Political Notebook: CA Senate candidate Middleton undeterred by anti-trans attacks

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday May 10, 2023
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Palm Springs City Councilmember Lisa Middleton is running for state Senate in 2024. Photo: Courtesy the campaign
Palm Springs City Councilmember Lisa Middleton is running for state Senate in 2024. Photo: Courtesy the campaign

Across the country conservative lawmakers are trying to legislate transgender people out of public existence, from banning their access to gender-affirming care and ability to use the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity to censoring mention of them in school classrooms and on public library shelves. In Montana, a transgender state legislator was barred last month from the chamber floor for the remaining days of the legislative session.

The national discourse around trans issues, rather than deter Palm Springs City Councilmember Lisa Middleton from seeking higher office and the spotlight it will shine on her and her family, is increasing her drive to be elected in 2024 as the first transgender member of the California Legislature.

"I have an absolutely firm resolve to stand up for my community and the larger LGBT community," said Middleton, 70, who was first elected to a citywide council seat in 2017. (The city later switched to districts and Middleton currently represents District 5.)

She was the first transgender person in California elected to a non-judicial position. Middleton is now seeking the 19th Senate District seat that includes the LGBTQ tourist and retirement mecca of the Coachella Valley.

It will be vacated in late 2024 by termed out state Senator Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore). Middleton had initially launched her campaign for the legislative seat in October 2021. But she suspended her bid later that year after the seat was given an odd number due to the 2020 redistricting process, landing it on the 2024 ballot instead of last year's.

The respite from the campaign trail afforded Middleton more time to focus on serving as her city's ceremonial mayor in 2022 after being elected to it by her council colleagues in late 2021. It marked the first time a transgender mayor had led a California city.

"We did have to put it on ice when the map got totally redrawn. It did give me an opportunity to totally concentrate on all of my other jobs," said Middleton about hitting pause on her state Senate candidacy.

But it corresponded with Republicans ramping up their culture war attacks against the transgender community. Even in the Bay Area, transphobia and homophobia marred a number of local races on the 2022 ballot.

"It has exploded in the last two years. It has convinced me, even more, that we need to see committed, strong, capable candidates are in these races," said Middleton of the current political landscape. "Those folks who are passing this legislation today, most of them will live to regret what they have done."

Middleton spoke to the Bay Area Reporter in late April while in San Francisco to fundraise for her campaign and attend the local award dinner held by statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality California. She serves on the board of its educational arm, the Equality California Institute.

Over coffee at a coffeehouse in the city's LGBTQ Castro district, Middleton said she has received a few death threats in the last year. Only one that was unrelated to her being transgender, and had more to do with her being a civic leader, required follow-up by authorities, she said, but didn't result in any legal action.

She does limit her exposure to social media, saying she is not personally active "at all" on such platforms. Her campaign does maintain a social media presence that is overseen by staff, explained Middleton.

"I take my family and personal security very seriously," said Middleton, who married her wife, Cheryl O'Callaghan, in 2013 two years after the now-grandmothers had moved to the Coachella Valley. "We will make sure we keep ourselves safe as we move forward in the campaign."

A native Californian, having grown up in East Los Angeles, Middleton graduated from UCLA and received a master's in public administration from the University of Southern California.

She moved to San Francisco in 1994 when she was working for California's State Compensation Insurance Fund. It was at that time that she came out as transgender.

"It is a place for hundreds of thousands of us to come to to finally step up and step out for who we truly are. The support I have received here is something I will never forget," said Middleton.

Her potential to break through another political glass ceiling by being elected to the Legislature means her race is sure to attract intense attention, both from the public and the press. While understanding of the outsize interest in her candidacy, Middleton said her focus is fighting for the needs of the people she hopes to represent.

"I will never apologize for who I am," she said, "but I am running to respond to the issues of the 950,000 people who live in the 19th District and address the concerns of the nearly 40 million people who live in California."

Top concerns include the "significant" transportation and infrastructure needs throughout the Inland Empire region, said Middleton, where many residents have long commutes to Los Angeles or Orange counties. She is a champion of the Coachella Valley-San Gorgonio Pass Rail Corridor Service Program, projected to cost $1 billion and would provide twice-daily train service between Palm Springs and Los Angeles.

"I am running on issues critical to the Inland Empire as a growing region," said Middleton, who serves on the Riverside County Transportation Commission that is working with Amtrak on the rail project.

Aging issues

Middleton told the B.A.R. she would also want to take a lead role on aging issues in Sacramento.

"For the LGBT community gay men and trans women disproportionately enter their senior years without a life partner. We are still seeing seniors have a strained to poor to nonexistent relationship with their biological family," noted Middleton. "A partner or bio family, for most of us, is our primary source of support, even for something as simple as a trip to the doctor's office."

In particular, she noted there is a growing need for affordable senior housing not only in her region of the state but throughout California, especially projects that are affirming of, and welcoming to, LGBTQ seniors. Palm Springs currently has a small assisted living facility focused on LGBTQ people, called Stonewall Gardens, and a market-rate development of apartments called Living Out Palm Springs under construction. While that facility will be "fabulous," said Middleton, more affordable housing is needed.

Her mantra for addressing the state's expensive cost of living is "more housing, more housing, more housing," said Middleton. The state's housing stock is not meeting the needs of the LGBT community, she said, let alone the graying population of California.

"We have got to build," said Middleton, noting that, "Despite the cost of living, California is still the state of choice for so many people."

One repercussion of the anti-trans laws being adopted in other states is more trans people and families with trans children looking to move to the Golden State, noted Middleton.

"The states that double down on hateful legislation, they are pushing more and more of their families and youth to move to places like California," she said.

As for lesbian state Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) moving to end California's ban on using taxpayer money to cover travel to states that have rolled back LGBTQ rights since 2015, Middleton said she agrees it is time to sunset the policy, similar to San Francisco supervisors voting in recent weeks to repeal the city's similar travel ban ordinance.

"I think Senator Atkins is correct. It has not achieved what we hoped they would achieve and have been more symbolic than effectual," Middleton said of the travel bans. "One of the things folks like about me, or won't like, is I care about policies that will have an impact. Doing something for symbolic sake, sometimes we have to do that, but I want to do practical things that help people live their life day to day."

For example, she defended the actions Palm Springs leaders took to address the COVID pandemic, such as having the city be one of the first to enact strict masking requirements. Doing so not only protected residents' health but also benefited the city's tourist sector, which is an important driver for the local economy, argued Middleton.

"I am proud of the things we did to fight COVID," she said, especially for the city's seniors and older gay men living with HIV. "They took this health crisis with urgency, and we wanted to respond to their needs."

Not everyone agreed, and made their feelings known to Middleton during her mayoralty.

"I got a lot of angry emails saying, 'I am never coming back because you made me wear a mask.' At the same time our hotels, restaurants were full," she said. "During COVID people were reluctant to fly, so what we call the 'drive market communities' in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego flocked to the desert."

It is another example of how residents of the Senate district have seen her address various issues over the last decade, from serving on the City Council and prior to that the Palm Springs Planning Commission, noted Middleton. It is why she doubts her being transgender will be much of a factor in her race.

"There will always be questions that come up about identity. Anytime someone is a 'first' there will be extra questions about that," she acknowledged. "This campaign will be won or lost on if people believe I am the best person to represent them on the issues that are of concern to them. I was elected overwhelmingly in Palm Springs and ran unopposed in my district because people believe in the work I do for them."

Another advantage to having the election be delayed is it is now coinciding with a presidential election year, likely to draw more progressive and younger voters to the polls. They could give Middleton an advantage over her GOP opponent, state Senator Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh (R-Yucaipa).

"Frankly, with this district the way it was actually drawn, it is better to be running in an election year," said Middleton.

Last year, two out candidates seeking seats that overlap with the Senate seat fell short. In the case of bisexual Palm Springs City Councilmember Christy Holstege, she lost her bid for an Assembly seat by 85 votes and will again be running against Assemblymember Greg Wallis (R-Palm Springs) in 2024.

Gay U.S. House candidate Will Rollins lost to conservative Congressmember Ken Calvert (R-Corona) by 11,100 votes in the 41st District that includes a large part of Palm Springs. The former federal prosecutor is expected to announce this month if he will run again in 2024.

Banner year for out candidates

Having all three on the same ballot could boost their chances, bringing even more attention to their respective races in the Coachella Valley. Next year is shaping up to be a banner year for out federal and statehouse candidates throughout Riverside County, with five already seeking legislative seats and gay Congressman Mark Takano (D-Riverside) set to run for reelection.

"I think we will have some really strong enthusiasm in our community," said Middleton.

Adding to the electoral interest from LGBTQ voters will be the expected repeal on the November 2024 ballot of Proposition 8, the constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2008 that defined marriage in California as between a man and a woman. Although later ruled unconstitutional by a federal court, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, LGBTQ advocates want to strike Prop 8's language from the state's constitution should a federal right to same-sex marriage be overturned.

"We will not lose that race," predicted Middleton of the Prop 8 repeal campaign.

While the 19th Senate District sprawls from the I-10 corridor to the Nevada border — "There is a whole lot of desert there," noted Middleton — 75% of the population lives along the freeway. The voter makeup is 37% Democrats, 35% Republicans, and 28% decline to state, she said, though former President Donald Trump would have won the new district by a few thousand votes in 2020, according to an analysis Middleton's campaign did.

"I expect this race in 2024 to be extremely close," predicted Middleton. "I would be very surprised if this race gets called on election night."

Beckles kicks off East Bay Senate bid

Lesbian AC Transit board member Jovanka Beckles, a former Richmond city councilmember, will officially launch her campaign for the East Bay's open 7th District Senate seat this weekend. She is vying to become the first out Black woman to serve in the Legislature.

Renumbered during the 2020 redistricting process, the district spans western Contra Costa and Alameda counties from Rodeo south to the San Leandro border. It largely mirrors the one now held by Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), who will be termed out of her 9th Senate District seat next year.

Also seeking the seat is queer union leader Kathryn Lybarger. Either of the women would be the first LGBTQ state legislator from the East Bay should they be elected.

Other Democrats in the race are Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin, Oakland City Councilmember Dan Kalb, and former Assemblymember Sandré Swanson. The top two vote-getters in next March's primary race will face off on the November 2024 ballot for the legislative seat.

Among those joining Beckles to kickoff her bid Saturday, May 13, are gay Pinole Mayor Devin Murphy, Richmond Mayor Eduardo Martinez, and Alfred Twu, a nonbinary queer Democratic Party leader who backed Beckles when she ran for an Assembly seat in 2018.

The event will begin at 11 a.m. in Richmond's John F. Kennedy Park near the intersection of Cutting Boulevard and South 39th Street. RSVPs are being accepted here.

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 latest efforts to launch a teacher LGBTQ training course in California.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @ http://twitter.com/politicalnotes

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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