CA LGBTQ legislative caucus set to increase

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday March 20, 2024
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State Senate candidates Jovanka Beckles, left, and Sasha Renée Pérez are headed to the general election. Photo: Courtesy the candidates
State Senate candidates Jovanka Beckles, left, and Sasha Renée Pérez are headed to the general election. Photo: Courtesy the candidates

Of the historic 30 LGBTQ California legislative candidates who ran in the March 5 primary, more than half are moving on to the fall ballot. Based on the still unofficial primary returns in the various races, the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus is practically assured of seeing its current 12-person membership increase when the winners of the fall races are sworn into office in early December.

The seven current members standing for election this year are all likely to win their races. Five of the newcomers appear poised to easily win their races, with another three seen as having strong chances of coming out on top in November. Four others are facing tough general election campaigns.

Three of the current caucus members will be departing this year. Lesbian Senators Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton) and Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) are termed out, and gay Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Cupertino) opted to seek an open U.S. House seat rather than another term. (Low was in second place by two votes as of the Bay Area Reporter's print deadline Wednesday. See related story.)

Thus, 11 of the 19 out candidates need to win in order to bring the number of out legislators in the statehouse to a historic 13. They would join gay Senator Steve Padilla (D-Chula Vista) and lesbian Senator Caroline Menjivar (D-San Fernando Valley), as the pair was not up for reelection this year.

Gay Assemblymember Chris Ward (D-San Diego) told the B.A.R. Tuesday that he expects to see the affinity group for out legislators mark another milestone in its membership come November. As vice chair of the LGBTQ caucus, Ward is in line to succeed Eggman as its chair.

"While we're awaiting the final results of the primary, I am happy that we will add strong voices to our caucus and grow in numbers," stated Ward, who is unopposed this year for his District 78 seat. "We have a few races that are clear, some that are too close to call, and importantly our potential first transgender candidate proved she can win her race in the general election. All this says, we should be proud of how strong LGBTQ candidates are running in districts across the state."

Due to term limits, as state legislators are only allowed to serve 12 years in the Statehouse, it is critical that new caucus members be elected each election cycle to ensure its ranks remain robust, noted Ward.

"We must also continue to build our diverse bench for future elections, as we will be losing two powerful lesbian leaders in our chair, Senator Susan Eggman, and Pro Tem Emeritus and my senator, Toni Atkins, as well as a powerful AAPI leader and former Caucus Chair, Assemblymember Evan Low," stated Ward.

The 10 out male contenders who survived their primaries, where only the top two finishers advanced, appear to have easy roads to victory come November 5. A majority of the nine out women, however, faces tougher campaigns.

Among them is transgender Palm Springs City Councilmember Lisa Middleton. She is among several out candidates from the LGBTQ resort and retirement town hoping more Democrats and independents will show up at the polls in November to help them come out on top in their contests.

Middleton has always faced a tough race for the 19th Senate District spanning Riverside and San Bernardino counties. She is running against Senator Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh (R-Yucaipa), who came out first in their primary matchup with 53.7% based on the unofficial returns.

In a March 16 statement Middleton noted that "the real fight to flip Senate District 19 this November" had begun.

"As we celebrate the (primary) results, we must acknowledge the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead," stated Middleton. "In the coming months, we will work tirelessly to achieve a historic victory this November and bring bold, pragmatic leadership to Riverside and San Bernardino counties."

Palm Springs City Councilmember Christy Holstege faces slightly more favorable odds in her bid to become one of the first bisexual women in the Legislature. Two years ago, she narrowly lost to Assemblymember Greg Wallis (R-Bermuda Dunes).

She is running again this year to oust him from the Assembly District 47 seat. While Wallis came in first in the primary with 48.5% of the vote, Holstege drew 46.5% and another Democratic candidate received 5.1%. If Holstege is able to consolidate support from the two Democrats' voters in the fall, she could have a winning margin to defeat Wallis.

Likely to become the first bisexual person in the state Senate is Sasha Renée Pérez, who took second place in the primary for the open 25th Senate District spanning Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. While Republican Elizabeth Wong Ahlers came in first with 35.7%, the four Democrats in the race took a combined 64.3% of the vote, setting up Pérez as the expected winner of the seat in November.

In the East Bay, out Senate candidates Jovanka Beckles and Marisol Rubio are headed into the general election viewed as underdogs in their races. Either would be the first LGBTQ legislator from Contra Costa County if elected.

Beckles, a former Richmond City Council member who identifies as queer and lesbian, came in second place with 17.3% in the primary contest for the open Senate District 7 seat that spans Alameda and Contra Costa counties. The AC Transit board member is facing a tough general election campaign against Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, who came in first place with 32.5% of the vote.

Beckles declared victory Tuesday in the primary race via a post on her Instagram account.

"Despite being vastly unfundraised, we have emerged victorious in the State Senate primary!" she wrote. "This victory is not just about me. It's a victory for our working class, our poor, our disenfranchised black and brown communities, our Palestinian siblings fighting for liberation."

Moving into the general election she told the B.A.R. voters will now have a choice between her opponent, who is backed by various corporate interests, and herself who has refused to take corporate money. Shocked to see such outside groups send out mailers aimed at helping her survive the primary, Beckles said they may rue their strategy come November.

"What I am asking us as a community is if we intend to maintain our democracy, we have to line up behind my candidacy, behind my corporate-free campaign," said Beckles.

Since Rubio, a San Ramon city councilmember, is one of only two people running to succeed termed-out Senator Steve Glazer (D-Orinda), the primary for his District 9 seat that covers much of Contra Costa County and a portion of southern Alameda County was a formality. Nonetheless, it was considered a barometer of how Rubio might face in the fall against Assemblymember Tim Grayson (D-Concord).

Grayson took first with 60%, thus Rubio heads to the November ballot with ground to make up. Should she pull off a victory, she would be the first legislator in Sacramento who identifies as gender-nonconforming, demisexual, and biromantic.

In Los Angeles County, Sade Elhawary will face fellow Democrat Efren Martinez in November for the open Assembly District 57 seat in Los Angeles County. Elhawary, who prefers the term fluid over bisexual when it comes to her sexual orientation, came in second in the primary with 31.1% just behind Martinez, who received 32.7% of the vote.

Elhawary and Beckles would be the first Black Latinas in the LGBTQ caucus if elected come November.

Lesbian Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes (D-Corona), a married mom, is now favored to win the open Senate District 31 seat in the fall, despite placing second in the primary with 39.4%. Although Republican Cynthia Navarro took first with 45.8% of the vote, the two Democrats who ran accounted for 54.2% of the vote, thus Cervantes is seen as having a leg up in November.

As for the race to succeed her in the 58th Assembly District, it is one of the close contests Ward referenced. Cervantes' younger sister Clarissa, who is queer and bisexual, has squeaked into second place with 25.8% over fellow Democrat Ronaldo Fierro, who took 25.6% of the vote and trails in third by 133 votes.

Should her lead hold, then Clarissa Cervantes will be facing a rough race in the fall against Republican Leticia Castillo, who placed first in the primary with 48.5%. While the Democrats' total share of the primary vote came to 51.4%, giving Cervantes an edge in the fall, she is likely to be attacked by Castillo and Republicans over her arrest last year for drunk driving weeks after a judge had dismissed her DUI conviction from 2015. Thus, their race will be one of the most closely watched legislative contests on the November ballot.

Facing the longest odds of any of the out candidates is former "Amazing Race" TV show contestant Dom Jones, a Black queer Orange County resident. She was the lone person to enter the primary against Assemblymember Diane Dixon (R-Newport Beach) in her 72nd District seat. With Dixon capturing 61% of the primary vote, she is seen as easily winning reelection come the fall.

Ahead of the primary Elhawary, Holstege, Middleton, Rubio, Pérez, and the Cervantes sisters all received the endorsement of LPAC, the political action committee that works to elect out women and nonbinary candidates to public office across the U.S. It will be working over the coming months to see that they come out on top in November.

LPAC Executive Director Janelle Perez told the B.A.R. the candidates are "trailblazers" and part of "a seismic shift towards a more inclusive and equitable political landscape. Their victories are a testament to the fact that when we elevate LGBTQ+ voices and give them a platform, they succeed and make history."

Male candidates expected to win

Of the dectet of out male candidates, the six incumbents are all expected to easily win reelection. Along with Ward, they are gay Assemblymembers Corey A. Jackson, Ph.D., (D-Perris) and Rick Chavez Zbur (D-Santa Monica/West Hollywood); bisexual Assemblymember Alex Lee; and gay Senators Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and John Laird (D-Santa Cruz).

State Senate candidate Christopher Cabaldon. Photo: Courtesy the candidate  

Gay former West Sacramento mayor Christopher Cabaldon is headed to becoming the first Filipino American in the state Senate and the first out person to represent the Bay Area's more northern counties. He is running to succeed termed-out Senator Bill Dodd (D-Napa) in the sprawling Senate District 3 that includes portions of Contra Costa, Solano, Sonoma and Napa counties as well as Yolo and Sacramento counties.

Although Cabaldon came in second place with 26.6% of the primary vote, he is expected to win the heavily Democratic district in November running against Dixon City Councilmember Thom Bogue. A Republican who survived the Jonestown massacre when he was a teenager, Bogue landed in first place with 27.8% of the primary vote, but 65.5% of ballots went to the three Democrats who ran.

And Cabaldon is already hitting Bogue over his GOP affiliation and conservative policy stances.

"Now we move forward to the November general election, facing a pro-Trump Republican who is out of step with our district's values and made clear during the primary that he will stand in the way of bold climate action, civil and reproductive rights, housing affordability, and getting results to reduce homelessness. With your help, we will stand united and prevail in November," stated Cabaldon.

Assembly candidate José Luis Solache. Photo: Courtesy the candidate  

Two gay men in heavily Democratic Assembly districts in Los Angeles County are also expected to win come November. Lynwood City Councilman José Luis Solache is expected to easily defeat his GOP opponent in their District 62 race.

In the Assembly District 54 race, Los Angeles County Democratic Party Chair Mark Gonzalez is favored to win. He took first place in the primary with 45.2% and will face in November fellow Democrat John K. Yi, who came in second with 34.5%.

Meanwhile, gay former San Diego city councilmember Carl DeMaio could become the first out Republican elected to the California Legislature. He took a commanding first place in the primary for the open Assembly District 75 seat with 43% of the vote.

DeMaio appears headed to a fall matchup against fellow GOPer Andrew Hayes, who secured endorsements from the California Republican Party and local GOP groups in the race. Based on the latest vote count, Hayes edged out Democrat Kevin Juza to make it to the November ballot with 18.6% of the vote.

It is sure to be one of the most fascinating races on the fall ballot, as Democratic voters will help determine the winner. DeMaio is a firebrand conservative who led the successful 2018 recall of Democratic state Senator Josh Newman (D-Fullerton). (He won his seat back in 2020 and is sailing to reelection this fall.)

It is hard to see Democrats, who accounted for 35.6% of primary voters, throwing their support to DeMaio in November. If they decide to vote for Hayes, rather than leaving the contest blank on their ballots, they could provide him the winning margin he needs to defeat DeMaio.

Were DeMaio to pull off a victory, it remains to be seen if he would want to join the LGBTQ caucus or, if he did, would be allowed in it having attacked some of its recent legislative priorities. As the B.A.R.'s Political Notebook column first reported in January, the issue of allowing DeMaio membership could come up for a vote among the caucus members.

UPDATED 3/26/2024 to correct the timeline of Clarissa Cervantes' two DUI incidents.

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