Bi Black candidates aim for the Statehouse

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday February 21, 2024
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Los Angeles County residents Alex Monteiro, left, and Sade Elhawary are seeking legislative seats in the March primary. Photos: Courtesy the candidates
Los Angeles County residents Alex Monteiro, left, and Sade Elhawary are seeking legislative seats in the March primary. Photos: Courtesy the candidates

Los Angeles County residents Alex Monteiro and Sade Elhawary are representative of two different camps of political candidates. An immigrant and member of the Hawthorne City Council, Monteiro is seeking to move up to a higher office, while Elhawary, born to immigrant parents and raised in Los Angeles, is mounting her first electoral campaign.

At 63, Monteiro would be one of the older members of the California Legislature should he win his bid for the open Senate District 35 seat. Elhawary, 36, would be among its younger members should she prevail in her race for the open Assembly District 57 seat.

While they may be at different stages in their adult lives, Monteiro and Elhawary share several similarities as candidates. Both are Black and bisexual running in legislative districts without an LGBTQ-identified neighborhood to draw a base of support from as they vie to survive crowded races on the March 5 primary ballot, where only the top two vote-getters will advance to the general election in November.

If elected, Monteiro would be only the second bi man and second Black male member of the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus; he also would be the first out Black man elected to the Legislature's upper chamber. Should she prevail, Elhawary would be the first out Black woman among the affinity group's members — she is also Latina — and one of the first bi-identified female legislators.

As the Bay Area Reporter's Political Notebook column reported in January, Monteiro and Elhawary are among a record number of both bi-identified and LGBTQ legislative candidates running in primary races next month. There are at least 30 out contenders for either an Assembly or Senate seat this year, with eight from the bisexual community.

"If I become a senator, I will be a champion not just for LGBTQ issues but for social or equity issues," said Monteiro, who earned a master's degree in education with Counseling at California State University, Dominguez Hills. "We should have the same rights as every other citizen. That is what I am going to fight for in Sacramento."

Elhawary, who lives in the University Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, added about seeing more bi-identified lawmakers, "We are opening up our government, in this case, to have more representation in a way we need and deserve."

In recent interviews with the B.A.R. Monteiro and Elhawary both addressed how they have navigated their decision to run publicly as out candidates in districts where their racial identities have received more attention than their sexual orientation. Neither identifies as being a member of the LGBTQ community in their candidate bios posted to their campaign websites, but both have sought endorsements from groups that work to elect LGBTQ candidates.

"I will be a champion of the LGBTQ-plus community. The reasons I haven't come out is because, I don't know, I haven't had that full courage," said Monteiro, who is out of the closet personally and professionally but hadn't made a point of seeking elected office as a bi man during his previous campaigns. "But I have lived my life the way I wanted. If people ask me the question, I will give them the right answer."

For Elhawary, a foster mom who prefers the term "fluid" when it comes to her sexual orientation, it wasn't something she felt she could easily explain in her campaign bio, which she kept rather brief. Plus, when she was recruited by the group Close the Gap, aimed at electing more women to state legislative seats, to run it was more to do with her being a biracial community leader, said Elhawary, living in a district with large Black and Latino populations.

She later came to realize how significant it would be seeing a candidate who identifies as a part of the bi community win election to the seat. To date, the only bi member of the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus has been Assemblymember Alex Lee (D-San Jose), who is seeking a third two-year term this year.

"I think it is important we not feel there has to be part of our identity that is a secret or somehow hidden," said Elhawary. "I think really being able to celebrate everyone and the various ways we love each other and various ways we find happiness is huge."

She is one of five people running for the Assembly seat, along with fellow bisexual candidate Dulce Vasquez. Named after the British Nigerian singer Sade, Elhawary grew up the oldest of three girls in Northeast Los Angeles.

Her mom is from Guatemala, while her dad is Egyptian. The couple divorced when Elhawary was 8 years old. She graduated UCLA with an African American studies degree in 2010 and then received a master's in education from Harvard in 2011.

Currently self-employed focused on youth and community engagement, she co-owns JADE Strategies. She has gotten more comfortable talking about her sexual orientation publicly since starting her campaign nearly a year ago, especially as LGBTQ rights have come under increasing attacks.

"Seeing currently the attacks from the right, especially on our trans brothers and sisters, we really need to be thoughtful about how do we go above and beyond in the work we are doing in a state like California, which is so incredibly progressive, to make sure we aren't allowing folks to, I think, in a lot of ways not just attack us but really dismantle a lot of our rights we have been working so hard for for so many years," said Elhawary.

Out of the closet since high school, Elhawary told the B.A.R. she is not used to having to share that aspect of her life since it is "just a part" of her identity. At the same time, it isn't something she shies away from when asked.

"I am looking forward to being someone representing our community in various facets, being Black and Latina and being LGBTQ," said Elhawary, who for years has been involved in a local group for young Black Democrats.

She had worked for a community group founded by Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, who endorsed her in the Assembly race. It was during a Thanksgiving trip in 2022 when Elhawary made the decision to seek public office herself.

"I have been doing the work behind the scenes. I have been doing the work to uplift the community and uplift young people," said Elhawary.

An international upbringing

Born in Cape Verde, a former African colony of Portugal, Monteiro moved to Lisbon at age 14. His family moved to the U.S. in 1984 when his father retired as a skipper of global shipping vessels and oil tankers.

Monteiro earned a B.A. in Spanish and history from the University of Rhode Island in 1990 and went to work for the health department in Boston. A key factor in his hiring is he is fluent in French, Cape Verde Creole, Portuguese, English, and Spanish.

"They needed someone to work with doctors and nurses at housing projects and teach young mothers how to care for babies. Boston had an infant mortality rate that compared to third world countries," recalled Monteiro.

Unused to the New England winters, Monteiro moved to Los Angeles after visiting the city for his sister's wedding in May 1994. He landed a job with a federal health center near Pasadena and had relocated by that July. But three days into the job he got into a car accident on the 410 Freeway.

"My Toyota flipped over six times. I spent one year recuperating," he recalled.

He went to work for the Los Angeles Unified School District as part of the health care staff at an East L.A. high school. By 1998, Monteiro was working for the Richstone Family Center in partnership with the Hawthorne School District as a healthy start coordinator. He also worked with Moneta Gardens Improvement Inc., to establish two school-based health clinics.

He would become president and CEO of Moneta Gardens in 2001. By 2003, he had moved to Hawthorne, and in 2007, won a seat on the local school board. He also became involved in efforts to build affordable housing in the city, prompting other local leaders to ask him to run for city council, winning his seat in 2018.

"I never liked politics to tell you the truth," admitted Monteiro, who had earlier turned down entreaties to run for a Massachusetts state senate seat.

Nonetheless, he won a tough reelection fight in 2022 and is now one of eight candidates running in the primary for the state Senate seat covering Los Angeles County's South Bay area.

"I didn't want someone coming from outside to run. Some politicians go living city to city just to run for office," said Monteiro, who as a council member has served on various regional governing bodies. "I didn't want someone to do that and didn't know this area of the South Bay."

Now single, Monteiro had been married to a woman in Boston. He had a male partner in Southern California who became his domestic partner, but they separated in 2003. Because of his working in the education field, Monteiro said he kept his personal life private.

"I work very closely with children. I didn't want people thinking ... because you know how people think," he said.

Since he is running to represent a large legislative district, versus a small city or school district, Monteiro told the B.A.R. he made the decision to be more upfront about being a bi candidate and listed his sexual orientation on endorsement questionnaires as he sought various groups' support for his Senate candidacy.

"The LGBTQ community, we have fought a lot of battles. It is time to give us our dues," said Monteiro. "Like the civil rights movement, it is still struggling. They have to make themselves a seat at the table, and the LGBTQ community is still fighting for that."

With the rights of LGBTQ youth under attack, even in liberal California, Monteiro told the B.A.R. he wants to serve as a role model to them and an example that one can have success in life.

"I have been there. I have been in the closet. I have married a woman and a man. I made my life," he said. "But it is time to shine the light and bring forward all these issues that other LGBTQ families are suffering. I will be happy to be the oldest, but I am still looking young."

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