Political Notebook: Skyforest resident aims to be 1st gay San Bernardino supervisor

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday September 20, 2023
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Graham Smith is running for supervisor in San Bernardino County. Photo: Courtesy the candidate
Graham Smith is running for supervisor in San Bernardino County. Photo: Courtesy the candidate

A resident in the mountain enclave of Skyforest is aiming to be the first gay supervisor in San Bernardino County. To do so, Graham Smith has a steep hill to climb as a political newcomer running against an incumbent in a sprawling supervisorial district.

In July, Smith announced his candidacy for the board's District 3 seat, which includes the flatland cities of Yucaipa, Redlands, parts of Colton and San Bernardino then heads up into the San Bernardino Mountains and the city of Big Bear Lake, north to Barstow, and east to Needles along the border with Arizona.

"This district is huge," noted Smith. "It is geographically the largest county in the U.S. At about 20,000 square miles it is the size of West Virginia and also the largest district in the county."

District 3 Supervisor Dawn Rowe has held the seat since she was appointed to it in December 2018 and easily won a full four-year term with 55% of the vote in the 2020 March primary. Rowe also announced in July that she would seek reelection next year, with the contest again to be held in March.

This time, Smith and several other candidates are aiming to block Rowe from winning the seat outright and forcing a runoff race in the fall. If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote on the March 5 primary ballot then the top two vote-getters will advance to the November 5 ballot.

"My hope is that between the resources of the three other challengers, we can prevent Dawn from getting that 50% mark in March and have a fighting chance in November. My job, if I am being realistic, is to come in second in March and get it in November," Smith told the Bay Area Reporter during an August phone interview about his candidacy.

Smith, 40, who grew up in Los Angeles County's Topanga Canyon, moved to Skyforest with his husband, Mark Goodwin, in 2020 at the start of the COVID pandemic into the house his paternal grandparents built 50 years ago. He would often visit the area with his family as a child.

The couple had returned to Los Angeles from London, as Goodwin is British and Smith had moved there while working for the former firm Lehman Brothers and then joined the investment firm Ares Management. Expecting to only stay in Skyforest for a short period of time, they instead found themselves putting down roots and decided to stay.

"We said why not go to the cabin for a couple weeks to get out of town. The longer we stayed, we both connected to the local community," recalled Smith, who until late last year had been working on a consumer products startup with a friend. "We realized this is a wonderful local community that we really, really loved."

But over the last three years they have seen how living in an unincorporated community means their governance is controlled by the county board. Goodwin, for example, ran into zoning issues in trying to open a local coffeehouse.

"The platform I am running on is all about taking much better care of the local community and allocating resources more effectively," said Smith. "I am a firm believer the county has not done that across the board, not just related to our local county community."

The issue was brought front and center during fatal snowstorms in February and March that hammered the San Bernardino Mountains, left residents trapped under 40 feet of snow in some areas to more than 100 feet in others, and resulted in at least 17 deaths. Roads were impassable for weeks, and those who were able to drive down the mountains for food, medicine, and other supplies found themselves blocked from returning by authorities and stuck waiting for hours with no information on when they would be able to return, as detailed in a report released in April by a committee formed by Rowe.

It was his experience living through the storms and their aftermath that led Smith to decide to seek elected office for the first time. With none of the current supervisors residents of the mountain communities, he argues it is time for such a voice to be on the county board.

The winter storms demonstrated how he and his neighbors "really suffered from a lack of focus and county resources," said Smith. "We are really beholden to the county Board of Supervisors to make decisions on our behalf."

While it may be an easy argument to make when speaking to residents in forest communities, Smith will also need to attract support from voters in the cities on either side of the mountains. He told the B.A.R. he hopes his message will also connect in those suburban areas, from needing more than just new jobs in retail warehouses to addressing the worsening air pollution.

"I am a firm believer the county supervisors haven't served more urban communities well either," he said. "I think I offer a fresh perspective on how to deal with some of these problems."

As far as Smith is aware, if elected he would be the first out supervisor to serve in the Southern California county that tends to tilt conservative. There are currently at least eight known LGBTQ county supervisors in California, six of whom are gay men. Martin Huberty serves in Calaveras County; Ken Carlson in Contra Costa County; Yxstian Gutierrez in Riverside County; and Rafael Mandelman, Matt Dorsey, and Joel Engardio all serve in San Francisco County.

Amy Shuklian, a lesbian, serves on the Tulare County Board of Supervisors, while Terra Lawson-Remer, who holds the District 3 seat on the San Diego board, is nonbinary and pansexual. The Democrat is facing a challenge next year from Republican former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer.

Since moving to the San Bernardino Mountains, Smith told the B.A.R. that he has met other LGBTQ residents of the area. It is a stark contrast from when he would visit during his youth, he said.

"There is a huge queer community in the mountains that wasn't there before," said Smith, who lived in San Francisco for a year as an accounting intern and had an aunt who called Mill Valley in Marin home for 40 years. "We felt a lot more welcomed than necessarily we would have expected to."

Smith will be one of several out candidates running in races in the county on the March primary ballot, as Palm Springs City Councilmembers Lisa Middleton, who is transgender, and Christy Holstege, who is bisexual, are seeking state legislative seats that include portions of San Bernardino County. Gay U.S. House candidate Derek Marshall is vying for the 23rd Congressional District that largely overlaps with the supervisorial district.

"I think this is a challenge for all of us. But it is also a fight we need to fight because if no one steps up to do it, I am genuinely concerned my marriage isn't going to be recognized federally in coming years. We are in scary times," said Smith.

Tragically, the day after Smith spoke with the B.A.R. a man gunned down Laura Ann "Lauri" Carleton after getting into an argument with her about the Pride flags she had flying at her Cedar Glen boutique Mag.Pi. In a statement Rowe called Carleton "a remarkable member of the community" and offered her condolences to her family.

"Everyone deserves to live free of hate and discrimination and practice their constitutional right of freedom of speech," stated Rowe.

In a Facebook post Smith also offered condolences to Carleton's family and friends.

"It is a somber reminder that everyone within our communities deserves to live in safety and harmony, free from the shadow of violence. Let us honor Lauri's memory by continuing to foster a world where love, compassion, and understanding prevail," wrote Smith.

During his interview with the B.A.R. Smith had brought up how the local LGBTQ community was already feeling targeted after the Redlands City Council voted not to fly the Pride flag again in June. (Earlier this month it also rejected a request to fly it in honor of Carleton.) The state's attorney general is suing a school district in another county city, Chino Hills, over its adoption of a forced outing policy of transgender students.

"Seeing all this stuff happen really close to me has really emboldened me to do this even more and stand up for this community," said Smith.

Trans candidate ends Assembly bid

Justine Gonzalez, a bisexual transgender co-parent, has ended her campaign for the state Assembly's 52nd District seat that covers a portion of the city of Glendale and a number of Los Angeles communities. In a September 19 email to supporters, Gonzalez said she didn't have the time to mount a bid for political office and hold a fulltime job.

As she explained in the announcement, "campaigning for public office — which is effectively another full-time job — is simply more than I can manage given my responsibilities to my child and family."

On Wednesday, she endorsed Jessica Caloza in the race to succeed Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles), who is running to oust from office embattled Los Angeles City Councilmember Kevin de León, her former ally who officially announced his reelection bid this week. Still in the Assembly contest is gay immigrant Ari Ruiz, who had won the sole endorsement of the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus last month.

He is among the record number of 27 LGBTQ candidates planning to run in legislative races in the March primary. Among them are two vying to become the first trans people elected to the California Legislature: Middleton and Evan Minton, who is seeking an Assembly seat covering Sacramento.

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 last batch of LGBTQ-related bills sent to California Governor Gavin Newsom to sign.

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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