliance as its executive director in order to have more time to focus on her campaign.

Over a breakfast of fried eggs and fruit last Friday at the Vault near Berkeley's Ashby BART station, Appel laid out what elevates her above the other five serious candidates in the race to succeed Assemblyman Tony Thurmond (D-Richmond), who is running to be the state's superintendent of public instruction after serving two two-year terms in the Legislature.

"I focus on my 25 years working for this community and the important social justice issues people in this district are deeply concerned about," Appel said. "I have the leadership skills to be effective in Sacramento."

The Assembly district includes the cities of Albany, Berkeley, El Cerrito, El Sobrante, Emeryville, Hercules, Kensington, Piedmont, Pinole, Richmond, San Pablo, Tara Hills, and a portion of Oakland. Appel is one of three out candidates in the race.

Lesbian Richmond City Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles was the first to enter the race this spring, while bisexual East Bay Municipal Utility District board member Andy Katz is running a second time for the seat. The Berkeley resident dropped out of the race in 2014 due to a lack of financial support and endorsements from community groups and local leaders.

Also running for the seat are a number of straight candidates, including Oakland City Councilman Dan Kalb; El Cerrito City Councilwoman and registered nurse Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto; and former Obama campaign aide and White House staffer Buffy Wicks, who lives in Oakland.

"I am the public education candidate in this race," said Appel. "I am the only one who has experience as a leader in the LGBT community."

Although she has often endorsed more moderate candidates, Appel considers herself to be a progressive and points to her decades of work on issues such as police accountability, homelessness, LGBTQ issues, and drug policy reform.

"I feel I have a very strong compass on progressive values and am good working in collaboration with people so we can make change," she said.

Appel grew up in Chicago until, at age 9, she moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her parents divorced when she was 3; her 82-year-old mother now lives in El Cerrito and works as a social worker for an agency focused on older Japanese Americans, while her 82-year-old father resides in Los Angeles and continues to work as a business entrepreneur.

The youngest of three girls, Appel's oldest sister lives in Pleasant Hill. Her other sister, who died nine years ago, struggled with psychiatric issues and homelessness.

In 1987 Appel graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in environmental studies and moved to Central America for four years to work on reducing pesticide use in Costa Rica and then Nicaragua.

She returned to the U.S. in 1991 to attend UC Berkeley, where she earned a master's degree in urban planning and a law degree from its Hastings College of the Law. There she met her wife, attorney Alison Bernstein, with whom she has two children, Kobi, a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College, and Tris, a Berkeley High junior.

In 2001 they moved to Berkeley, where Bernstein has lived since she was 5 years old. A decade later Appel won election to the city's school board, gaining an inside view to policymaking and how it can effect change in people's lives.

Two years ago she determined she wanted to seek election to the Legislature in order to enact policies on a statewide basis. A key concern for her is improving the state's education system, from boosting programs such as arts education and vocational training for students to paying teachers more and ensuring schools have the resources they need.

She pledged to tackle reforming Proposition 13, which limits how much property taxes can rise each year and is blamed for starving the state and its schools of funding. Appel would push to split off commercial property from Prop 13 so that it only applies to private homes. And she supports moving California toward having a single-payer form of health care.

LGBT issues
As for LGBT issues, Appel doesn't have specific legislation in mind but pointed to the need to continue to address issues confronting transgender people.

Since entering the race this summer, Appel has been focused on introducing herself to voters in western Contra Costa County, as they are "an important part of our district," she noted. She is confident she can survive the June primary, where the top two vote-getters regardless of their party affiliation will advance to the general election next November.

The last time the seat was open, in 2014, 26 percent of the primary voters were from Berkeley. Having run two citywide races for her school board seat, Appel is well known in the famously liberal city. In last year's election, she garnered 39,461 votes, noting her total was more than that of the newly elected mayor, Jesse Arreguin.

"My goal is to stay for 12 years in the Legislature. This isn't a steppingstone to higher office," said Appel. "This is what I want to do and be there long enough to see my policy initiatives through."

A number of San Francisco LGBT leaders are co-hosting a fundraiser next week for Appel at the home of gay BART board director and former supervisor Bevan Dufty. The two first met two decades ago when Dufty worked for former Mayor Willie Brown and Appel was with the Coalition on Homelessness.

Dufty pointed to her knowledge about education and homelessness, "two huge issues," as for why he is supporting Appel. He added that her race "is probably our best opportunity" next year to elect an additional LGBT Assembly member from the Bay Area, as the only other person expected to be on a local ballot is gay Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell), who will be running for re-election in the South Bay.

"I think that she would do a great job. She has been campaigning hard, and I am impressed," said Dufty.

Co-hosts of the November 29 fundraiser, which costs $100 per person, include lesbian former supervisor and Clinton administration appointee Roberta Achtenberg; lesbian former National LGBTQ Task Force board member Pam David, executive director of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund; and Bob Hartnagel, a gay dad who works in the office of the president of the University of California.

The event will take place from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. next Wednesday. To RSVP and be sent the address for the fundraiser, email Dufty at

Milk march set for Monday night
The 39th vigil for Harvey Milk, hosted by the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, will take place Monday, November 27, after the annual Castro Christmas tree lighting ceremony that evening.

The event comes nearly three weeks after the city's LGBT district came together to mark the 40th anniversary of Milk's historic election November 8, 1977 to the District 5 seat on the Board of Supervisors representing the Castro, Noe Valley, and the Haight at City Hall. His victory marked the first time an out LGBT person was elected to public office in both San Francisco and California.

Tragically, Milk and then-mayor George Moscone died the following year on the morning of November 27 inside City Hall after being shot by disgruntled former supervisor Dan White. That evening thousands of mourners marched down Market Street from the Castro to City Hall holding candles to honor and remember the fallen progressive politicians.

Each year since the political club has honored its namesake on the anniversary of his assassination by holding a candlelight vigil to commemorate Milk's memory and legacy, as well as that of Moscone's. This year's gathering will begin at 7 p.m. at Harvey Milk Plaza above the Castro Muni station at the intersection of Castro and Market streets.

"I think it is such an important time to honor the legacy of Harvey," said Kimberly Alvarenga, one of the Milk club's two lesbian co-presidents this year. "It feels like we are coming full circle. The issues so relevant for our community many years ago continue to be important."

After a short program of speakers, including an open mic for attendees to share their thoughts, a candlelight processional will head to 575 Castro Street, the site of Milk's camera shop and now a store for national LGBT organization the Human Rights Campaign. According to Milk's friends, his former lover Scott Smith spread some of Milk's ashes under a plaque honoring the late supervisor when it was first dedicated.

"He never left Castro Street; he is always here," Allan Baird, a union organizer who worked with Milk on the boycott of Coors beer, said at the ceremony marking Milk's election four decades ago. "Go by the old camera shop and say hello to Harvey; he is looking over everybody."

Milk club postpones early D8 race endorsement
Last month the Milk club's political action committee had recommended that the club early endorse its former president, Rafael Mandelman, for District 8 supervisor at its monthly meeting November 21. The decision came as a surprise to Mandelman, who told the B.A.R. following the PAC vote that he didn't request an early endorsement from the Milk club.

Mandelman, an attorney who serves on the board overseeing City College of San Francisco, is running on the June primary ballot against appointed Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, a gay married father who is the first openly HIV-positive person to serve on the board. It is the second time Mandelman has sought the District 8 seat, having lost to former Supervisor Scott Wiener in 2010.

The two gay leaders are seeking to serve out the remainder of Wiener's term through the end of 2018, as he resigned two years into his second term as supervisor after being elected to the state Senate last November. Mayor Ed Lee tapped Sheehy earlier this year to fill the board vacancy.

No matter the outcome of the June race, Sheehy and Mandelman have both filed to run for a full four-year term on the November ballot next year. They engaged in their first debate, co-hosted by the Milk club and the more moderate Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, last Monday, November 13.

It was the first of a series of debates the two clubs plan to hold with the candidates, with the second one to be primarily organized by the Milk club and likely to take place in January. For that reason, Alvarenga told the B.A.R. this week that the club would hold off on early endorsing Mandelman in the race until next year.

"I don't think we are going to endorse until after the next debate," she said.

As for the Alice club, it too is planning to endorse in the race sometime in early 2018.

Political Notes, the notebook's online companion, will return Monday, December 4.

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


Add New Comment

Comments on Facebook