Political Notebook: UC Berkeley grad Mohajer aims to make history as 1st gay Iranian legislator

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 28, 2023
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State Senate candidate Alex Mohajer. Photo: Courtesy the campaign
State Senate candidate Alex Mohajer. Photo: Courtesy the campaign

With his bid in 2024 for a California state Senate seat, Alex Mohajer is looking to make LGBTQ political history. The gay UC Berkeley graduate would not only be the first out legislator from Orange County, he also believes he would be the first out Iranian man to hold elected office anywhere in the world.

His candidacy is already making national headlines. The newsite Queerty this month named Mohajer, 38, one of its 50 most influential and inspiring LGBTQ+ voices in the U.S.

In March, Bear World magazine profiled the Southern California candidate. It noted that the Golden State "may have a beary handsome history maker on its hands."

First Mohajer has to survive next March's primary for the open Senate District 37 seat. The incumbent, Senator Dave Min (D-Irvine), is running to succeed Congressmember Katie Porter (D-Irvine), who is vying for the U.S. Senate seat that Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein is stepping down from next year.

Min had flipped the seat to the blue column back in 2020. And due to the recent redistricting process, Mohajer believes the Senate district leans even more Democratic.

Nonetheless, the first-time candidate for public office told the Bay Area Reporter, "I am certainly the underdog" in the race.

Mohajer is facing a fierce campaign for the legislative seat, with four Republicans pulling papers to flip it from blue to red next year. Only the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, will move on to the November 2024 ballot.

"I actually think Orange County is ready for an openly gay legislator," Mohajer told the B.A.R. during a recent phone interview about his candidacy. "It is still a purple area, that is for sure. But the heart of the district is Irvine, which has come a long way in the last decade."

Ahmad Zahra, a gay Syrian American, has served on the Fullerton City Council since 2001. The city is part of the 37th Senate District, along with Irvine, Orange, Tustin, Costa Mesa, Lake Forest, Aliso Niguel, and Laguna Niguel.

But several candidates in Orange County from the LGBTQ community have not had success at the ballot box during recent election cycles. Transgender Seal Beach resident Stephanie Wade lost her bid for a city council seat in a February runoff race called when no candidate won it outright last November.

In 2020, gay lawyer Bijan Mohseni had sought to be the first out LGBTQ legislator of Iranian descent. But the Los Alamitos resident lost his bid for an Orange County Assembly seat.

Gay Mission Viejo resident Scott Rhinehart also lost his bid that year for another Orange County Assembly seat. It marked his second time waging an unsuccessful campaign for the seat, having lost in 2018.

Meanwhile, cities throughout the coastal county between Los Angeles and San Diego have moved to curtail LGBTQ rights of late. In February, a conservative majority on the Huntington Beach City Council banned displaying the Pride flag on city properties such as City Hall or the local library.

Mojaher joined in a Pride protest held in May by LGBTQ activists who marched through the famous beach town with rainbow flags. They also unfurled a gigantic Pride flag that included colored stripes representing Black, Brown, and transgender individuals over the side of the Huntington Beach Pier.

Just weeks later, in early June, at the start of Pride Month, the Orange County Board of Supervisors followed suit by imposing a similar countywide ban against displaying the Pride flag. LGBTQ issues have also become a flashpoint this year in the Orange Unified School District after conservatives won a majority on the school board last November.

"This is why we need openly gay people to start running for office to fight back against those ordinances. It isn't only happening in GOP-controlled legislatures, it is happening in our backyard," noted Mohajer. "One way to tackle that is to have representation and make sure we are at the table, which is what I am trying to do."

Deep roots

Mohajer is banking on his familial roots in the district to help him break through the pink political ceiling in his county. Born in Irvine to parents who both emigrated from Iran, Mohajer was raised by his mother after his parents divorced when he was very young and his father returned to Iran. (His dad died from COVID in February 2021 on the same day that Mohajer received his first vaccination for the coronavirus.)

Mohajer came to the Bay Area for college and graduated in 2007 from UC Berkeley with a degree in mass communications. He then earned a law degree in 2011 from the Chapman University School of Law in Orange, California. After living in Los Angeles for a few years, he moved back home to Irvine during the COVID pandemic.

An award-winning journalist, Mohajer since 2013 has tried due process hearings and investigated allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination as a civil service advocate for Los Angeles County, from which he likely will take a leave of absence later this year to focus full-time on his campaign. He has been sober nearly five years and is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, he said.

Mohajer was the first millennial and first Iranian American elected to lead the Stonewall Democrats, the LGBTQ political group with its largest chapter based in Los Angeles where it was founded in 1975. He will be stepping down in July after serving a two-year term as president.

In addition to being one of a record number of LGBTQ legislative candidates this year, as noted by the B.A.R. in a story this week, Mohajer is part of a small but growing group of LGBTQ Americans with Middle Eastern ancestry seeking elected office.

"Part of why I wanted to run is there are no Iranians in the California Legislature. We have the deepest diaspora and no representation in the Legislature," said Mohajer, noting that Southern California has the largest diaspora of Iranians outside of Iran. "We think 5% to 7% of the district is Iranian and represents a winning margin."

He is eschewing donations from political action committees affiliated with corporations and is a champion of addressing climate change. His goal is to land in second place in the primary behind one of his Republican opponents, setting them up to compete head-to-head in the fall race.

"I think most people are receptive to a candidate like me," Mohajer told the B.A.R. "Most people I have engaged with are open and receptive. I think the county is ready; somebody has to be the first to do it."

Nonetheless, he knows he faces an uphill climb to convince a majority of voters to send him to Sacramento at a time when conservative media is "dedicated to boogey-manning LGBTQ people," Mohajer acknowledged.

"What I am able to do is show people, particularly Republicans and the more conservative side of the political spectrum, we are the same people who care about the same things," he said. "I want to pass policies that will help all families. We love this place. We want a place where our kids can grow up, and thrive, and have opportunity."

After all, said Mohajer, "LGBTQ people, we have the same interests and desires like everybody else."

To learn more about Mohajer, visit his campaign website.

Political Notes, the notebook's online companion, will return Monday, July 10.

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

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