Political Notebook: Queer union leader seeks East Bay state Senate seat

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday April 26, 2023
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East Bay state Senate candidate Kathryn Lybarger. Photo: Courtesy the candidate
East Bay state Senate candidate Kathryn Lybarger. Photo: Courtesy the candidate

Growing up, queer East Bay state Senate candidate Kathryn Lybarger lived an itinerant life. Born in Lahore, Pakistan to American parents working there for the Presbyterian Church, she moved at the age of 5 with her family to Cleveland, Ohio.

When she was a teenager, her family relocated to Trenton, New Jersey where Lybarger finished high school. She returned to the Midwest to attend Earlham College, a Quaker liberal arts school in Richmond, Indiana.

Upon graduating Lybarger headed back east and spent a year working at a soup kitchen in Washington, D.C. Friends convinced her to relocate to Amherst, Massachusetts with her then-girlfriend, where Lybarger spent five years working various jobs while also focused on her artwork and activism, such as with the AIDS protest group ACT UP.

"Art then won out when I applied to the master's program at the San Francisco Art Institute," recalled Lybarger, 56, who uprooted herself in August 1994 to enroll in the West Coast school, which closed its doors last year.

A year later Lybarger would break up with the girlfriend she had moved to California with after driving her to Chicago. The day she returned to the Bay Area Lybarger met up with her art school friend Nina Ackerberg, whom she would end up marrying.

"This was August and by December we were going out. She managed to woo me successfully," recalled Lybarger.

The couple had a private commitment ceremony in 1999 and the following year moved to Berkeley. They became co-owners of a Victorian split into three units with two gay male couples they were friends with and continue to share the home with to this day.

With one of the couples the women had two children, with Ackerberg giving birth to their son Jacques, 21, and Lybarger their daughter Rocio, 20, who are now both in college. The family recently took advantage of changes in California custody laws that take into consideration the makeup of LGBTQ-led families so that all four of the parents now have a legal connection to their children.

"A couple years ago we managed to go down to the Alameda County courthouse to change our kids' birth certificates. Now, all of us have a legal relationship with our kids," said Lybarger. "They legally have four parents."

Lybarger and her wife had married during the Winter of Love in 2004 but, like the other same-sex couples who had raced to San Francisco City Hall to wed, they saw their marriage be annulled by the state's supreme court that summer. Four years later they again rushed to marry in October 2008 before voters that November passed Proposition 8, which overturned the court's ruling that spring that legalized same-sex marriage in California.

The marriage equality fight left a lasting impression on Lybarger.

"I was always a politicized person and an activist. But having the state recognize our relationship, I fully understood how much we had been deprived of rights up to then," recalled Lybarger about saying "I do" to Ackerberg on Presidents Day in 2004. "Emotionally, it was incredible. I remember feeling we were never going to go backwards. Then, of course, it was annulled."

Sensing Prop 8 would pass due to the "terribly run campaign" LGBTQ groups and their allies had waged against it was why Lybarger and Ackerberg made sure to exchange vows again on October 10, 2008. Yet seeing the homophobic ballot measure become law made Lybarger angrier than she had expected.

"I couldn't believe all these people voted in support of Prop 8. I felt so betrayed; I didn't expect that," said Lybarger, who recalled being arrested at a protest in San Francisco that shut down Van Ness Avenue near City Hall during the legal fight to have the state courts invalidate the ballot measure.

Now Lybarger is supportive of seeing state legislators put before voters in November 2024 a ballot measure that would excise Prop 8's definition of marriage as being between a man and woman for good from the state's constitution. LGBTQ leaders argue it is needed should the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court decide to overturn previous rulings that made same-sex marriage a federal right.

"I am feeling hopeful," said Lybarger about the expected ballot fight over Prop 8 next year being successful.

She is also feeling positive about her chances to be elected in 2024 to the East Bay's open 7th District Senate seat that spans western Contra Costa and Alameda counties from Rodeo south to the San Leandro border. Lybarger is one of five Democrats seeking to succeed termed out Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley).

The seat largely mirrors Skinner's current 9th Senate District but was renumbered during the 2020 redistricting process. Also seeking it are Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin, Oakland City Councilmember Dan Kalb, former Assemblymember Sandré Swanson, and lesbian AC Transit board member Jovanka Beckles, a former Richmond city councilmember. The top two vote-getters in next March's primary race will face off on the November 2024 ballot for the legislative seat.

In 2018, Beckles fell short in her bid for an Assembly seat but went on to win election to her Ward 1 seat on the regional transit board two years later. She is once again vying to become the first LGBTQ member of the state Legislature from the East Bay and the first out Black female state legislator.

Beckles, who is also Latina, could potentially triple LGBTQ Black representation in Sacramento were she to win the Senate seat. Gay Assemblymember Corey Jackson (D- Moreno Valley) became the first out Black member of the Legislature last year with his election to his 60th Assembly District seat.

Jackson will be seeking reelection next year, while Darryn Harris is aiming to become the first gay Black male senator serving in the Statehouse. Formerly chief of staff to Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass when she served in the U.S. House, and now a special adviser to Congressmember Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-Los Angeles), Harris is running for the open 35th Senate District seat in Los Angeles.

"In the Senate, I plan to build on the successes of our incumbent Senator Steven Bradford and continue enacting forward-thinking policies that lift up the people of our community across every corner of the 35th District," stated Harris in announcing his candidacy in early April.

As for Lybarger, she would be the first member of the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus who identifies as queer, though she said she does refer to herself as a "gay woman sometimes" depending on the audience she is addressing. She also uses they pronouns because, as she explained in a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter, she also identifies as androgynous.

"From early on gender was just a weird thing to me. I have always identified as a girl and a woman, but I never met the gender standards for being a girl or a woman. I have always been a tomboy or too butch," said Lybarger.

A gardener at UC Berkeley since 2001, Lybarger has also served as president of the UC system's largest employee union, AFSCME Local 3299, since 2011 and is president of the California Labor Federation. Believed to be the first out person to hold both posts, Lybarger told the B.A.R. that serving in them has led numerous people over the years to suggest she seek elected office.

She didn't start to seriously consider doing so until last summer. Now running in a field of previously elected candidates, Lybarger doesn't view this being her first bid for an elected position a drawback.

"I don't think it is a bad thing not to have run for office. I come with a lot of experience, having really fought hard in the Legislature for issues that really matter for working people," said Lybarger, referring to her lobbying on behalf of various bills over the years. "I am deep in a movement that is really serious about the need to have strong voices for working people in Sacramento."

Those labor connections are already providing dividends for Lybarger's campaign, as she's already secured a host of endorsements from different unions and is expected to report raising a significant amount of money for her campaign when the legislative candidates report their first fundraising hauls in July.

"I think labor, we can be a really strong electoral force. I am proud of that and I am rooted in that," said Lybarger, having worked to elect a number of current members of the Legislature. "When we really set our minds and resources to it, I think that is going to be a strength in my campaign. I think I also don't have to be an elected leader here to be connected to this community and connected to the issues people in the East Bay care about."

On loan from her day job while leading the unions, Lybarger no longer tends to the gardening needs of the university. She was first hired professionally as a gardener by a local company after graduating art school and then was hired by SF State University. Less than three years later she had joined the gardening staff at UC Berkeley.

"I like physical jobs. I have always done blue collar work and worked with my hands," said Lybarger, noting her being a union gardener provides some protection as she ages out of the physically demanding job. "I became the union president when I was 45 or 46 and beginning to feel some strain on my shoulder. I don't think I had one co-worker over the age of 50 who hadn't had shoulder or knee surgery."

While she misses tending to the university's grounds — her favorites spots on campus are the Faculty Glade and other areas along Strawberry Creek — Lybarger told the B.A.R. she is enjoying being a candidate.

"Honestly, I like talking about issues. I like getting to know people," she said. "This campaign is not just about me talking about myself. It is about you, frankly, and that is pretty interesting."

To learn more about her candidacy, visit her website.

Assembly speaker backs gay successor

Termed out Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) has endorsed an out Southern California elected leader running to succeed him in 2024. In mid-April Rendon threw his support behind gay Lynwood City Councilmember José Luis Solache in the race for his District 62 Assembly seat.

Solache, 42, had served three terms on the Lynwood Unified School District's Board of Education prior to being elected to his council seat in 2013. This is his second legislative bid, as Solache came up short in the 2019 special election for the state Senate seat that Ricardo Lara had vacated after becoming the first gay statewide elected leader in California with his winning race for insurance commissioner the year prior.

Rendon's district includes all or part of the cities of Bellflower, Huntington Park, Lakewood, Lynwood, Maywood, Paramount, South Gate, and Walnut Park. The largest city in it is Lakewood, where Solache works as president and CEO of the Lakewood Chamber of Commerce.

"I've worked closely with José as we have fought to fully fund schools, reduce homelessness, create more good-paying jobs, and ensure every local resident has clean and safe drinking water," stated Rendon in announcing his endorsement April 19. "I believe in José Solache's dedication to our Gateway Cities and Southeast L.A. County communities, and I believe that he is the best candidate to succeed me in the State Assembly."

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 gay progressive Democrat Derek Marshall again running for a U.S. House seat in the High Desert east of Los Angeles.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @ http://twitter.com/politicalnotes

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

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