Candidates Vie for LGBTQ Support in Bid to Succeed Santa Clara County Supe Ken Yeager

Ken Yeager founded the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee in 1984 to advocate for LGBTQ civil rights. It was the same year he came out in a newspaper op-ed and eight years before he became Silicon Valley’s first openly gay elected official. Nearly three-and-a-half decades later, the group—called BAYMEC for short—hosted a forum to grill five of the seven candidates running to replace the 65-year-old policymaker when he terms out from the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

The contenders—San Jose Councilman Don Rocha, his former council colleague Pierluigi Oliverio, San Jose Unified trustee Susan Ellenberg, former Campbell Mayor Jason Baker and Santa Clara Councilman Dominic Caserta—unanimously pledged to advance LGBTQ rights. And they each applauded the idea of adding an advisory commission to the county’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs and building a shelter for queer and trans youth.

Responding to questions from the BAYMEC board and the audience that packed into the Billy DeFrank LBGT Community Center for the panel, the panelists talked about the need to boost the South Bay’s housing supply and improve transit access so people could access the county’s vast breadth of services.

It’s a race that could drastically shift the balance of power on the five-member county board, which has long held a labor-friendly majority. And while Yeager’s aspiring successors cast themselves as ideologically left-of-center, they disagreed about how to prioritize county resources.

From left: Susan Ellenberg, Pierluigi Oliverio, Jason Baker, Dominic Caserta and Don Rocha.

Oliverio said the county should focus on its core mission instead of quibbling over matters under the purview of other agencies, like the local transit authority.

“What the county can do is essentially what it’s supposed to do, which is social safety net, criminal justice, Valley Medical Center,” the business-aligned former Willow Glen councilman said. “For me, that priority is on the severely mentally ill. I think we just need to be understanding and cognizant of what the county actually does versus saying things that you may not be able to follow through on.”

Fellow panelists respectfully disagreed.

“Transportation is kind of my jam,” said Baker, who previously served on the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) and the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). He went on: “The county actually has lot to do with transportation.”

While it may lack enforcement power, Baker said, the county could work with the MTC to incentivize cities to build more housing by making it a condition for receiving transportation dollars. The county also has two votes on the VTA board, and while the its role on housing issues is largely advisory, supervisors still wield considerable influence.

Rocha, Baker, Ellenberg and Caserta argued that the county’s social service-oriented mission necessarily extends beyond its physical borders, which is why he commends the agency for its activist litigation. County counsel has filed several lawsuits against the Trump administration and sued paint manufacturers over lead toxicity and pharmaceutical giants over deceptive marketing of opioid painkillers.

“If you look at the nation’s history, whether it’s Loving v. Virginia or the Hodges case, it’s local folks coming together and standing up at the local county and state level, saying this is an equal protection right,” said Caserta, a public school history teacher who shares the South Bay Labor Council’s endorsement with Rocha. “I don’t care if it’s popular or not at the ballot box or states.”

Rocha said the county’s role shouldn’t be limited to what it’s able to enforce. As a regional agency, it needs to collaborate with other local governments to advance its mission. He cited a $1.5 billion transportation tax and a $950 million housing bond that voters passed in 2016 as testament to the fact that local agencies can think and act as a region.

“It’s really amazing that this region taxed itself to provide housing for someone else,” he said, commending the county for garnering public support for the measure. “There’s a lot of folks who didn’t believe that we could get it across the goal line.”

The county may not be in the development business, Ellenberg added, but it can team up with cities, nonprofits and businesses to tackle the housing shortage. That’s true for any issue that the county touches, she added—the county’s responsibilities constantly overlap and intersect with those of other agencies.

That’s why she takes a particular interest in criminal justice reforms and the work of Supervisor Joe Simitian, said Ellenburg, who serves on the county’s Commission on the Status of Women and volunteers as a jail monitor, and why she wants to launch a pilot program that allows mothers with children under the age of 5 to opt for supervised release instead of a jail.

“We are now traumatizing another generation by separating kids from their parents,” she said, “and I think that we really need to be looking at diversionary options, other mechanisms of making sure that the people who are incarcerated are truly a danger and the ones who need to be there, but that they are also treated humanely and that ideally they are better off when they get out than when they get in.”

One of the final questions of the night was about the legacy each candidate would like to leave as county supervisor.

Oliverio, whose brother suffers from a severe mental illness, said he would like the county to open a new psychiatric facility and experiment with new programs to reduce jail recidivism.

“Ultimately, you want a person healed when they leave there,” he said. “You don’t want them back, so you need to try different things.”

For Caserta, it would be to finally bring BART down to the South Bay, as promised nearly two decades ago.

“Another thing that I want to see is more ... entrepreneur and internship opportunities with our students,” he said. Adding: “The idea I always want to think about is how can our children be able to live here and not be adults living on their parents’ couch or in their house when they’re 40 years old. That’s the lens I see here.”

Rocha said he wants to make a dent in the region’s intractable homeless population, which numbers well above 7,000 on any given night.

“If that’s something that I could hang my hat on when I’m done after my 12 years, I would be the most proud elected official,” he said.

The self-described transit wonk, Baker, said he wants to build a transit system robust enough to alleviate income inequality by connecting the most impoverished with vital public services.

“The legacy I’d like to leave, because it connects to all those issues,” he said, “is having a transit system—buses and rails and whatever is going to be after 12 years here—that works for everybody.”

Ellenberg circled back to the importance of supporting children in low-income homes from birth to the first day of kindergarten, making sure they have nutritious food and reliable childcare and preschool.

“There should be no opportunity gap,” she said. “If we could get every kid to the same starting line by kindergarten, that’s a legacy that I’d be thrilled to leave with.”

It should be noted that two candidates—Mike Alvarado and Maria Hernandez—were absent from the event, which made Oliverio uneasy about participating.

“All we kept talking about that night was inclusion, but two people who should have been there were not included,” Oliverio told San Jose Inside, echoing comments he made from the dais at the end of the forum. “It had to be said.”

BAYMEC, which already unveiled its endorsements in other local races, has yet to announce its pick in the June 5 primary contest for the county’s District 4 seat, which represents Santa Clara, Campbell, unincorporated Cambrian and Burbank districts and much of west San Jose. BAYMEC Vice President Paul Escobar said he expects the board to announce a decision next week.

But Yeager will be a tough act to follow, he said.

“Ken has been an unequivocal champion for LGBTQ rights in this county for decades,” Escobar said. “Those are big shoes to fill.”

To watch the debate, check out the Facebook Live video below.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. There was no explanation as to why two other candidates were excluded from the panel which was disturbing since all should have participated. It was hypocritical of the LGBT who fights for their causes to exclude two candidates. My first visit to their offices because of the County Supervisor D4 candidate debate. It was a good debate but short change since I don’t know what the other two candidates opinions are. Not a good move by them and noticeable by all.

    • During the 2014 race for Mayor, there were more candidates on the ballot than Liccardo, Cortese, Herrera, Oliverio, and Nguyen, but those were the only five that were invited to debates because the other ones were not running campaigns that had any chance of winning. Is it okay for Willow Glen Neighborhood Association to conduct a debate in this manner, but unacceptable for an LGBTQ organization?

      Is firing someone for their sexual orientation, race, gender, the same as not inviting someone to a debate because they signed up to put their name on a ballot without putting in the effort to run a competitive campaign? If you think there should be no bar to who should participate, I’ll respectfully beg to differ, but if you think setting a standard for entry into political debates is the same thing as discriminating against people for being gay, then you are part of the problem and not an ally of the LGBTQ community.

    • Virginia,
      Thank you for your comment. Yes, we were excluded from the forum and then BAYMEC’s leadership blamed it on Mike and me for not applying for their endorsement, when none of the other candidates had to do so, as all of them were invited with plenty of time.
      Here is a link to my website:

      I invite you to explore my website to learn more about the current issues affecting the County of Santa Clara and you as taxpayer, and why we need a change. In my website you’ll also learn about my personal values and proposed solutions to benefit you, your family and our community.

  2. Much of America became fed up with the media dictating what’s important and worth reporting on.
    Media personalities such as Jennifer validate Much of America’s judgment… and Trump’s election.

  3. I think that BAYMEC should consider withholding its endorsement in a race like this where all of the candidates are generally in agreement on LGBTQ issues. My assumption is that the point of the BAYMEC endorsement to help voters distinguish which candidate is most supportive of LGBTQ rights, but what value does it hold if all of the candidates are equally supportive?

    Pretty sure my vote is going to be for Ellenberg. Not sure how I would rank the rest of the candidates, with the exception being that I will vote for any candidate other than Caserta if he ends up making the run-off.

    • BAYMEC doesn’t only care about LGBT issues, and much of the forum was about other issues. Yes, it’s an LGBT organization, so that has a big emphasis, but they’re going to pick whoever they think is best for the job overall.

      • I’m aware that the forum focused on other issues (I did read the article), but they state very clearly on their website that “The organization’s purpose is to lobby and fight for LGBT civil rights.” Their individual members may not be single-issue voters, and they did a great job of helping educate the public on these candidates by asking a wide-range of issues, but they are not an LGBT/labor/environmental/communist-gun-club organization, they are, to use their own words, “an experienced, broad-based, and coherent political voice for the LGBT community.”

        In my opinion, an overly-broad focus in the past has led them to endorse candidates for office that did not deserve their endorsement. In the 2014 Mayor’s race, BAYMEC endorsed Dave Cortese, which gave the implication to low-information voters looking for opinion cues that Cortese was stronger on LGBT rights than Sam Liccardo. In reality, their policy positions on LGBT rights were the same, but with the notable difference that Cortese had a history of having attacked Ken Yeager in the 90’s as being “anti-family.” So the candidates were equal in all respects except that one had once use homophobia for political expediency, and they endorsed him.

        The endorsement of Cortese is not proof that they are a broad-focus organization; their mission statement is very clear that they are an LGBT organization, and that is how the public and low-information voters understand them. The Cortese endorsement is an example of how individuals interested in non-LGBT issues have co-opted the organization in the past.

  4. Dominic Caserta is the best candidate for this role
    He is a pillar of Santa Clara, and I was there for when he and Supervisor Ken Yeager raised the rainbow flag for the first time in Santa Clara history. I asked for it to be flown in Santa Clara, he got it done!
    I was the second LGBTQ candidate to run in Santa Clara for city council and it was because of Dominic’s fight for equality during Prop 8 when I was 23 and why I decided to run for council myself in 2016. He worked with the great Jamie McLeod the first openly gay council member of Santa Clara.
    The fact that he is a teacher is also why he gets my vote and I ask others to vote for him. He is molding young minds to become pro active In our government to push for better equality and treatment of our citizens. His mention of the fairly known Loving case proves this man knows his history of civil rights.
    He is passionate about family and bringing prosperity to all individuals in this county, to ensure them the best quality life.
    Caserta has been very passionate about bringing our downtown back here in Santa Clara , our downtown was demolished in the late 1960’s early 1970’s during urban renewal and since has made Santa Clara not a destination. His involvement is limitless in reclaiming downtown Santa Clara and he delivering in doing what the residents want since he lives just blocks from the old city grid it what is dubbed the historic old quad neighborhood near Santa Clara University.
    He has kept a commitment and promise in fighting to extend BART to Santa Clara (electrification of Caltrain too). He supported Levi’s stadium for these reasons because it was going to connect Santa Clara to the rest of the Bay Area for reliable public transit and popular destination spot.
    He fights to keep Great America a tradition here and a tourist destination.
    He has been a big part of success on voting in projects that brings lots of jobs and revenue to the city of Santa Clara, a great location for business and why he earned the endorsement and support many times from the Santa Clara Chamber of Commerce.
    He is a huge supporter of helping to find shelters for homeless citizens which has become an increasingly big issue here in Santa Clara since it has increased a lot over the last few years. He supports a higher minimum wage, because he sees the struggles in his college students and high school students trying to make it in this tough Bay Area. He supports affordable housing and transient villages because it is the way to go, he sees that the workers at Starbucks or grocery stores can’t afford record breaking rent prices.
    I have watched him grow from a young man on the city council in the early 2000’s to being a great civil servant. Now, he is a mentor, for myself and future generations. Inspiring us everyday. He has a solid record.
    Caserta is the best and only choice for district 4.

  5. I decided my vote is for Ellenberg. To me she is the most specific when she speaks about what she wants to do. It seems like she has plans already to do what she says. I really hate how arrogant Plo sounds when he speaks, it really irks me. I find Caserta to be confusing, I kinda get what he is saying but it’s just not easy to follow when he’s speaking. Baker seems ok but simple not intelligence wise but like he would just kinda go with the flow, Rocha is ok in my book as well but the same he doesn’t seem like he will not rock the boat. I wasn’t in to the white shirt either. The other candidates i know nothing about.

    • > I decided my vote is for Ellenberg.
      . . . .
      > I wasn’t in to the white shirt either. The other candidates i know nothing about.

      Ain’t democracy wonderful!

  6. For the second election in a row I have been explicitly excluded from many candidate events. I think it is wrong and it denies the voters a real, informed choice. I think all candidates deserve a chance to be heard, not just the big money candidates. I am not taking any campaign contributions because I believe sincerely that money has no place at all in local elections. I stand for affordable housing, smart growth, traffic relief, new roads and highways, improved mass transit, expanded and improved public healthcare, mental health awareness and gun control. I have many more ideas that I want to bring to the forefront if elected. It would be nice if I was allowed to participate fully. I encourage all and any groups holding future candidate forums to invite me and all of the other candidates. For more information on my positions on the issues please Google my facebook and nextdoor posts under my name as a candidate for county supervisor.

  7. Here is some of what I stand for:

    Mike Alvarado for County Supervisor – UPDATE on the issues

    We are about 2 months from the June primary election for the Santa Clara County Supervisor District 4 race. Just to let everyone know here is how I stand apart from the crowded field of the usual, perennial candidates. I will list a few of my ideas and key thoughts for a better Santa Clara County. Vote for a change. Please read this post and SHARE it if you agree.

    SMART GROWTH – More affordable housing
    I stand for an aggressive plan to identify suburban and urban lots and properties that are being underutilized. I want the county to contact the current landowners of these properties to help them redevelop the properties for high density homes, condos and apartments. I want to make sure we consider all properties inside and outside of the city limits within the county for additional development of new affordable housing. I want to work with the cities to help build consensus and streamline permit procedures cutting red tape to make more housing available ASAP.

    The real challenge is to aggregate support and bring all sides together to meet this housing shortage head on and full speed ahead. We will need to get everyone onboard to increase the new housing needed to meet the ever growing demand. Our efforts must be exponentially larger eclipsing current new housing starts by a factor of ten to be effective. We need to curb the NIMBY monster in all of us and accept the hard fact that we and our neighbors need more new housing now and not just a little but a lot more. Our current affordable housing efforts are miniscule in their current iterations as being much too little, much too late. We must do better. We can do better. We will do better.

    TRAFFIC RELIEF – Additional roads and street maintenance and repairs
    We need to explore all funding options possible to meet current and future road development projects. We desperately need additional freeways and expressways within the county. The present situation is rather dire as the need for additional thoroughfares is now at an extreme level. The need is great as this issue has been neglected and ignored for far too long. Bart and Caltrain both need to be modernized, upgraded and their routes expanded significantly. Bart needs to double loop the entire Bay Area including up the peninsula connecting San Jose to the end of the line in Millbrae. Bart also needs to cross the bay to Marin at the Golden Gate, Mid-bay and Fremont to Palo Alto. We also need to expand light rail and bus express lanes dramatically countywide. Caltrain needs to loop the bay to Milpitas and Oakland.

    FWY 85 needs to be extended down to Gilroy and possibly Hollister, Salinas and Monterey as well. We also need to start planning new highways to Santa Cruz, Watsonville, Patterson and Newman. We need to start building support statewide and with Caltrans in this regard. We need to start looking towards the future. Aggregating support, planning and identifying funding methods will be key in this endeavor.

    PUBLIC SAFETY – Jail reform
    A new approach to our county correctional facilities is desperately needed. We should adopt the northern European model from Norway to place a much stronger emphasis on retraining and rehabilitation. Our current operational model is severely antiquated and draconian in its continual reliance on punishment and inhumane treatment of inmates. We must redouble our efforts to humanize the incarceration experience and promote modern mental health best practices and procedures within our correctional facilities.

    We must always remember that the vast majority of current inmates will be released at one point in the future. Instead of making imprisonment a school for criminals learning even worse behavior traits and skills we should embrace a new, more modern, clinical approach to education, rehabilitation, reform and salvation. Only a new method of operation can ever hope to curtail and limit the revolving door of recidivist behavior. Treating prisoners with dignity and respect is the only way we can break the criminal repeat offender cycle. We need to give offenders a chance to start over by being treated as human beings freshly reeducated and reintegrated into society.

    HEALTHCARE – Mental health awareness and infectious disease outreach
    A new emphasis and awareness of mental health needs to be made within our county healthcare system. The stigma so often attached to mental health needs to be addressed and overcome. We should redouble our efforts to improve and modernize our mental health facilities and increase staffing levels whenever and wherever possible. This agenda should be a new priority topping our list of must do projects. Mental health issues and awareness have been marginalized for far too long and need to be brought to the forefront of our healthcare system within the county. Identifying funding methods and strategies will be key to growing and improving this most crucial sector of our public healthcare system.
    Infectious diseases outreach should be a high priority as we approach the second quarter of our new century. Far too many county residents are infected with various life threatening ailments like TB and most don’t even know they are infected. We need an aggressive, all-encompassing action plan to test all citizens at work, in school and during all medical visits to identify and treat those with infectious diseases like TB, Hepatitis, HPV, HIV, Influenza, meningitis, pneumonia, RSV, etc.

    Protecting patient’s privacy rights and anonymity would be the number one priority. Simply advising the general population to get tested is just not enough. We must actively reach out to underserved communities especially in new immigrant populations where language and cultural barriers or the fear of the medical establishment may be a limiting factor. In a county as diverse as ours greater efforts must be taken to identify and serve those in greatest need of treatment and wellness efforts. It is time to declare war on all infectious disease in our county.

    Please SHARE this post with your family and friends if you agree with me. This is your chance to vote for the people’s candidate, not the candidate supported and paid for by the special interests, big business or developers. I believe in building consensus and agreement, not divisive tactics or bullying. I am for workers’ rights and fair labor practices. I am for the environment and clean, renewable energy sources and clean air and water. I believe in gun control and fully support the March for our lives and a repeal of the second amendment.

    I stand for justice, human rights, LGBTQ rights and for the rights of minorities, immigrants, women and children. I stand for education and the enlightenment of all communities as the gift of knowledge sets them free from the chains of ignorance. I stand for change. Please VOTE for a change and VOTE for Mike Alvarado for District 4 County Supervisor on June 5, 2018. I need your vote to make CHANGE happen! Please SHARE this post and make a difference.

    Please VOTE for Mike Alvarado – County Supervisor – District 4

  8. As usual, we have career politicans continuing to mooch off the tax payors. Not one candidate has expressed any concern about the protecting the citizens of Santa Clara County. I hope they sre aware that illegals live here, they break the law and then are released to continue re-offending again. As long as they remain in the US they are re-offending. What is it about breaking the law that all of you don’t understand.

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