Political Notebook: 2020 sees record number of out CA legislative candidates

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday December 30, 2019
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Joy Silver, left, and John Laird are running for state Senate seats representing parts of Riverside County and Santa Cruz County, respectively. Photos: Rick Gerharter (Silver), Laird for Senate campaign
Joy Silver, left, and John Laird are running for state Senate seats representing parts of Riverside County and Santa Cruz County, respectively. Photos: Rick Gerharter (Silver), Laird for Senate campaign

A record 20 LGBTQ community members, three of whom are Republicans, are known to be running for California legislative seats on the March 3 primary ballot. It is two more than the 18 candidates who ran in 2018, at the time the largest group of out legislative candidates in the state's history.

This year's list of out Statehouse candidates includes four incumbents seeking re-election. The rest are looking to bolster the ranks of the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, which will see two of its seven members depart come December, one due to term limits and the other opting to seek local office rather than run for re-election.

As of now, there is one known bisexual Assembly candidate and one transgender woman seeking a state Senate seat. But it is not Palm Springs City Councilwoman Lisa Middleton, who announced December 27 she would seek re-election in November to her local council rather than seek the open 28th Senate District seat.

Republican former state Senator Jeff Stone resigned in November to work for the Trump administration in the Department of Labor, leading to the special election to succeed him being scheduled to coincide with the primary election. If no candidate secures more than 50% of the vote then a runoff with the top two vote-getters will be held May 12.

Candidates have until January 9 to file for the race. As of now the only out contender for the seat is lesbian aging policy expert Joy Silver (D), who came close to ousting Stone in 2018.

Middleton was seen as having a strong chance to become the first transgender person elected to serve in the California Legislature. In contrast, Republican Erin Smith, a transgender woman, is seen as having little chance of winning her bid for the state's 11th Senate District seat covering San Francisco and parts of northern San Mateo County.

Smith is one of two out women trying to unseat gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco); the other being queer Democratic socialist Jackie Fielder. The duo of political newcomers faces an uphill battle in defeating Wiener, a formidable politician and fierce campaigner who is the chair of the LGBTQ affinity group for out legislators.

He will officially kickoff his re-election campaign at 10 a.m. Saturday, January 11, at the Flore cafe, a gay-owned eatery on the corner of Market and Noe streets not far from where he lives in the city's Castro neighborhood. It is expected he will face off against Fielder, an educator who is Native American and of Mexican heritage, on the November 3 general election ballot. Like with the special Senate seat election, the top two vote-getters regardless of party affiliation in all the legislative contests advance past the primary election to compete in the fall.

Neither of the two gay Republican men seeking Assembly seats in 2020 is expected to be declared the winner of their contests. Peace officer Chris Raahauge is the sole opponent trying to unseat lesbian Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes (D-Corona), who recently made history as the first out lawmaker to give birth while in office, from her 60th Assembly District seat.

Teacher Alex Walton, like Raahauge a member of the Log Cabin Republicans club for LGBT GOPers, is one of three Republicans and four Democrats seeking the open 33rd Assembly District seat in the state's High Desert region east of Los Angeles. State Assemblyman Jay Obernolte (R-Hesperia) opted to run for an open House seat rather than seek re-election.

Most LGBT candidates running in SoCal

The majority of the 2020 legislative races with out candidates are in Southern California, and their outcomes could produce historic wins for the LGBTQ community. Two gay men are seeking to be the first out legislators elected from Orange County.

Lawyer Bijan Mohseni is running for the Assembly District 72 seat against incumbent Assemblyman Tyler Diep (R-Westminster). If elected, the gay Los Alamitos native would be the first LGBT legislator of Iranian descent. But he is facing an uphill climb in a race that has also drawn a Democratic Garden Grove City Council member and a Republican former state senator.

In the adjacent 73rd Assembly District Mission Viejo businessman and grandparent Scott Rhinehart is running again after losing in 2018 to the incumbent, Assemblyman William Brough (R-Dana Point). Brough has since been accused of inappropriate behavior by four women and is facing two Republican opponents and another Democrat in addition to Rhinehart for his seat.

Abigail Medina, who identifies as both queer and lesbian, is aiming to become the first out state legislator from San Bernardino County. A member of the San Bernardino City Unified School District board, Medina is one of two Democrats and three Republicans running for the 23rd Senate District seat. The incumbent, Mike Morrell (R-Rancho Cucamonga), is termed out of office in 2020.

In Los Angeles, gay Koreatown resident Godfrey Santos Plata, an educator who emigrated as a child from the Philippines, is running to unseat incumbent Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles). Should he win the 53rd Assembly District seat, Plata would be the first out immigrant elected to the Legislature.

In San Diego, lesbian Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) is assured of being re-elected to her 39th Senate District seat, as no other candidate will appear on the ballot.

Gay San Diego City Councilman Chris Ward is the heavy favorite to succeed gay Assemblyman Todd Gloria (D-San Diego) in the 78th Assembly District, while Gloria is considered the frontrunner in the San Diego mayoral race. Also seeking Gloria's Assembly seat are two other Democrats, queer single mom and midwife Sarah Davis and nonprofit technology consultant Micah Perlin.

Northern California races

In addition to the race for Wiener's Senate seat, there are five other legislative contests with out candidates in Northern California this election cycle. Gay Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell) has drawn two opponents, Republican real estate adviser Carlos Rafael Cruz and student Sam Ross, who is an independent.

Legislative policy adviser Alex Lee, 24, who worked for Low as a field representative, is one of eight Democrats along with one Republican running for the open Assembly District 25 seat that includes parts of Alameda and Santa Clara counties, as Assemblyman Kansen Chu (D-San Jose) is running for a Santa Clara County supervisor seat. Should Lee be elected, he would be the first out bisexual to serve in the state Legislature and one of the youngest legislators.

Gay former Assemblyman John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) has broad Democratic support in his bid to succeed state Senator Bill Monning (D-Carmel), who is termed out of his 17th Senate District seat along the Central Coast and is supporting Laird in the race. Laird is fending off fellow Democrats Maria Cadenas, a lesbian single mother and executive director of the nonprofit Santa Cruz Community Ventures, and rancher John M. Nevill, as well as Republican businesswoman Vicki Nohrden.

While Laird is considered the frontrunner in the race, Cadenas received a boost in December when both EMILY's List and the California Women's List endorsed her campaign. In a statement, EMILY's List vice president of state and local campaigns, Geri Prado, noted that Cadenas "is a strong leader who deeply cares about her community" and that "EMILY's List is confident she is the best person to represent the people of Senate District 17."

Lesbian Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton) is a leading candidate to succeed lesbian state Senator Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton), who will be termed out of her 5th Senate District seat in December. Eggman is competing against fellow Democrat Mani Grewal, a member of the Modesto City Council, and three Republicans for the Central Valley seat.

In the suburbs northeast of Sacramento, lesbian businesswoman and senior advocate Jackie Smith, who used to live in San Jose, is mounting her second bid to unseat Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Granite Bay) from his 6th Assembly District seat. She lost to Kiley in 2018.

Political Notes, the notebook's online companion, will return Monday, January 13.

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Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail m.bajko@ebar.com

UPDATED 12/31/2019 to add bisexual Assembly candidate Alex Lee to the list of known out legislative candidates.