Political Notebook: Gay Vallejo councilman aims to address teen smoking

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday February 15, 2023
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New Vallejo City Councilmember Peter Bregenzer is enjoying his work as an elected official. Photo: Courtesy Peter Bregenzer<br>
New Vallejo City Councilmember Peter Bregenzer is enjoying his work as an elected official. Photo: Courtesy Peter Bregenzer

Vallejo's new gay City Council member is aiming to address teen smoking in his Solano County city this year. The effort is particularly focused on reducing the number of LGBTQ youth who use tobacco products.

Peter Bregenzer won election in November to the council's District 5 seat. He is the second out member of the governing body and the first elected since the departure of gay former councilmember Gary Cloutier 16 years ago.

Bregenzer is working with the group LGBTQ Minus Tobacco to bring forward new rules for the City Council to adopt that would raise the minimum prices for tobacco products sold in Vallejo and ban the distribution of coupons in the city for such items.

"One thing I am passionate about, and just been learning more and more about it, is the tobacco industry is really targeting LGBTQ youth, especially in high school," Bregenzer, 48, told the Bay Area Reporter in a recent phone interview. "So I am really pushing to have our city do an ordinance to raise minimum prices and eliminate coupons."

In a presentation the anti-tobacco group gave to Bregenzer, it noted the results of a survey about tobacco usage conducted during the 2019-2020 school year. Of the 1,922 students across grades seven, nine, and 11 in Vallejo's public schools, 66 were gay, lesbian, bisexual or questioning, while two identified as transgender, and eight were unsure of their gender identity.

The LGBTQ students' usage of e-cigarettes in the last month was significantly higher than among their straight peers. It was 10% versus 4% among seventh graders; 20% versus 6% among ninth graders; and 14% versus 8% among 11th graders.

Significantly fewer students reported smoking cigarettes, though usage by LGBTQ students still outpaced that of their straight classmates. It was 2% compared to 1% in grades seven and 11, while it was 8% versus 1% in grade nine.

"What I see is empirical evidence children who are marginalized because of their gender and sexual identities do pick up on addictive substances like tobacco products and that is what the tobacco industry is looking for," said Joseph Hayden, a gay Vallejo resident and married father who volunteers with LGBTQ Minus Tobacco and recently became co-chair of the Tobacco Free Solano program administered by the county health department.

Speaking to the B.A.R. about the local legislative push in Vallejo, Hayden said enacting a tobacco retail license for sellers of the products in the city would help pay for a code enforcement officer whose job would be to ensure the retailers are following state laws restricting the sale of tobacco to minors. In 2019, federal legislation raised the age nationwide to buy tobacco products to 21, which California had done in 2016.

Hayden pointed to survey data that found 52% of Vallejo juniors said it was "easy" to get vapes in town. The state health department's food and drug branch also reported that 45.5% of Vallejo stores visited in 2018 sold tobacco to an underage decoy.

The main focus is on curbing the ability of adolescents to purchase tobacco products, stressed Hayden, 54, whose father and paternal grandmother both smoked and died at age 50.

"We are not telling queer adults what to do. I am not a prohibitionist," he said. "It is the kids that are targeted."

The city recently adopted an ordinance that makes multi-unit housing developments smoke-free. Among 105 people, 27% of whom identified as LGBTQ, the anti-tobacco group surveyed at an AIDS organization's event in Vallejo, 71% agreed Vallejo should have a minimum sale price for tobacco and 84% supported ending coupon redemption for tobacco products.

"Many jurisdictions have their own tobacco retail licenses so they can regulate and fund code enforcement to check on actual enforcement of the non-sale to youth," noted Hayden. "We have a shortage of code enforcement people to begin with. For something to help pay for that, we consider it a win-win."

As of yet the presentation before the council has not been scheduled. But Bregenzer told the B.A.R. he hopes to have the ordinance enacted before the end of the school year.

"We have got to look out for our LGBTQ youth," he said.

Focus turns to vet care then politics

Bregenzer and his husband, Adam, who works in tech, moved to the bayside city in late 2014 after spending two years in San Francisco and bought a home in 2016 in Vallejo's Grant Mahoney neighborhood. They had gotten married at Crissy Field overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge in 2013, and Bregenzer took his husband's last name. (His family name is Petrich.)

They had first met in Atlanta in 2011, where Bregenzer was working for the Department of Veterans Affairs. They relocated to the Bay Area so Adam could be closer to Silicon Valley, and Bregenzer was able to transfer to the federal agency's Mare Island office in Vallejo.

He became the business implementation manager for eight VA hospitals in Northern California, Nevada, Hawaii, and the Philippines, and was then able to retire after 25 years with the federal agency. Two years ago Bregenzer went to work for his friend, Carrie Jurney, an ordained minister who married him, to help set up her specialty veterinary hospital in San Francisco called Jurney Veterinary Neurology.

Currently operating out of a location in San Mateo County, the practice's facility at 216 11th Street at Howard in the city's South of Market neighborhood should be open by May. It specializes in brain, spinal column, and nervous system issues in dogs.

"It has been a long road," said Bregenzer, the chief operating officer, of navigating the onerous permitting process for a vet practice and building out the space.

In Vallejo, the couple connected with the local LGBTQ community via monthly potlucks held in people's homes. They also enjoyed the Pirate Festival held in town, as well as its art walk events and Pride celebration.

"There is a huge gay presence here in Vallejo," said Bregenzer, adding that, "We instantly fell in love with Vallejo."

Over the last decade the city's political leadership has embraced the LGBTQ community, with the immediate past mayors turning up at the potluck get-togethers, noted Bregenzer. It caused him to have no concerns about running for a council seat as an out gay candidate.

Yet, in what he said was "an oversight," Bregenzer didn't reach out to many LGBTQ organizations or the B.A.R. to request an endorsement. Having launched his bid last May, he found campaigning to be "overwhelming" and wished he had been able to start sooner in the year due to the amount of work involved.

But the previous council member only announced in April that he would not run again. With the seat open, Bregenzer entered the race, having thought about mounting a council bid for some years. He served on a number of city oversight bodies and joined several local choirs.

"I decided it was a good time in my life. We are busy but it's not going to get any easier, so why not throw my hat in the ring," he recalled thinking. "No, I never would have guessed I would be an elected official."

Bregenzer credited his family and husband for their support during the campaign. He defeated four other candidates to win the council seat.

"In fact, I was selected from a whole group of really good candidates. That was a really great honor for me," he said.

The son of a police officer, Bregenzer said public safety is a top concern of his, as is building more affordable housing. Tackling blight and graffiti are other priorities, as the city was hit during the holidays by a tagger that called for killing Democratic leaders like Governor Gavin Newsom and former President Barack Obama.

"People saw I had the experience needed to move our city forward as being part of the council," Bregenzer said.

His gay council predecessor, Cloutier, was first elected in 1999 and served two terms. He ran for mayor in 2007 and served in the position for seven days until a recount ousted him. As for Bregenzer's political ambitions, he told the B.A.R. his immediate focus is serving out his first four-year term.

"I have only been three weeks on the council. I have four years ahead of me," he said. "I am not going to run in two years when this mayor is termed out. I don't know what my future holds to be honest."

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on queer female icons selected to be on U.S. quarters.

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Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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