Political Notebook: Trans Palm Springs Councilmember Middleton revives CA Senate bid

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday March 21, 2023
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Palm Springs City Councilmember Lisa Middleton announced March 21 that she's seeking a state Senate seat next year. Photo: Courtesy Lisa Middleton
Palm Springs City Councilmember Lisa Middleton announced March 21 that she's seeking a state Senate seat next year. Photo: Courtesy Lisa Middleton

Aiming to become the first transgender person elected to the California Legislature next November, Palm Springs Councilmember Lisa Middleton revived her campaign for a state Senate seat Tuesday. Her legislative bid comes amid a national backlash against rights and health care for trans individuals, particularly youth.

Middleton is seeking the 19th Senate District seat that includes the LGBTQ tourist and retirement mecca of the Coachella Valley. It will be vacated in late 2024 by termed out state Senator Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore).

"My foundation is the neighborhoods I represent. My path to being the first transgender Californian to be elected to a political office began by standing up for Palm Springs neighborhoods and street repair funding," stated Middleton in a lengthy statement she released March 21. "I will go to work every day in the state Senate to improve the quality of your life, in your neighborhood."

Her winning her council seat in 2017 marked the first time a transgender person in California had been elected to a non-judicial position. Middleton won reelection in 2020 and was elected her city's ceremonial mayor by her council colleagues the following year.

It has long been expected that Middleton would seek the open legislative seat, and she had initially launched her campaign for it in October 2021. But she suspended her bid later that year after the seat was given an odd number due to the 2020 redistricting process, landing it on the 2024 ballot instead of last year's. (The decision meant Melendez could serve an additional two years, as she was to have termed out last year.)

Following the outcome of the 2022 legislative races, there are now a record 12 members of the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, though none identify as trans or nonbinary. It is the first such affinity group for out statehouse members to represent 10% of its legislative body.

Middleton's candidacy brings the number of Southern California legislative races with LGBTQ non-incumbents to five. She would be the first out state legislator elected from the Coachella Valley.

The Senate district she is seeking stretches from La Quinta to Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains to Hemet in the San Jacinto Valley and up to Barstow in the High Desert. Middleton and her wife, Cheryl O'Callaghan, moved to Palm Springs in 2011 and married in 2013, having first started dating in 2000.

Following the defeats last November of two out candidates seeking to represent districts that overlap with the state Senate seat — bisexual Palm Springs City Councilmember Christy Holstege who ran for a state Assembly seat and gay former federal prosecutor Will Rollins who sought a U.S. House seat — to their Republican opponents, some have questioned if an LGBTQ candidate can win in the districts as currently drawn. They include more conservative parts of San Bernardino County and/or Riverside County.

As a Democrat running for a seat currently represented by a Republican, Middleton alluded to the political makeup of the Senate district in her announcement this week.

"I'm running to make a difference in Sacramento and be an effective voice for the 19th District by fighting for pragmatic, common-sense solutions that will improve the lives of all Californians. I'm not running to represent the blue team or the red team — I'm running to represent the people of Riverside and San Bernardino counties," stated Middleton.

Native Californian

A native Californian, having grown up in East Los Angeles, Middleton graduated from UCLA and received a master's degree in public administration from the University of Southern California. She moved to San Francisco in 1994 when she was working for California's State Compensation Insurance Fund. It was at that time that she came out as transgender.

She served on the San Francisco Human Rights Commission's LGBT advisory committee and, between 2001 and 2004, Middleton served on the board of Lyon-Martin Women's Health Services, the San Francisco-based health clinic for lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender individuals that last year ended its affiliation with HealthRIGHT 360 and rebranded as Lyon-Martin Community Health. During that time she and O'Callaghan moved to Belmont on the Peninsula until relocating to San Diego in 2004 for work.

In 2010 she retired from her job with the state agency after 36 years. Before running for her council seat, Middleton was seated on the Palm Springs planning commission and served as interim executive director of the Desert LGBTQ Center.

Four years ago Middleton was appointed to the board that oversees the California Public Employees Retirement System, which provides pensions to 1.9 million people and health benefits to over 1.5 million people with investment assets exceeding $450 billion. She currently chairs the finance and administration committee and is vice chair of the risk and audit committee.

"I spent most of my adult life working in state government — helping ensure that workers injured on the job got the compensation they deserved, and fighting fraud, waste and abuse. I have seen government succeed, and I have seen it fail. The difference always comes down to leadership," stated Middleton. "Throughout my career, I have been a leader who listens to and delivers results for the people I represent. In the state Senate, I will work to return our state and country back to a place where a crisis — whether it be a pandemic, wildfire, earthquake, or a snowstorm — is not an opportunity for partisanship, but for us to save lives through preparation and cooperation."

Middleton has two adult children: John Middleton and Lauren Medlin, who both became teachers. She and her wife are also now grandmothers.

"My grandson is expected to live to see the 22nd century. The business of California is building the schools, the equality of opportunity, the transportation and communication networks, the jobs and climate that give my grandchild and every child the foundation to build their California Dream," stated Middleton. "I'm ready to roll up my sleeves and do the hard work. I hope you'll join me."

To learn more about Middleton and her campaign platform, visit her campaign website.

To learn more about Middleton and her campaign platform, visit www.electlisamiddleton.com

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, which will return March 27.

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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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