Gay nurse, ex-union leader Esteen takes on Alameda Supervisor Miley in 2024

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday May 1, 2023
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Ashland resident Jennifer Esteen, left, has announced her run for the Alameda County Board of Supervisors seat currently held by Nate Miley. Photos: Esteen, courtesy the candidate; Miley, courtesy Alameda County.
Ashland resident Jennifer Esteen, left, has announced her run for the Alameda County Board of Supervisors seat currently held by Nate Miley. Photos: Esteen, courtesy the candidate; Miley, courtesy Alameda County.

Gay nurse and former union leader Jennifer Esteen officially launched her campaign Monday to oust from office Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley, who will be seeking a seventh four-year term on the primary ballot next March.

Should Esteen win the race, she would be the first out LGBTQ member of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. If she and Miley remain the only two candidates for his District 4 seat, then the person who receives the most votes next winter will be declared the winner.

But if more candidates decide to seek the seat, then the top two vote-getters in the March 5 primary race will advance to the ballot next November. The winner will represent East Oakland, Montclair, Castro Valley, Ashland, Cherryland, Fairview, El Portal Ridge, and Pleasanton.

This is Esteen's second time vying for elected office in as many years. In 2021, she launched a bid to represent Alameda County's 20th Assembly District and racked up early support from LGBTQ leaders on both sides of the bay.

But after Assemblyman Bill Quirk (D-Hayward) decided not to seek reelection, Shawn Kumagai, a gay man then serving on the Dublin City Council, and labor leader Liz Ortega, who is straight, jumped into the contest to succeed him and survived the primary. With Quirk's endorsement, Ortega defeated Kumagai last November and is now serving in the state Legislature.

Undeterred, Esteen began laying the groundwork for her next campaign and for months had been expected to formally launch her supervisorial bid. She chose May 1 to do so as it is May Day and an important date for union members and other workers.

Talking by phone to the Bay Area Reporter, Esteen said she had repeatedly received encouragement from people throughout the district to again run for elected office. She noted that the Assembly District overlaps with many of the communities represented by Miley.

"People have asked me again and again. They said, 'You are so amazing. I met you during the Assembly race, and I really want to see you serving, and I really want you to be elected, and I am excited to support you again.' This would happen in the grocery store or perfect strangers would come up to me in the community," recalled Esteen. "People have continued to remember me and report back they were inspired by the campaign we ran before. They are excited to know I am not giving up."

When he ran for reelection in 2020 and 2016, Miley both times suggested it could be his last time seeking the supervisor seat he first won election to in 2000. The former Oakland city councilmember now has three young grandkids he would like to spend more time with before they become teenagers.

He told the B.A.R. in a phone interview Monday that he had seriously considered retiring at the end of his current term next year. But then came the deaths of two of his board colleagues, Wilma Chan in 2021 and Richard Valle in February, several years after the retirement of former supervisor Richard Haggerty in 2020, which changed Miley's calculus.

"I think the Board of Supervisors and the county is in need of some continuity and some institutionalization and knowledge around the challenges we have been facing," said Miley, who kicked off his reelection campaign with a February fundraiser. "So when I was thinking about not running again, it was prior to Supervisor Chan's passing away and Supervisor Valle's passing away. Having two colleagues who served a long time and had a lot of expertise leave us, it impacted my thinking about running again."

Miley told the B.A.R. there are a number of issues he wants to continue working on if given another term by the voters, from reparations and improving mental health services in the East Bay county to serving the needs of seniors, small business owners and residents of unincorporated areas within the county. Plus, the recovery from COVID is ongoing, said Miley, and another reason he wants to remain a supervisor.

"But one of the main reasons is the fact we just have seen the turnover of three supervisors on the Board of Supervisors in the last few years. I didn't contemplate that would happen and I do not think anyone would have contemplated that," said Miley.

Noting that he has faced opponents nearly every time he has run for office and won, Miley told the B.A.R. he has every confidence of winning reelection next year.

"My goal would be to win outright and get 50% plus one of the vote in March 2024," he said.

Yet Esteen told the B.A.R. the fact that Miley has been challenged for his supervisor seat during his most recent races is an indication that residents of the district are seeking a new county representative.

"I think it speaks to a desire in the community for change and different leadership," she said.

The daughter of a Black mom and a Jewish dad who grew up in New Orleans, Esteen was hired as a psychiatric nurse in the San Francisco General Hospital Psychiatric Emergency Room then served as vice president of organizing for Service Employees International Union Local 1021. She is now back working for the city's public health department as a psych nurse in the community.

A masculine of center woman, Esteen lives in Ashland, an unincorporated area, with her wife and children. Esteen had two children with her ex-husband and came out later in life. Her wife, a marriage and family therapist, had a daughter. Their kids are now all young adults.

Not living in an incorporated city, Esteen said her opportunities to seek elected office at the local level are few. She is currently serving on the Eden Municipal Advisory Council.

Health issues a priority

She also is vice president of the board that oversees the Alameda Health System that runs several hospitals in the county with a $1 billion budget. Ensuring the health needs of county residents are being met, in particular mental health services, would be a top priority for her if elected supervisor.

"The supervisors have a tremendous role to play in making sure our safety net has all the resources it requires and, right now, we still need more," said Esteen, who will turn 43 on Halloween.

Other issues she is prioritizing include the need to build more affordable housing in Alameda County and getting unhoused people off the streets. Esteen told the B.A.R. she feels a sense of urgency to address such issues is lacking from the current Board of Supervisors.

"We have got to move so much faster," said Esteen. "The current response has been flat-footed for now."

Her being an out candidate is sure to bring added attention to the race. But it is just part of her background she would bring to the board, said Esteen.

"Really, this is about the values I bring. I am a Black gay woman who also happens to be Jewish. I am masculine presenting," noted Esteen. "Oakland, some people say, is lesbian mecca, but it doesn't mean I am going to get elected. I am running because I am a mom, a nurse and an everyday person who struggles to make things work."

She questioned when was the last time any of the current supervisors faced either paying their rent or putting food on the table for their family.

"They are very out of touch," said Esteen. "It is why I am running. I would love to make history, but ultimately I just want to do the work to make our community stronger."

Pitch to LGBTQs

Miley said his pitch to LGBTQ voters will be to look at his record on issues that matter to them. In addition to supporting LGBTQ causes and co-sponsoring Castro Valley Pride, Miley noted he hires LGBTQ people to his staff, has presided over the wedding of a lesbian couple, and is a regular participant at Oakland's Pride event.

"I think my track record speaks for itself," said Miley. "These seats aren't meant to be for a Black person, an Asian person, an LGBTQ person, a female, etc. These seats are meant for the most qualified person who can represent the needs of the public."

With four of the current five supervisors people of color, and two now women after the recent appointment of Supervisor Elisa Márquez to serve out Valle's term, Miley pointed out the Alameda board is one of the most diverse of any of the state's county supervisor boards. (Like Esteen, Miley is Black.)

As for seeing the election of an LGBTQ supervisor, "I think that day will come," Miley said. "I just don't expect that day to come on March 5, 2024, based on what I have done historically as an elected official the last 30 years."

He told the B.A.R. he relishes having an opponent again in 2024.

"I can't sit back, twiddle my fingers and get lazy. Opponents help you do that and check in with the electorate to see how you are doing," said Miley. "I welcome the opportunity and relish the chance to have an opponent and a chance to go back to the electorate to see how they think in terms of my job performance."

Another issue he is sure to face as he seeks reelection is his age. Miley, who is turning 72 this year, argued his age is beneficial and that serving in political office positively benefits his own faculties. He took pride in the fact that he has now served as president of the group United Seniors of Oakland and Alameda County the past eight years.

"I feel great. I am slowed down a little bit but I try to take care of myself both physically and mentally. I try to get exercise and rest, things of that nature, but I still feel I am as sharp as ever in terms of my intellect," said Miley. "I think my age is an asset; I am providing wisdom."

That includes knowing how government works at the local, state, and federal levels, said Miley, along with the personal relationships he has built serving alongside other elected leaders on various regional oversight bodies.

"I don't care how prepared you are. Until you are in this seat, you don't know all the issues coming at you, all the things we deal with in closed session," said Miley.

Not wanting to be seen as a "lame duck" if once again elected supervisor, Miley nonetheless told the B.A.R. it is likely going to be his last term. Come 2028 he suspects he will want to focus on spending time with his significant other and grandchildren who will then be ages 6, 8, and 10.

"I will be 76 at that point. I suspect I won't want to serve any longer," said Miley.

UPDATED 5/1/23 to correct where Esteen now works.

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