Political Notebook: West Hollywood mayor Shyne eyes halls of Congress

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday July 26, 2023
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West Hollywood Mayor Sepi Shyne is seeking a Southern California House seat. Photo: Courtesy the campaign
West Hollywood Mayor Sepi Shyne is seeking a Southern California House seat. Photo: Courtesy the campaign

Lesbian West Hollywood Mayor Sepi Shyne's political career has been one of firsts. Her election in November 2020 marked the first time a woman of color had won a seat on the West Hollywood City Council and resulted in the five-member governing body having its first female-majority.

Shyne's taking over her city's ceremonial mayoral role in January marked the first time a California municipality had an Iranian female mayor. She also is the first out LGBTQ Iranian mayor in the world, having already become the first known queer Iranian to be elected to public office.

Now Shyne, 46, is aiming to become the first out Iranian elected to the U.S. Congress and the first out woman of color to win a House seat in California, as well as the West Coast. She is running in the crowded 2024 field for the open 30th Congressional District seat being vacated by Congressmember Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who is running next year to succeed retiring U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California).

It is time for the district to have LGBTQ representation, said Shyne.

"This is the largest LGBTQ congressional district," noted Shyne, adding that, "allies don't have the experience needed to create policies truly reflective of what the people need." With just 11 current LGBTQ members in the House, Shyne argued, "We need so much more representation."

Nearly 20 people have pulled papers to seek the seat, including gay Armenian Americans Jirair Ratevosian, Ph.D., and Dr. Alex Balekian, an ICU physician. Ratevosian is a Democrat and former legislative director for Congressmember Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), who is also running for Feinstein's seat. Balekian had filed as no-party preference but recently switched to run as a Republican.

He also has come under fire from another candidate, Maebe A Girl, for misgendering her and using her deadname. (Due to federal election rules, she must use G. Pudlo in addition to her preferred name for her ballot designation.) A nonbinary drag queen elected in 2019 as the at-large representative for the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council in Los Angeles, she is running a third time for Schiff's congressional seat.

She didn't advance out of the 2020 primary but did in 2022, losing to Schiff last November. Now she is counting on her voters from those prior races to help propel her out of the primary where only the top two vote-getters regardless of party affiliation will advance.

Also running and the focus of much media coverage in the race are Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D-Burbank) and Democratic former state legislators Anthony Portantino, who served in the Senate, and Mike Feuer, who served in the Assembly and later on the Los Angeles City Council. Portantino ran unsuccessfully last year for a county supervisor seat, while his gay son lost his bid to succeed his father in the Legislature.

In early July the Iranian American Political Action Committee endorsed Shyne. Most LGBTQ groups have yet to endorse in the House race, though Shyne does have the support of LPAC, which works to elect lesbians, queer women, and nonbinary people to office.

The Bay Area Reporter met up with Shyne and her nearly 9-year-old mixed-breed dog Chloe, sworn in as the city's first pet mayor on April 1, for an interview at Miss Melbourne Coffee not far from City Hall.

"She loves it, though we thought there would be a lot more for her to do," said Shyne, explaining her dog's only official event to date was a tree planting on Arbor Day. "She pooped on the dirt, so she helped to fertilize the soil."

Coming out of the stress of COVID, Shyne wanted to add some levity to her mayoral term by creating the canine leadership post. Plus, West Hollywood is a very pet-friendly city, she noted.

"We went through so much in the pandemic. I wanted to do something fun and lighthearted," said Shyne.

On a more serious note, among Shyne's achievements on the council include setting the highest minimum wage of a U.S. city (it's now $19.08 an hour) and banning single-use plastics at city businesses. She advocated for the creation of a social justice task force that is now an official advisory board for the City Council and is working to launch a crisis response team this winter to handle mental health calls instead of the police.

A gender-neutral bathroom policy she helped pass led to changes in state plumbing requirements, and Santa Monica this spring passed a similar requirement after leaders in both cities backed a state law to make such policies easier to implement.

"It didn't become a culture war on bathrooms because we focused on how it would help all people," said Shyne, referring to Republican-led statehouses passing laws restricting what bathrooms transgender people can use.

Shyne has raised more than $315,000 for her campaign and aims to net $1 million by the primary in order to get her message out to voters. Key to that will be her get-out-the-vote efforts she plans to ramp up after the holidays in early January.

"I feel confident. My intuition is people feel it is time for change," said Shyne, stressing that what will be key "is reaching voters. Once I am able to share my story, a majority of voters will vote for me. People don't vote for policy; people vote for who they can relate to."

Bay Area ties

Shyne has deep ties to the Bay Area, settling in Cupertino in the South Bay in 1982 after she and her family fled the Iranian revolution. She graduated from San Jose State University then the Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco.

It was being harassed at a San Jose coffeehouse by a police officer during her second year of college in 1997 while holding hands with her girlfriend at the time that led Shyne into the legal field. The manager had called the cops on the women, who were told they had to leave.

"He blew me a kiss and winked at me," recalled Shyne of the police officer. "We knew it was wrong but didn't know it was illegal."

She had been talking about her future plans with her girlfriend and that day decided they both needed to go into law.

"The purpose was to become empowered to help," explained Shyne, who served on the board of BALIF, the Bay Area's LGBTQ bar association, and in 2008 co-led the LGBTQ legal group in Los Angeles.

She had relocated in 2006 and first lived with her sister in Beverly Hills. Shyne then moved to Long Beach and to West Hollywood in 2009 to be closer to a former girlfriend who had tipped her off about the apartment she continues to rent.

"I love West Hollywood," said Shyne.

She now owns her own law firm, focusing on business law and trademark issues, and is also a Reiki master energy healer. Shyne formerly served on the board of governors for national LGBTQ advocacy organization the Human Rights Campaign and worked on the No on Proposition 8 campaign in 2008, which saw voters narrowly ban marriage equality in California.

(Should she survive the March primary, Shyne will find herself on the fall ballot next year along with a measure to repeal Prop 8's language from the state constitution.)

After Prop 8 was found unconstitutional in 2013 and the Supreme Court expanded marriage equality to all 50 states in 2015, Shyne decided to focus more of her attention on growing her law firm. Then Donald Trump won election as president, and the misogyny and rollback of LGBTQ rights his presidency wrought thrust her back into politics.

She got back involved with HRC and helped to elect Katie Hill, who is bisexual, in November 2018 as California's first out female member of the U.S. House. (Hill would resign a year later after nude photos of her were leaked.)

"She was a dynamite," Shyne said of Hill.

Still, Shyne hadn't thought about seeking office herself.

"In politics there was no one like me with all my intersectional identities," said Shyne, who came out in high school and obtained her U.S. citizenship in her 20s. "I didn't feel there was a space for me."

That changed when a friend of hers who had served on West Hollywood's former LGBTQ advisory panel — it is now a city commission — resigned and suggested the mayor at the time name Shyne to her seat. It was Shyne's first foray into city politics and led to her decision to seek a council seat.

"There were a lot of things as a resident I wanted to change," said Shyne, noting one of her goals was to see women, trans and bi individuals, and people of color feel more welcome in West Hollywood.

After falling short by a small margin in the March 2019 election, Shyne ran again the following November and won.

"It felt incredible," recalled Shyne of breaking through the pink political glass ceiling.

As she has gained more attention since then as a queer Iranian elected official, even receiving news coverage as such in Iran, Shyne has fielded requests from other Iranians, either LGBTQ themselves or friends of those who are, seeking assistance in helping them to immigrate to the U.S. and has connected them with agencies that do such work.

"Fuck the Iranian regime and their anti-LGBT policies," said Shyne, who took part in local protests last fall after Mahsa Amini died while in the custody of Iran's notorious "morality police" after being apprehended for not wearing her headscarf properly.

While Shyne's sister still lives in Southern California, her mom lives in Los Gatos and her three brothers continue to call the Bay Area home. Shyne is planning to come up to San Francisco for an LGBTQ-focused fundraiser sometime in August or early September.

"I am very grateful I am able to serve as mayor in the city of West Hollywood and I am grateful I am able to run for this seat and bring representation to all, not just some," said Shyne.

To learn more about her candidacy, visit her campaign website.

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of profiles of out 2024 congressional candidates in California.

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 race for a Palm Springs U.S. House seat heating up.

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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