Political Notebook: Complaint filed against opponent of trans Seal Beach, CA council candidate

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday January 24, 2023
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Stephanie Wade, left, is seeking a Seal Beach City Council seat against Lisa Landau, and has raised questions about whether Landau lives in the district she is seeking to represent. Photos: Wade, courtesy the campaign; Landau, courtesy Facebook
Stephanie Wade, left, is seeking a Seal Beach City Council seat against Lisa Landau, and has raised questions about whether Landau lives in the district she is seeking to represent. Photos: Wade, courtesy the campaign; Landau, courtesy Facebook

The runoff race opponent of a transgender City Council candidate in Seal Beach, California is facing questions about her eligibility to seek the district seat, the ballot designation she used, and her professed three decades of experience as an accountant. It comes as the two women will face voters again January 31 in their bid to help lead the coastal city.

In their November 8 matchup Stephanie Wade, a trans veteran, received the most votes, 967, in the three-person contest for the District 3 seat on the Seal Beach City Council, while Lisa Landau came in second with 912 votes. Because neither garnered more than 50% of the vote to win outright, they landed in next Tuesday's runoff race.

Wade, who works for an Orange County supervisor, would be the first transgender person elected in the county should she win. She would also be one of only a handful of trans elected officials in California.

Two weeks prior to the runoff election, a voter filed complaints with California elections officials questioning Landau's residency in the council district, the Bay Area Reporter has learned. It contends that Landau really lives in the city's District 1 and that the address she re-registered at last year is merely an investment property that has been under construction for years and isn't habitable.

It is also unclear why Landau's ballot designation did not include any professional information and merely described her as a "community organizer." According to the California Department of Real Estate Landau is a licensed salesperson under her former name of Lisa Anne Sunstein-Elder — which she had changed back to her maiden name in 2010 — and most recently worked for Seal Beach real estate firm American Beachside Brokers.

As explained in the handbook for Orange County candidates in 2022, the use of "Community Volunteer" is only to be used by someone working pro bono for a nonprofit, government agency, or educational institution at such a level that it is their "sole, primary, main, or leading professional, vocational or occupational endeavor." It is not to be used if "the candidate does have a principal profession, vocation, or occupation."

The handbook also advises that candidates with up-to-date business licenses issued by the state are "entitled to consider it one of his/her 'principal' professions, vocations, or occupations." Landau's state license doesn't expire until 2024.

Other online records have listed Landau as an executive and investor in a real estate development company specializing in vacation homes and waterfront properties in Baja California. Up until September 2021 at her Twitter account, Landau would retweet posts from the account of the company, the International Land Alliance.

Yet in her ballot statement to election officials, and on her campaign website bio, Landau makes no mention of her real estate experience. Instead, she boasts about being "an accountant with over 30 years of experience."

The Orange County Register had listed Landau's current job title as "accounting manager" based on the responses to a questionnaire the newspaper had sent her. However, a search via the website of the California Board of Accountancy found no one licensed under any name matching that of Landau.

'Georgette Santos'

"This is Georgette Santos; this is his sister," Wade, 55, told the B.A.R. during a recent phone interview, referring to gay Republican Congressmember George Santos from Long Island, New York, who has been found to have lied about myriad aspects of his life, from where he attended college and his professional pursuits to his family's religious background and how his mother died.

"She says she is an accountant. But there is no record of her having a job as an accountant," said Wade. "No one heard her describe herself as an accountant until she ran. We believe she has only an associate's degree."

Landau, 60, has yet to respond to the B.A.R.'s requests for an interview about her professional background and where she resides in Seal Beach. According to her campaign bio, her family has called the northwestern Orange County city home for more than four decades.

Orange County Registrar of Voters Bob Page told the B.A.R. Monday in emailed replies to questions that he "cannot confirm or deny whether a complaint has been filed" with his office about a candidate for elected office. He did say his office's standard protocol is to forward any complaints it receives to the county's district attorney or to the office of the secretary of state, who oversees elections in California.

Neither the office of Orange County D.A. Todd Spitzer nor of Secretary of State Shirley Weber has responded to the B.A.R.'s request for comment regarding the complaint filed against Landau. As of press time the county registrar's webpage for the Seal Beach runoff races, as no candidate won the District 5 council seat outright in November, indicated that they would both take place next week as scheduled.

In regard to questions about Landau's ballot designation, Page directed the B.A.R. to contact Seal Beach City Clerk Gloria Harper, as she signed off on listing Landau on the ballot as a "community volunteer."

"The Registrar of Voters is administering the election at the request and direction of the city. The City Clerk approved the candidate ballot designations, not the Registrar of Voters," wrote Page in his emailed reply.

Reached at her office Monday, Harper told the B.A.R. that she doesn't "respond over the phone" and requested questions about Landau's candidacy be emailed to her. Late Wednesday afternoon Harper informed the B.A.R that she had consulted with Seal Beach's city attorney about the "communications regarding the eligibility of a candidate" in the District 3 runoff race and had also forwarded those communications to the Registrar of Voters.

"At the time of nomination for the 2022 election, every candidate for city elective office filed an 'Affidavit of Nominee' in which each candidate disclosed their residence address under penalty of perjury, and the Orange County Registrar of Voters verified voter registration. On that basis, candidates were nominated for office," wrote Harper. "Taking no position on the allegations that have been made, I note that there are remedies in State law to address candidate/elected official eligibility at the appropriate time."

Harper told the B.A.R. that it is too late to change next week's ballot for the runoff races.

"There is no provision in State or local law for changing the candidates on a ballot at this stage of the election. As the Elections Official, I urge every voter in Districts 3 and 5 to cast their ballots by the January 31, 2023, deadline," wrote Harper.

Ed Hirsch, 55, who grew up in Seal Beach and relocated to his hometown a decade ago, filed the initial complaint regarding where Landau lives with city and county elections officials last week. Speaking to the B.A.R. by phone January 23, he said he began digging into her candidacy filings after being incensed by seeing Landau and her supporters repeatedly refer to Wade as a recent transplant to Seal Beach.

Landau has contended Wade did so in order to use election to the council seat as a jumping off point for higher office. The attack strikes Hirsch as having more to do with longtime Seal Beach residents who are white wanting to keep people of color and others from moving there.

"Lisa just kept calling Stephanie like some kind of interloper, nonlocal, out-of-towner who has not been here long enough and is bringing in these outside influences," said Hirsch, a retired lawyer. "It really bugged me, having grown up here in this town with this locals' only culture."

It also struck a wrong note for Hirsch, as he lives two blocks from the house that Landau said she lived in on her candidacy paperwork. Yet the house, which Hirsch passes on a daily basis, has been under construction for some time, he told the B.A.R.

"The more they said Stephanie Wade had only been here a year, I would think, 'Wait a minute, Lisa hasn't been here even for a year.' Lisa hasn't been here at all in the district," said Hirsch. "I am as surprised as anyone to find when I dug into this that Lisa Landau never lived in that house. She has already tried to flip that house twice. It is uninhabitable now."

According to Hirsch's complaint, court filings and other documents reviewed by the B.A.R., Landau changed her voter registration to 1771 Crestview Avenue on the day last August that was the deadline for candidates to file to run for office on the November ballot. Until then, Landau had declared her residency as being at 138 6th Street, a rental property in Seal Beach located in the City Council's District 1.

Filings in a court proceeding in which Landau is suing the owners of the 6th Street property show that in both late November last year and January of this year, Landau listed the rental home address as her primary residence, noted Hirsch in his complaint.

"Based on all the aforementioned documents, I believe there is sufficient evidence to show that Ms. Landau does not currently reside in District 3 and should be removed from the race expeditiously. At minimum, there appears to be issues of perjury and at worst — fraud," wrote Hirsch in his emailed complaint to elections officials. "The residents of District 3 deserve to have a representative that lives within their boundaries, so as to best represent the needs of their community."

Referring to the Crestview property in her campaign bio, Landau wrote, "My younger son and I were blessed to be able to purchase the McNerney home on the Hill last year. Pat McNerney was a beloved member of St. Annes Church and loved Seal Beach ... her paradise, like all of us do."

Hirsch told the B.A.R. he voted for Wade after meeting her at a candidate event and liking her platform's focus on environmental issues. He faults current city leadership for not doing enough to address the impacts Seal Beach faces from climate change, coastal erosion, and pollution from the San Gabriel River, which serves as a natural border between the town and Long Beach, which is in Los Angeles County.

"I tried for years to get the city council to address it and bring it to their attention," Hirsch said of the polluted river. "Everyone will not, or cannot, deal with it."

Environmental issues are a major concern for Wade, a longtime member and leader of the Surfrider Foundation who specifically moved to Seal Beach in order to live near the ocean. It is a major part of her campaign platform.

"I am a surfer. This is really where I wanted to live for years, but I worked for a congressman in northeast Orange County," said Wade, who had been employed by Congressmember Gil Cisneros (D-Anaheim) and moved to Seal Beach on September 15, 2021.

Originally from New York, where she first took up surfing, Wade served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a captain, infantry officer and a combat engineer corporal. She then taught social studies and physical education at a public school for 14 years and was its founding track head coach.

She initially moved to California with her former wife in 2013 to Culver City in Los Angeles County. The couple finalized their divorce in 2020, but the co-parents of a teenage daughter and adult son remain close friends.

Anti-trans attacks

Last year, with no one seemingly interested in seeking the council seat, Wade decided to mount her first bid for elected office and announced her campaign in May. During the general election Wade said she was misgendered by one male speaker at a candidate forum and faced what she described as "dog whistle" coded anti-LGBTQ language about "family values" from Landau and her supporters.

It wasn't until she came in first place in November, said Wade, when the blatant anti-trans attacks began against her.

"The transphobic attacks on social media started hot and heavy right away," said Wade. "Now Lisa Landau's supporters are canvassing door to door saying to people, 'You don't want this place to turn into West Hollywood, do you?'"

She refutes suggestions from her opponent and detractors that her ambition is to use being a councilmember to seek higher office.

"I did not move to the city with this in mind," Wade told the B.A.R. about being a council candidate.

Rather, she had become concerned about what plans the city had to address the frequent flooding it now faces, said Wade. The morning she spoke to the B.A.R. she was dealing with a flooded home and had turned off a dehumidifier in order to talk to a reporter.

"I live on the first floor of a building with a slab foundation on the river. The house is flooded as we speak," said Wade. "My district floods several times a year, and the city doesn't even manage that very well."

Having worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and spent years in federal and local government, Wade felt she had the skill set needed to be an effective city councilmember. Open about her gender identity, Wade said her becoming the first trans elected official in Orange County was never the motivation behind her candidacy.

"I saw a way of life here under threat. The government needs to protect us and our property and way of life," said Wade. "I can help with that."

UPDATED 1/26/2023 with a response from Seal Beach City Clerk Gloria Harper.

UPDATED 1/24/2023 to clarify it was the Orange County Register newspaper that had listed Lisa Landau's current job title as accounting manager based on a questionnaire it sent her.

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 the new Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club president.

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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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