Political Notebook: Lesbian CA Senator Menjivar settles into Sacramento

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday February 8, 2023
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State Senator Caroline Menjivar, center, took her oath of office in December. Since then, she has been busy meeting colleagues and is a budget subcommittee chair. Photo: Courtesy Sen. Caroline Menjivar's office<br><br>
State Senator Caroline Menjivar, center, took her oath of office in December. Since then, she has been busy meeting colleagues and is a budget subcommittee chair. Photo: Courtesy Sen. Caroline Menjivar's office

Providing a video tour of her Sacramento office via Twitter in early January, lesbian state Senator Caroline Menjivar (D-San Fernando Valley) showed off the entry area and shared workspace for her staff. She also gave a glimpse of the separate room for her chief of staff.

Walking into her own private office space, Menjivar pointed out one special aspect found right behind her chair and desk.

"And I have the privilege of having a giant pillar in my office. Only certain members get that. Yay!" said Menjivar in the video posted January 4 to her official Twitter account @SenatorMenjivar.

Speaking to the Bay Area Reporter during a recent phone interview, Menjivar joked she had found a way to make the obstruction a useful object. Her warning to lobbyists who find their photo posted on it is they should turn around and walk out her office door.

"It is my pillar. People I don't want to talk to will find their faces on there," quipped Menjivar.

The previous occupant of Suite 6720 in the temporary state office building at 1021 O Street, Senator Bob Archuleta (D-Pico Rivera), offered Menjivar some advice about its distinctive feature. "You will come to ignore it," he advised her.

"If that is my only complaint, I will take it," Menjivar told the B.A.R. when asked about her office assignment.

Her having to field meeting requests from representatives of special interests in the Capitol is just the latest turnaround for the freshman lawmaker. Two years ago she was on the other side of the door, seeking an audience with members of the Legislature to ask for their support of her candidacy for the 20th Senate District seat set to be vacated by termed out senator Bob Hertzberg.

Running against the legislator's gay son, Daniel, Menjivar had attracted little support in the Capitol ahead of last year's June primary. She had taken her exasperation public, faulting in particular the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus for "rewarding a culture of nepotism" by endorsing her opponent without conducting a formal interview with her, as the B.A.R. had reported.

"I was frustrated, to be honest," recalled Menjivar. "As a woman of color who is qualified, completely qualified and had done the work, I had to prove myself."

If anyone had doubted her tenaciousness as a candidate, they were proved wrong after she broke her ankle while knocking on voters' doors in the district. Undaunted, she bought herself a motorized scooter in order to continue her get-out-the-vote efforts in person.

"People underestimated my tenacity, my grit," said Menjivar, 32, who is married to Jocelyn Tapia, a marriage and family therapist.

After a nail biter of a primary ballot vote count, she emerged the second-place finisher days after initially landing in third on election night. Come November, Menjivar easily defeated her opponent to become the first out LGBTQ state legislator elected from the San Fernando Valley.

She also returned out representation in the state Senate from Los Angeles County since the departure of gay senator Ricardo Lara in 2018 following his election that fall as the state's insurance commissioner. Coincidentally, her first public event following her election was held to support LGBTQ-owned businesses in the Senate district.

"It felt like such a beautiful way to kick off my tenure," said Menjivar, who had been employed as a social worker.

As the East Valley representative for former Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, Menjivar had organized the San Fernando Valley's first ever LGBTQ+ Pride Car Parade. She had attended her first Pride in San Francisco at age 18.

Her coming out to her parents, who fled El Salvador's civil war for the U.S., strained their relationship. Rejected for a firefighter position with the city of Los Angeles, Menjivar enlisted with the Marine Corps and served under the homophobic "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

While working as an EMT she earned her bachelor's degree from California State University, Northridge. She went on to earn a Master of Social Welfare from UCLA while working in the Los Angeles Mayor's Gender Equity Office as a David Bohnett Fellow. Menjivar would later serve as a field deputy in the office of former Los Angeles Councilwoman Nury Martinez, who resigned last fall after a recording of her making racist remarks during a meeting at a union office was leaked.

"It broke my heart," said Menjivar, who learned about the audio recording while canvassing for votes with members of labor unions. "When they say never meet your heroes, it is true, right? I was very quick to denounce it."

She also called on the other council members on the tape, including former state legislator Kevin de León, to resign. It became a flashpoint in Menjivar's campaign, with those opposed to her candidacy trying to use her ties to Martinez against her. Hit pieces landed in voters' mailboxes claiming that Menjivar was just like the council member and asking, "Why do you want her?"

"It had additional repercussions," she told the B.A.R. "We are trying to increase engagement in minority communities, and that really hindered that."

As for Karen Bass becoming the first female Black mayor of Los Angeles, Menjivar said she has already met with the mayor's team and has been impressed by "the energy she is bringing" to City Hall and prioritizing homelessness during her first year in office.

"I want to support her at the state level," said Menjivar.

As the Political Notebook previously reported, Menjivar will be able to do so as chair this year of the Senate's Budget Subcommittee #3 on Health and Human Services. She is also a member of six other committees, including ones focused on health, human services, and veterans.

The workload doesn't faze her, said Menjivar, as she is used to putting in long hours. As a college student she would leave her graveyard shift as an EMT at 6 a.m. and two hours later be back in the classroom.

"Having a heavy plate is not new to me," said Menjivar.

She enjoys meeting with her legislative colleagues and stakeholders. The hardest part has been trying to remember the names of the people she meets, noted Menjivar.

"It's been so amazing. I don't think I have stopped smiling," she told the B.A.R. about serving in the Legislature. "To have the honor and privilege to be at the table to address these issues is not something little Caroline ever thought she would do. So I am completely honored. It is long days, but they don't feel like long days."

Menjivar is one of 12 members in the LGBTQ caucus, the highest in its history and the first to represent 10% of its legislative body. She already has endorsed several out non-incumbent candidates running in 2024 and is looking forward to the day when there are legislators representative of the community's full acronym.

"You know, it feels so wonderful to be part of this," said Menjivar, adding that, "We need to make sure we are creating a pipeline for our transgender family to become legislators as well. This isn't the ceiling for us, that we have reached 10% and are done."

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 a push to collect LGBTQ data on the country's scientific workforce.

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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