Out candidates seek Silicon Valley council seats

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday August 31, 2022
Share this Post:
San Jose City Council candidate Omar Torres. Photo: Courtesy Omar Torres
San Jose City Council candidate Omar Torres. Photo: Courtesy Omar Torres

Three gay and two bisexual candidates are seeking council seats throughout Silicon Valley this November. The outcomes of the various races could see the first out person elected to San Jose's city council in decades and double the number of LGBTQ council members on the Peninsula and in the South Bay.

All have built up strong political and community ties within their cities over the years and are attracting support from local Democratic and LGBTQ leaders. In San Jose, gay District 3 city council candidate Omar Torres was made this month a "spotlight candidate" by the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which works to elect out candidates for public office across the country.

As the Bay Area Reporter noted in June when Torres took first place in his primary race, he would be the first out person of color on his city's council and the first LGBTQ person to serve on it in 16 years if he wins. Also supporting him in the race are the statewide LGBTQ advocacy group Equality California, the LGBTQ Latino focused political action committee Honor PAC, and BAYMEC, the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee that works to elect LGBTQ candidates and straight allies throughout Silicon Valley and the Central Coast.

"As our rights are under attack, it is important now — more than ever — to have LGBTQ+ representation in all levels of our government," noted Torres, 40, an elected community college board member, in a recent email to supporters noting his broad support from LGBTQ groups and leaders.

Also running this fall is gay Redwood City planning commissioner Chris Sturken, who is mounting his first bid for a council seat, and J.R. Fruen, a gay man mounting his second council bid in Cupertino, having lost his race two years ago. First time council candidates Sarah Fields, running in San Mateo, and Richard Mehlinger, seeking election in Sunnyvale, both identify as queer and bisexual.

"One of the things I really want to do is raise the visibility of the queer community in the South Bay and on the Peninsula," Mehlinger told the B.A.R. during a recent phone interview about his decision to seek elected office.

Two years ago saw the elections of Michael Smith, a gay Black business entrepreneur, and Lissette Espinoza-Garnica, who is a queer, nonbinary Chicanx, to council seats in Redwood City. Alysa Cisneros, who is queer, won election to the Sunnyvale City Council that year, as did James Coleman, who is bisexual, to the South San Francisco City Council.

Anthony Becker, who is gay, was elected to the Santa Clara City Council, while gay Morgan Hill City Councilmember Rene Spring secured reelection. Becker is now running to be his city's mayor this November, while lesbian San Carlos City Councilmember Laura Parmer-Lohan is vying for a San Mateo County supervisor seat.

Peninsula candidates

The growing contingent of out elected leaders on the Peninsula comes as its LGBTQ community has worked to become more visible throughout the region and more organized in seeking support at both the local and county level. Playing a large role in that work has been the San Mateo County LGBTQ Commission, which Sturken currently co-chairs.

In a recent interview with the B.A.R., Sturken noted that he is the first person to run for elected office while serving on the LGBTQ advisory body. (His former boyfriend, Jason Galisatus, had left the commission by the time he unsuccessfully ran in 2018 for a Redwood City council seat.)

Redwood City council candidate Chris Sturken. Photo: Christina Sturgeon  

Sturken, 28, would be the youngest man on his city council in recent memory. He is one of three candidates seeking the council's District 1 seat, which includes the downtown area. A renter, Sturken has served on his city's transportation advisory committee since last year and was appointed to his city's planning body in July.

"I have the experience and the deep connection to the community," said Sturken, who grew up in nearby Belmont, as for why he feels qualified to be a councilmember.

A co-founder of LGBTQ political club the San Mateo County Stonewall Democrats in 2020, he has attracted significant support for his council candidacy. Assemblymembers Kevin Mullin (D-South San Francisco) and Marc Berman (D-Palo Alto) and San Mateo Supervisors Don Horsley and Warren Slocum have endorsed him, as has departing Redwood City councilmember Giselle Hale, currently serving as mayor.

"Redwood City's downtown is the pride of the Peninsula. I trust no one more to keep it a safe and vibrant place than Chris," stated Hale, who recently ended her bid for state Assembly and announced she wouldn't seek reelection to the council due to the personal attacks and harassment she had received this year as a legislative candidate. "He will listen to our neighbors to ensure that Redwood City small businesses and residents thrive."

Mullin and Berman have also endorsed Fields' candidacy for the District 3 seat on her city council, as has departing councilmember Joe Goethals. Running against two male opponents, Fields would be the first out LGBTQ councilmember in San Mateo if she wins the race.

San Mateo City Council candidate Sarah Fields. Photo: Courtesy the campaign  

"I felt I needed to step up and run, as I have experience working in state and local government. I am also active in the community," said Fields, 36, who has worked for a number of Jewish organizations and now is the director of community engagement and public affairs for LifeMoves, which provides interim housing and services to unhoused individuals and families. "I can really bring the right perspective and knowledge and experience to council in this time of really significant transition."

Fields was referring to the fact that her city is set to see four new council members this year along with new congressional and state Assembly members. Mullin is favored to succeed outgoing Congressmember Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) and Diane Papan, San Mateo's current vice mayor, is set to replace him in the state Legislature now that Hale dropped out of the race.

San Mateo is moving to district-based council races this year, with none of the current councilmembers running for the three seats on the November 8 ballot. The winners of those races will help to appoint someone to Papan's seat once she resigns later this year.

"It is a really dynamic year for elective office," noted Fields, the northern vice chair of the San Mateo County Democratic Party the last two years.

Originally from San Diego, Fields attended college and graduate school in New York, where she also worked in various capacities, and also spent time living in Israel. In 2014, she returned to Southern California and joined the staff of former state senator Marty Block (D-San Diego). (Her boss at the time was Chris Ward, a gay man who is now a state assemblymember from San Diego.)

When Block left office in 2016, Fields relocated to San Mateo and became involved with the Peninsula Young Democrats, which she led as president. Last year, Fields was appointed to San Mateo's parks and rec commission.

She had worked for the public affairs firm Singer Associates Inc. in 2020 trying to pass a ballot measure that would increase San Mateo's height and density limits for new developments. It lost by 42 votes.

"It was very upsetting," recalled Fields, who had already been thinking about seeking public office in order to address such issues as an elected leader.

As her city works on updating its general plan and meeting its new housing requirements as mandated by the state, Fields wants to help impact the outcomes of those efforts as a councilmember. She worries about seeing the city's local control be restricted if it doesn't allow for new housing to be built.

"We need to meet those obligations and be making investments in the infrastructure and amenities that make San Mateo a nice place to live," said Fields, adding that the city also needs "to accommodate the numbers we need to accommodate while minimizing the impacts for residents, both new ones and the people who already live here."

Sunnyvale City Council candidate Richard Mehlinger. Photo: Courtesy the campaign  

South Bay races
Mehlinger, 35, is one of two candidates seeking the District 5 seat on the Sunnyvale City Council. It includes the Cannery Park neighborhood where he bought a townhouse three months ago.

The Long Beach native graduated from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California with degrees in computer science and history then earned a master's degree in history from UC Riverside. His landing a job as an engineer at a networking company based in Moffett Park brought him to Sunnyvale in 2011.

"The job market for the humanities is really bad," noted Mehlinger, who now works as a software engineer with Dropbox.

Following the 2016 presidential race, he joined his city's grassroots group Livable Sunnyvale and several city oversight bodies, chairing the Sunnyvale Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission. He also became a board member of the Democratic Club of Sunnyvale and volunteered on several local campaigns, serving as the assistant campaign manager for Cisneros' council bid. She is among a slew of elected leaders who have endorsed Mehlinger, as have EQCA, the Victory Fund, and the Silicon Valley Stonewall Democrats.

"I took stock of things and decided I wanted to get involved. I wanted to fight to help make this country a better place," recalled Mehlinger, who saw city engagement as the most impactful way to make a difference. "I realized pretty quickly there is little you can do as one person at the federal and state level. But at the local level, all you have to do is show up, and show up consistently, to have an impact."

Cupertino City Council candidate J.R. Fruen. Photo: Courtesy the campaign  

Next door in Cupertino Fruen is one of eight candidates running citywide for three council seats up this year. If elected, the attorney would be the first LGBTQ person to serve on the city council.

With only one incumbent running this year, Fruen told the B.A.R. he is feeling "very strong" about his chances of being elected. For one thing, he has better name recognition now with voters having run previously.

Fruen also believes his running as an out candidate could be advantageous. He often wears a hat with a rainbow pin on it when he knocks on voters' doors and has yet to see it draw concern from the people he engages with.

"I don't think it is a major issue at all. If anything, it is a slight positive for me I suspect," he told the B.A.R. "It is not something I think is a major concern on voters' minds."

He is a third generation resident of Cupertino whose maternal grandparents voted on incorporating as a city in 1955. His parents ended up moving to Santa Clara but he often stayed with his grandparents in Cupertino.

After earning a B.A. in European studies and German with a minor in Italian from UCLA in 2002, he moved back to the Bay Area and graduated from Santa Clara University's law school in 2014. He now owns his own practice, Marks Matter, focusing on trademark law.

He and his husband, Clifton Der Bing, a licensed psychologist, are homeowners in Cupertino. Two weekends ago the couple was finally able to hold the large wedding ceremony in a local church they had to postpone in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic. (They held a small, private wedding that summer and, last year, had a county clerk legally wed them in Hollister.)

With $32,000 already raised for his campaign, Fruen told the B.A.R. he is confident of raising at least $55,000 in the coming weeks. He has pledged not to take donations from developers or corporations.

"Cupertino residents deserve competent, homegrown leadership - someone who looks forward to better our lives while building strong partnerships with leaders across the South Bay," noted Fruen in a recent fundraising appeal to his supporters.

Housing animates campaigns
A key issue running through all their campaigns is a need to build more housing for people of various income levels in their cities.

"I have seen far too many friends and family move away because they can't afford to live here," said Sturken, who works for the nonprofit HIP Housing. "I want to make Redwood City a more safe, livable, and affordable place to live. How I want to do that is by focusing on affordable housing, on making our downtown safe and vibrant, and ending homelessness."

As with his first council campaign, housing is once again a main focus for Fruen as he runs this fall. He noted that his city's leaders have been in an ongoing fight with state leaders over their refusal to approve local housing developments.

"All the issues that existed in 2020 have gotten significantly worse. The housing issue has gotten worse and more palpable for more people," noted Fruen, who helped launch the advocacy group Cupertino for All in order to organize around such issues in his city.

He worries about seeing his city be stripped of its ability to weigh in on housing developments if there isn't a change in leadership on the council.

"The reason people should support me is we have to build housing, so we should at least extract more benefits from it and ensure it is better for the community writ-large and not the developers. You can only do that with a council capable and willing to negotiate with the developers who are going to build," said Fruen. "Because they are going to build anyway and the state is going to make us build this housing, let's negotiate for better projects. I am a vehicle for negotiating better projects."

Fields said she would like to see more transit-oriented housing developments be built near her city's three Caltrain stations, two of which are within the council district she is seeking to represent.

"It is really important we use land in proximity to those transit stations to develop. It is where we can get the most impact and build most efficiently," said Fields.

A main motivation for Mehlinger to run for his City Council is to be able to address a lack of affordable homes in his city. The issue was behind his first addressing the council five years ago during public comment; it prompted several council members to approach him about running for a council seat one day.

"That is what I started doing around 2017, I got involved in organizations advocating for affordable housing," recalled Mehlinger.

Unlike surrounding cities, Sunnyvale has increased its housing supply in recent years, he noted. It has 58,000 homes now and is looking to add 12,000 over the next eight years. With a population of nearly 160,000, it is the largest city between San Francisco and San Jose.

"One of the things I very much appreciate about this city is we build housing and we have consistently built housing here over the past 40 years," said Mehlinger, noting the city is at work on adding thousands of new housing units. "In terms of sheer quantity we are doing well. We need to be building more affordable housing, which as you know is challenging because it is essentially an unfunded mandate."

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.