Political Notebook: Queer family advocate seeks Oakland school board vacancy

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday October 18, 2023
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Oakland school board candidate Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez stands in front of the mural "Reclaiming Fruitvale." Photo: Courtesy the campaign
Oakland school board candidate Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez stands in front of the mural "Reclaiming Fruitvale." Photo: Courtesy the campaign

A queer family advocate is seeking the vacant seat on the Oakland school board this November. If elected, Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez would be the second LGBTQ member of the oversight body.

For the past decade Ritzie-Hernandez has worked on family engagement issues with the Bay Area Parent Leadership Action Network. Currently, she coordinates its collaborative initiative called the Bay Area Coalition for Education Justice.

"Definitely, one of the many reasons why I am running is because there has been attacks on the safety and the wellbeing of our LGBTQ students in Alameda County. To me, we need to move into a space where we are not just performative and not just saying we are going to wave our Pride flags. We need a welcoming environment for our students," said Ritzie-Hernandez, whose wife, Shaniah, is serving as her campaign manager. "Inclusivity is so important and it starts with representation in my opinion. I never saw a queer board member I could identify with when I was a student."

Yet Ritzie-Hernandez, 33, is facing a tough campaign for the District 5 seat on the board that oversees the Oakland Unified School District. A special election is being held for it November 7 due to school board member Mike Hutchinson switching seats earlier this year.

Because he was redistricted out of the District 5 area, which covers Oakland's Fruitvale and East Oakland neighborhoods, Hutchinson ran in 2022 for the District 4 seat in order to remain on the oversight body. Initially, transgender married dad Nick Resnick was declared the winner of that race.

But in a shocking turn of events, Alameda County Registrar of Voters Tim Dupuis had disclosed December 28 that his office had not properly counted the ballots in the contest, and three others decided by ranked choice, and the true winner of the school board seat had been Hutchinson, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported. Nonetheless, Resnick took his oath of office in January to serve in the seat.

It led to Hutchinson waging a legal fight to have the courts order a recount so he could be declared the winner. Ultimately, Resnick decided to resign, paving the way for Hutchinson to be sworn in to the District 4 seat.

Thus, he resigned from his District 5 seat, which he could have continued serving in until his term was up in early January 2025. Whoever wins the special election next month will need to run for a full four-year term as the District 5 representative on the November ballot in 2024.

Ritzie-Hernandez, who uses both she and they pronouns, aims to be the victor and have incumbent status headed into next year's race. LPAC, which works to elect out women to office across the U.S., recently endorsed Ritzie-Hernandez, while the national LGBTQ+ Victory Fund did so in late September.

Queer Oakland School board member Valarie Bachelor, elected last year to the oversight body's District 6 seat, is also supporting Ritzie-Hernandez. So are California Attorney General Rob Bonta and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, as is the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club based in San Francisco.

Hutchinson has endorsed retired educator and principal Jorge Lerma, 73, who also was endorsed last month by the East Bay Times newspaper. Former Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf is also backing Lerma in the race.

In another electoral mishap, Lerma and Ritzie-Hernandez were told by the city clerk's office they needed to collect signatures from residents within the new District 5 boundaries to qualify for the ballot. In reality, they should have been using the old district lines, leading Dupuis in August to initially disqualify them from being eligible to run before reversing that decision.

Speaking to the B.A.R. in early October, Ritzie-Hernandez said she was confident she could win the contest. Even though it is her first time seeking public office, she noted she has deep roots in Oakland because of going to school there and from her community organizing work.

"Quite frankly, I feel like the campaign is going really, really well," she said.

Born in Acapulco, Guerrero, Mexico Ritzie-Hernandez lost her sister and her father's brother in a car accident in 1990. Seven years later the family "lost everything," she said, when Hurricane Pauline slammed into the country's Pacific Coast.

With her older brother bullied in school for being gay, he and their father left for the Bay Area in 1999 to live with family in Oakland. It wouldn't be until 2002, at the age of 12, that Ritzie-Hernandez and her mother left for the U.S. after she was nearly kidnapped by thieves who had broken into their house and "took everything," she said.

After making their way to Nogales, "we walked for a couple days through the Arizona desert until we got to Phoenix," recalled Ritzie-Hernandez, who with her mother was then driven to Oakland.

Twenty years and thousands of dollars in lawyer fees later Ritzie-Hernandez became a U.S. citizen last October 26. She immediately registered to vote with an eye on running for a school board seat as soon as she could.

"It is something I always dreamed of," said Ritzie-Hernandez, who last year also graduated with a B.A. in English from the now-closed Holy Names University.

It was where she first met her wife, whom she started dating five years ago. The couple now live with Ritzie-Hernandez's parents in the Fruitvale neighborhood.

School issues

In terms of issues facing the school board, Ritzie-Hernandez was critical of the three school board members, including Hutchinson, for not reaching an agreement on appointing someone to the vacant seat in a way that included community input. Instead, Alameda County Superintendent of Schools Alysse Castro called for the special election to take place.

"The whole thing of us having a special election right now serves as testimony to the kind of decisions OUSD is making around budgeting. We are spending $2 million on this special election," said Ritzie-Hernandez.

Yet the district is bracing for budget shortfalls due to declining enrollment, with a projected deficit of $121 million by the 2025-2026 school years. It has faced criticism for approving a new contract for teachers in June, which some fear will only add to its fiscal problems, and being unable to close school sites to save on costs.

Ritzie-Hernandez told the B.A.R., "I feel we need to assess our spending honestly."

At the same time, she acknowledged she "is not a big fan" of seeing schools be shuttered by the district. One reason being that in the past, it has meant the closure of schools with mostly students of color.

"It decreases the trust, definitely, of our families, and it impacts our students," Ritzie-Hernandez said.

A previous decision to shutter or merge 11 schools over two years animated last year's school board races, leading the newly installed board to rescind the decision in January. As a member of the school board, Ritzie-Hernandez pledged to ensure that the district's families are part of the decision-making process when it comes to such an issue.

"I think an impact analysis is really important to show the community what the findings are and invite them into the decision-making process," she said.

Ritzie-Hernandez is one of two out candidates running for vacant education seats in the Bay Area this November. In Santa Clara County gay educator Clay Hale is seeking to be elected to the District 7 seat on the seven-person board that oversees the San José-Evergreen Community College District.

Gay San Jose City Councilmember Omar Torres resigned from it after being elected to his city's governing body last November. Hale, who works for the East Side Union High School District, is one of five candidates seeking to serve out the remainder of Torres' term through the end of next year.

The winner of the seat centered in downtown San Jose will need to run for a full four-year term on the fall 2024 ballot. Equality California, the statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization, this week endorsed Hale's 2023 campaign.

EQCA hires East Bay official

On Tuesday, EQCA announced it had hired Hayward Planning Commissioner Shay Franco-Clausen as its new political director. She replaces gay San Francisco resident Tom Temprano, who was promoted in May to be EQCA's managing director of external affairs. He had first been hired as its political director last year in February.

A mother of five with her wife, Yolanda Clausen, Franco-Clausen has been serving as the political action committee co-chair for the East Bay Stonewall Democratic Club, an LGBTQ political group, and on the Victory Fund Campaign Board. The couple moved out of San Jose, where Franco-Clausen grew up, in 2021 after being priced out of the South Bay's housing market and finding a home they could afford to buy in Alameda County.

A queer former Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority trustee, Franco-Clausen had looked at running for an open East Bay Assembly seat last year. Ultimately, she decided not to move forward with her candidacy.

Also this week EQCA endorsed out candidates in two East Bay state legislative contests on the 2024 ballot. On Monday, it announced it is backing gay former West Sacramento mayor Christopher Cabaldon in the race for the open District 3 Senate seat that sprawls across parts of Contra Costa, Solano, Sonoma, Napa, Yolo, and Sacramento counties. Senator Bill Dodd (D-Napa) is termed out next year.

EQCA also endorsed queer California Labor Federation President Kathryn Lybarger, who lives in Berkeley with her wife, in the race for the open 7th Senate District seat that spans western Contra Costa and Alameda counties. It largely mirrors the current 9th Senate District seat that was renumbered during the 2020 redistricting process and is held by Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), who will be termed out in 2024.

Also seeking the seat is lesbian former Richmond city councilmember Jovanka Beckles, now an elected member of the board that oversees the AC Transit public transportation agency. Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin, Oakland City Councilmember Dan Kalb, and former Assemblymember Sandré Swanson are also running in the March primary where the top two vote-getters will advance to next fall's ballot.

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 San Francisco health commissioner Dan Bernal receiving the waiver he needed to become vice chancellor of community and government relations for UCSF this December.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Threads @ https://www.threads.net/@matthewbajko

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

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