Political Notebook: Gay Richmond resident seeks council seat

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Wednesday September 21, 2016
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Cesar Zepeda has called Richmond, California home since he moved there from Mexico when he was 8 years old.

Now 35, he is seeking to become the first out gay man to serve on his city's council alongside lesbian City Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles . Zepeda is one of nine people on the November ballot running for three council seats, with two incumbents running for re-election and a person appointed to fill a vacancy seeking a full term.

A homeowner and neighborhood leader in the East Bay city's Hilltop district, Zepeda is facing an uphill climb as a first-time candidate for political office. Aware of his long odds, he began his campaign for a council seat last fall.

"People tell me we don't see you as a newcomer because you have done so much already," Zepeda told the Bay Area Reporter .

President of his homeowner's association since he bought his home 13 years ago, Zepeda has fought for more city resources to be designated toward his Hilltop neighborhood and has been heavily involved in the redevelopment of the area's shopping mall.

He would now like to use the skills he has acquired working on neighborhood concerns to tackle citywide issues, such as building more affordable housing and improving transit links between Richmond and San Francisco.

"Why not do for the city what I have done for Hilltop," Zepeda said in explaining his decision to run for City Council. "I believe I have the experience in being able to build community and allow them to have a voice."

He has also sought to organize Richmond's LGBT community, co-founding Richmond Rainbow Pride, the city's first organization to advocate for its LGBT residents. For the last two years the group has hosted a Pride event in early June.

"We have a large LGBT population but people are not out in the community," said Zepeda, who is single and does marketing for an insurance brokerage firm in Oakland.

Last week Equality California, the statewide LGBT advocacy group, endorsed Zepeda, noting that, "if elected, Zepeda has pledged to help enact a gender-neutral restroom ordinance, establish programs aiding LGBT seniors, youth, and people living with HIV, and appoint an LGBT liaison to the city council, mayor's office and police department."

Zepeda told the B.A.R. that he has not sought endorsements from any of the city's council members, as he is trying to stay neutral and not align himself with any council faction. He did accept the endorsement of Councilman Jael Myrick, who is up for re-election and seen as a centrist on the body, since Zepeda said, "We share particular views."

His city's embrace of out leaders has been a mixed bag in recent years. Beckles garnered headlines two years ago after she faced repeated harassment due to her sexual orientation from public speakers at City Council meetings.

Yet Richmond's former police chief, Chris Magnus , who departed earlier this year after a decade on the job, was a married gay man who won high praise for his leadership of the department.

Zepeda praised Beckles for the "really strong shoulders she has built for the LGBT community. I hopefully will be standing on those with my campaign. She laid out the ground work there, but even with that said, there is still homophobia out there."

When he received the endorsement of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, the national organization devoted to helping elect LGBT people to public office, and promoted it on his Facebook account, Zepeda said it resulted in some anti-gay comments.

"My campaign team's reaction was this is horrible. I said, yes, it is, but that it validates the reason we are doing what we are doing," he said. "There is still work to be done."

He has been public about his own family's struggle to accept his being gay and how he contemplated suicide after his parents kicked him out of their house when he came out to them. Zepeda, the youngest of five siblings and 20 years old at the time, moved in with a sister who lived across the street from his parents.

"I think my dad was afraid people would laugh at me. He wasn't sure what gay was; back then he thought if you were gay, you wore a dress," said Zepeda, who reconciled with his parents four years later. "Now he is starting to realize being gay is not just one thing. You can be a truck driver and be gay, a pro wrestler or a politician and be gay. They never really saw that before."

Zepeda said he wanted to be open about his own struggles as a candidate so he can serve as a role model for others in his community.

"For me, growing up and not really knowing anyone who was gay made it difficult. I didn't have someone I could go and talk to. There was no one there to look up to for role models and no one to relate to," said Zepeda. "Coming out and going through what I have gone through, I need to let people know. Through sharing my stories, I hope I have been able to help other people."

To learn more about Zepeda and his campaign, visit http://www.cesarzepeda.com/.

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings at noon for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on SF drag queen Juanita More's political focus.

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

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