Housing, civil rights and safety net services emerged as key issues at a Monday night forum hosted by LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit BAYMEC and featuring four of the five candidates running to replace state Sen. Jim Beall in 2020.
The contenders—ex-Federal Elections Commission chair Ann Ravel, Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese, termed-out Assemblywoman Nora Campos and San Jose Councilman Johnny Khamis—all vowed to champion the interests of queer and trans people in Sacramento. But they gave varied approaches to tackling Silicon Valley’s housing, transit and other social issues.
Their answers, relayed to an audience of a few-dozen or so at the Billy DeFrank Center, will inform BAYMEC’s endorsement in the coming months.
In keeping with the theme of the night, though, the four panelists touted their longstanding support for the queer and trans community.
As a trustee of the East Side Union High School District in the 1990s, Cortese recalled how LGBTQ cultural competency training touched off controversy among families and staff. Thankfully, he said, “we had a board majority that made it happen,” but it put him and his colleagues in the crosshairs. On the San Jose City Council some years later, he faced similar backlash for voting on a policy by fellow councilor and LGBTQ pioneer Ken Yeager to extend employee benefits to same-sex partners.
“We were all threatened with recall,” Cortese recounted from the dais. To this day, he added, the South Bay Labor Council cites that example in a training video “on how to stand firm in the face of conflict.”
Ravel credited another prominent Silicon Valley LGBTQ champion—Wiggsy Sivertsen—for inspiring her to urge the US Department of Justice to remove homophobic language from a legal brief that claimed gay men abuse children.
“The fact that they had just put such a scurrilous lie in a brief was so offensive,” she said. But, she added, “I was able to get that changed.”
Khamis—an independent and the only non-Democrat on the panel—said he found his way to public service by serving on San Jose’s Human Relations Commission. As a refugee child from Lebanon, he said he suffered discrimination firsthand during his early years in the US. That experience taught him at a young age that “we should be treating everyone with dignity,” he said. And that “LGBTQ rights are human rights.”
Raised by a father who marched with Cesar Chavez, Campos said she, too, understood from a young age that “everyone should have the ability to live in a safe place, to make a decent wage,” and should have “the ability to love whom they want to love.”
As a San Jose council member during Yeager’s tenure on the same governing body a decade ago, Campos said she developed a strong alliance with him. “We both came from marginalized communities,” she said. “And we both understood that we would be putting forth policies that weren’t always going to be popular.”
When asked about their thoughts on a Supreme Court case involving a business owner discriminating against gay people under the guise of “religious liberty,” each panelist condemned the idea.
As an attorney decades ago, Cortese said he represented two lesbian coaches at a parochial school who was being excluded from activities because of her sexual orientation He represented her pro bono and won a settlement—although, because of a state exemption for religious institutions, he was unable to win her job back. “It’s tragic when you see that happen,” he said.
Campos said, as a woman of color, she knows full well the weight of discrimination based on one’s identity. “As a senator, I will make sure that we’re at the table with our colleagues to make policy that strengthens the laws against discrimination,” she said. She added: “We need training connected to certain policies, because no one should ever feel that they’re going to lose their job or that they’re going to be discriminated against because of who they are.”
At San Jose City Hall, Khamis said he’s been pushing for more inclusive recruiting materials to ensure that the local police force and other departments are hiring people from protected classes.
There’s plenty that could be done by the state Legislature to make sure businesses don’t discriminate on the basis of gender or sexual orientation, Ravel said. And as a state lawmaker, she said she would advocate for laws that penalize that kind of behavior. “Discrimination and that kind of impact on employment is absolutely unconscionable, and should not be continued,” she said.
With Trump in office, California and local governments like Santa Clara County and San Jose have had to oppose a number of federal policies—and the president’s repeated threats to slash funding. Cortese said he’s been on the front lines of that resistance since Trump’s first executive order threatening to withhold federal funding from the county.
“We filed a federal injunction,” Cortese said. “But he’s still trying to take money away” from LGBTQ people, Planned Parenthood and other causes. “You have to be ready to back flow the money that’s being taken away,” he added. “That’s what we’ve had to do at the county … the state has to be ready to essentially backfill those takeaways, too.”
Campos agreed, saying as a senator she’d make a point of protecting financial support for vital services that the federal government is actively trying to destroy. That’s why people need to get out and vote more Democrats in office, she said. “We’ve got to be bold here,” she added. “Because as California goes, the nation goes.”
Khamis smirked when he took the mic.
“I don’t know about voting for just Democrats,” he said, noting that there are “plenty” of no-party-preference candidates “doing a great job.”
Khamis said he left the Republican Party because of Trump’s rhetoric on immigration and refugees. And from the council, he said he’s supported every lawsuit the city’s joined opposing Trump’s attacks on policies and services that protect marginalized people.
As an Obama appointee on the FEC who’s “rooted out money laundering” and “gone after the Koch brothers,” Ravel said she knows “how to fight the system.”
When she stepped down from her post as national elections watchdog, she said she predicted that “what was going to happen was the decimation of all the federal agencies that are meant to protect people.”
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.
If elected to the state Legislature, Ravel said, she’d stand up to those same forces. “I know how to fight these things,” she said. “I have actually worked with [California Attorney General] Xavier Becerra on some of these things … to get some of these laws overturned.”
She also took a shot at Cortese, who mentioned his support for the county’s policy of limiting cooperation with federal immigration agents. “I find it interesting that my colleague here mentioned the county’s sanctuary ordinance because he wrote an op-ed in the Mercury News to say that he would eliminate it,” she said. “It’s kind of conflicting.”
Cortese dismissed her characterization as false. “I just call it making stuff up,” he said. In 2011, he explained, he “led the charge to make us the second county in the country” to adopt a so-called sanctuary policy. “The op-ed she’s referring to said we should … [see] to what extent our sheriff should be cooperating with ICE.”
Housing and Homelessness
Khamis and Cortese traded barbs over a question about how they’d tackle the state’s housing crisis, which disproportionately impacts queer and trans people.
“Sometimes it just takes money,” Cortese said. “At the county, we haven’t been waiting for the state. We’ve been innovating.”
“The count has barely started working on housing issues,” Khamis countered, saying Cortese has been on the county board for a decade and “he’s turned down projects” that would have housed the homeless. “I don’t think they’re innovating, and I wish they were doing a whole lot more,” he added.
“It’s difficult to take that from the city, when we passed a $950 million housing bond,” Cortese replied. “the city hasn’t done that. I think we’re the innovative ones … you should follow our lead. Pass your own bond, and then we’ll have more money to work with.”
Cortese said too many cities have lacked the political will to build enough dense housing around transit corridors, which would make communities not only more sustainable but more affordable. One of the bills he supported, he said, was Assemblyman David Chiu’s proposal to create a housing development corporation that could raise money to address “gaps that we have in the system.”
Campos said she’s been advocating for more housing production for the better part of the past two decades, from her time on the San Jose council to her tenure in the state Assembly. “What I would do differently in the senate,” she said, is “to put money aside in the state budget to house populations that have not been housed.”
What California should do to keep people in their homes, Khamis said, is lower taxes and cut through red tape. “Every time we increase taxes and increase regulations, we get less of something,” he said. “I think we need to stop the increase in taxes, look at what we have and start deregulating and reducing fees.”
One thing that’s missing from state legislation that takes aim at the housing crisis, Ravel said, is a focus on affordability. “LGBTQ seniors and youth are clearly the ones who need the most housing,” she said. “One of the problems is that a lot of these bills that people have been talking so reverentially about are not specifying low-income housing. And that’s the problem we’re having. So, all the bills should be focused primarily on affordable, low-income housing. That’s very clear in my mind. I don’t think we have a dearth of housing for the multi-millionaires. They seem to be able to find them.”
As a state senator, Ravel said she’d declare a housing emergency. And she’d support legislation similar to a Beall bill that just got vetoed: one that would bring back, tax-increment financing for below-market-rate housing.
Making Their Case
In closing, Campos said she would continue to advocate for more housing, social services and equity for LGBTQ people and others in the state Legislature. “I have been at the forefront of all of the issues that affect our community that we’re talking about today,” she said, vowing to keep on fighting if voters elect her back to Sacramento.
Khamis said some people warned him to not even bother angling for a BAYMEC endorsement because “they would only support Democrats.” However, he added, “I want the LGBTQ community to know that they have supporters everywhere. Including in a nonpartisan Johnny Khamis. I don’t want to work for a political party. I want to work on solving issues that affect the community.”
Both Ravel and Cortese promised to hire trans women if elected to represent the 15th State Senate District. And Ravel said she would push to decriminalize consensual sex work and “do something about” SESTA-FOSTA—federal legislation that has reportedly pushed commercial sex sellers back on the streets. Ultimately, she said, becoming a state senator would give her a chance to continue work she’s done on the bureaucratic side of government, from advancing civil rights as an attorney for the County Counsel to regulating undue corporate influence in state and national politics on the FPPC and FEC.
“I’ve spent my whole life fighting for justice,” she said, “for truth and integrity. And I will fight for equal rights and justice for everyone. And I mean everyone.”
Cortese cited his record of opposing Trump’s hardline stance against immigrants, LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups as making him well-suited to continue the fight in the California capitol.
“There are really good people in this race,” he said. “The question is who’s going to land on their feet running on the very issues we’re talking about here today.” As someone who’s served on the county board as it became one of the “greatest local government leaders on civil rights,” he said, “I’ve worked with the best, I’ve learned from the best.”
He added: “I just hope you can send me to Sacramento where I can continue that work.”