By KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
Toni Duran knocks on a town home door in Hillcrest. There’s no answer.
“In doing this campaign, I’ve actually talked to more people than I ever have for all the canvassing I’ve done,” Duran explained as she walked to the next house. In the wake of the passage of Prop 8 in 2008, Duran professionally canvassed. Her job was to go door-to-door in neighborhoods that voted to oppose marriage equality to give a face to the issue. Although funding for that job dried up, she kept canvassing for other campaigns in the years to come.
As she knocks on a second door, a tiny dog and a woman open the door.
“Hi, my name is Toni Duran. I am running for City Council for District 3. I’m coming out to my neighbors in Hillcrest today to chat and introduce myself,” she said.
The woman is embarrassed to be photographed in her sweats. She and Duran trade easy laughs before Duran starts in on her pitch.
“I’ve worked for Senator Toni Atkins for the past six years. In that time, I’ve actually been the representative for District 3, so I’ve attended the Hillcrest Town Council, Uptown Planners, parking district, the business association,” Duran tells her, explaining her familiarity with the area and its mechanisms of getting things done. Instead of detailing her policy positions, Duran asks the woman what she enjoys about her neighborhood and what could be improved. The woman demurs, so Duran asks her about the street parking permits. The candidate says this is something mentioned frequently by people in North Park bracing for the impact of taking out street parking for bike lanes. The woman is excited now: she details the usefulness of the system because of their proximity to the UCSD Medical Center.
After wrapping up their conversation, Duran invites her to the debate being held at the Hillcrest Town Council between Duran and her fellow Democrat contenders for the seat.
When Duran finishes canvassing the rest of the street, about 1/3 answer their doors.
One issue she faces in the primary between her, Michelle Nguyen, Chris Olsen, Stephen Whitburn, and Adrian Kwiatkowski, is that people are not enthusiastic about the race.
“This race especially, some people look at it as ‘it’s gonna be a Dem, it’s gonna be a person from the LGBT community. I’ll wait it out,’” Duran said. (Since Duran’s interview, Nguyen, a Republican, pulled papers to run in the heavily blue district.) Duran has met people who only plan to get involved when the top two vote-getters face off in the general election. Right now, she needs to ensure she is one of the two who advance to November. While Nguyen is the only Republican, Kwiatkowski has positioned himself as a centrist and Olsen has taken up the most progressive lane, Whitburn has steadily racked up endorsements from many of the top local political groups. Duran’s biggest asset in the race is her supporters. She has been endorsed by two of the people who previously represented District 3 on the City Council: Chris Kehoe and Sen. Toni Atkins.
When Kehoe won the seat in 1993, she was the first openly LGBT+ person in San Diego County to hold an elected position. Since then, the area has undergone major change. San Diego now has more LGBT+ elected officials than any other city in California, including San Francisco.
“We saw [San Francisco] as the mecca — the city that got us started. But San Diego has fast embraced it and I think that’s a lot because what they saw Chris do when she got elected. There was a fear she’ll be the gay person. It turns out she was — and she made some change in many ways there. We got domestic partnership when she was on the City Council for city employees, but they also saw her being serious about everything else, which we always know is the case,” Atkins said about her former boss. “I’ve lived in San Diego since 1985 and I’ve seen a huge shift and I think it’s great.”
‘In San Diego, being gay has become just about a non-issue.’ — Dr. Lillian Faderman
Atkins explained at events nowadays not all the LGBT+ officials can even be acknowledged. “It is kind of cool that in San Diego, there are so many candidates to support who are LGBT. It used to be a big deal when you could acknowledge one. Now I’m afraid I’m going to miss somebody!”
Kehoe believes in some areas, being LGBT+ is considered an asset to being elected, a major change from her first election. In Duran’s race, all four candidates are gay. Since Kehoe was first elected to the seat in 1993, every person who has held it has been LGBT+ (Atkins, Todd Gloria, Chris Ward).
“In San Diego, being gay has become just about a non-issue,” said prominent lesbian historian Dr. Lillian Faderman.
Before becoming a political trailblazer, Kehoe made her name campaigning against Prop 64, a referendum on quarantining AIDS patients that the LGBT+ community feared would be used to create “gay concentration camps.” When she helped resurrect Pride in 1989 after years of financial disaster, she became a well-known local figure. Assisting her campaign was a young Atkins, who had left Virginia to find a more welcoming home in California. Despite Atkins’ own political wins — she has gone from City Council member to the Senate president pro tempore in California — she maintains that Kehoe’s first win was the biggest moment of her life.
“The most exciting moment I’ve ever experienced, amazingly, is not my election to the City Council. It was Chris’. To be in there the night that Chris got elected was an epiphany kind of moment, which is: we can succeed, we can work together and be successful,” Atkins reminisced. “And my second favorite moment was when I got elected to the City Council.”
For her part, Kehoe said her first election win was thrilling and set the course for her life’s work.
“The changes that have taken place are enormous,” Kehoe said. “When Senator Atkins decided to run for Council District 3 in 2000, it was not a foregone assumption that she would win. Toni Atkins’ victory confirmed again that a qualified, smart and hardworking LGBTQ candidate could win — that my ’93 race was not a fluke. Todd Gloria stepped up in the same manner in the next cycle and now we see qualified LGBTQ office holders serving all over the region. Council District 3 has had over 25 years of uninterrupted representation by openly LGBTQ elected officials.”
For many years, Atkins’ trajectory has mirrored that of her former boss. Atkins won the City Council seat Kehoe vacated in 2000 to run for state Assembly. A decade later, Atkins won the same state Assembly seat that Kehoe held for four years until she ran for state Senate. Both women served as the Speaker of the State Assembly. In 2004, Kehoe became a state Senator and in 2016, Atkins did the same. Atkins only surpassed her mentor in 2018 when she became the president pro tempore of the California Senate, a position Kehoe never held. Atkins is both the first woman and first openly LGBT+ person to lead the California Senate.
“It’s not just that we’ve gotten behind these gay candidates, it’s that we’ve recognized talent that other people have recognized as well once they got to statewide office,” explained LGBT+ studies pioneer Dr. Faderman. “[Toni Atkins] became the president pro tem which is really fantastic and a tribute not just to San Diego, but that San Diego recognized talent because these straight people in the state Assembly and state Senate chose Toni Atkins to lead them.”
Like Atkins once did, Duran may follow in her boss’ footsteps as she seeks a position on the City Council.
While Kehoe is no longer an elected official, her presence looms over San Diego and the state. Atkins appointed her to the California Transportation Commission and the California Coastal Commission. She also serves on the Parks Forward Commission and the Community Advisory Council for San Diego History Center’s LGBT+ exhibit.
In addition to her official roles, Kehoe is an important figure in local elections. Alongside Gloria and Atkins, she is a key fundraiser for the candidates she endorses. For many progressive Democrat campaigners, her endorsement offers legitimacy and enough support to propel them into a win. In 2016, San Diego CityBeat’s Ken Stone pointed out then-City Council candidate Chris Ward consistently touted the Kehoe-Atkins endorsement during his campaign. In 2018, Dr. Jen Campbell flipped City Council District 2 with the help of big-name Democrats.
Atkins was an early supporter of Georgette Gomez during her City Council District 9 race, whom she had previously worked with on environmental justice issues. Gomez is on her own quick trajectory to political stardom in San Diego. She was elected president of the City Council by her colleagues as well as the head of MTS. Now, she is in a primary race to replace Representative Susan Davis.
Atkins and Kehoe both enthused about Gomez’ rise.
“To be able to see Georgette Gomez just get elected and step up and step up and be as successful as she has,” Atkins said when discussing the successes of LGBT+ politicians she has helped elect.
“Georgette Gomez’s success as a council member has impressed me so much. As chair of the countywide transit agency, Georgette had to win the confidence and trust of elected officials from all over the county. That is not easy — but she did it! As City Council president, again, she won support from all her colleagues and is doing an outstanding job,” Kehoe said.
For her part, Gomez has come to consider Kehoe and Atkins as mentors. Gomez describes calling them whenever she is faced with a tough decision at City Council. She said Atkins is helpful because unlike many people who approach her as City Council president, she doesn’t have an agenda.
“When I succeeded in winning my election, I called her to get advice: OK, I just won. Now what do you do? So she’s been very supportive in all different levels, without an agenda, which I really appreciate. It’s about just helping me be the best that I’m able to do,” Gomez said.
She sees Atkins as someone who has helped her in her own evolution by advising her on how to carry her values into each new position she holds.
Gomez met Kehoe much later, when she approached her about an endorsement. Kehoe’s support continued after she made it into office and Gomez appreciates calls with Kehoe because the former politician poses intentional questions to help her think through her decisions, instead of telling her what to do.
“I feel that it’s a safe space. It’s a safe conversation that I can have for ultimately helping me to make the best choice,” Gomez said. “When I made the decision to run for Congress, [Kehoe] was one of the first people that said, ‘I know you have to go through your process, but if you end up deciding, I’m 100% with you.’ She was encouraging me, but at the same time, acknowledging that whatever decision you do, it’s going to be the right decision. I respect that a lot.”
Duran trusts Atkins’ judgment so much that when she informed her boss she hoped to run for District 3, she said if Atkins did not endorse her, she would drop her candidacy.
“I said ‘I want to do this, but it’s not something I’m gonna do unless I have your support. If you’re saying to me as your staff member, you won’t support me, then I won’t do it.’ If Toni Atkins says this is something you’re not going to be able to do — that was her job. She did that,” Duran said. “She said, ‘If this is what you want to do, I’ll support you.’”
Like Gomez, Duran never had any initial plans to run.
‘It blew my mind that they were gay, people liked them and they elected them to represent them.’ — Toni Duran
“I never thought I’d be doing this. I never thought I was gonna meet politicians. I never thought I was going to work on political campaigns. I never thought I was gonna work in a political office, much less run. That’s just how it all flowed,” Duran explained. As a young adult in St. Louis, she was mostly closeted and not involved in public advocacy. After moving to San Diego in 2007 and then getting involved in the push against Prop 8, Kehoe, Atkins and Gloria were the first politicians she met in her whole life. “It blew my mind that they were gay, people liked them and they elected them to represent them.”
Kehoe, Atkins, and Gomez have resumes full of “firsts”: first LGBT person elected in San Diego County (Kehoe), first woman and first LGBT president pro tempore of the California Senate (Atkins), first queer Latina on the San Diego City Council and to lead MTS (Gomez). Duran is seeking her personal first this year as she runs her debut campaign for City Council.
“Chris got us started and it feels good to be able to provide that example,” Atkins said, of being an LGBT+ elected official. “You have to give a kid hope that they can aspire to do all these things. I never believed it. Growing up in Appalachia, I didn’t think the world was about me. I was pretty sure it wasn’t until I had mentors to tell me, ‘Yes, you have to channel that energy and that anger and that feeling of unfairness and there isn’t a level playing field. You have to create it and you can work with other people to create it.’”
Without Kehoe’s successful election, Atkins would likely never have run herself or seen a city on the verge of sending a queer Latina to Congress or electing a gay Latino mayor. Of course, the gay rights movement started long before 1993, but other local openly LGBT+ candidates lost. According to Dr. Faderman, the founder of San Diego’s Gay Alliance for Equal Rights, Dr. Al Best ran in 1979. He came in fifth place in a field of 11 candidates.
“I think Al Best probably thought the time had come in San Diego, but it hadn’t quite come,” said Dr. Faderman.
In 1980, Dr. Brad Truax founded the United San Diego Elections Committee, a group dedicated to electing gay and gay-friendly politicians. It would be years before they succeeded in electing an actual gay politician.
Dr. Faderman said, “The community had finally figured out by 1993 how you get behind a gay person and make sure that person wins.”
By the time Kehoe ran, the LGBT+ community’s desire to have representation had reached a fever pitch.
“You have to give people hope. That’s what we did when we got Chris elected. People gave money that had never given money before. And as they saw more and more that it was possible, Chris raised more money than any other candidate in any city race,” even though she was from Mid-City, not affluent coastal areas, Atkins said.
‘Everyone looked at us like… What are the gay people going to do now that she’s in office?… People look at us very differently now.’ — Toni Atkins
In addition to the hopes LGBT+ people projected onto Kehoe, Atkins also remembered people’s fears that she would just be a “gay” politician.
“Everyone looked at us like, ‘Oh my God, what are they going to do? What are the gay people going to do now that she’s in office?’ And you know, what we’re doing is what we care about: housing and transportation and climate change. And we always overlay that with the desire to make sure there’s real equality for all people so we can be who we are and do the work we want to do,” Atkins said. “All of the things we do in the policy arena affects change in attitudes. Chris really got the ball rolling and I see that people look at us very differently now.”
Kehoe did secure certain advances in LGBT+ rights while on City Council, including in 1998 overturning a 1966 ordinance enforcing what was considered appropriate gender presentation, according to Faderman. However, her presence as an official who cared not just about advancing her own rights, but also in caring about every issue in the community, widened people’s perceptions about members of the LGBT+ community.
After her wins, Kehoe chose to spend her political capital helping other candidates succeed.
“There are many reasons to help others, especially women candidates, be successful in elections and in elected office,” Kehoe said. “So many San Diegans helped me not only in my first campaign but to learn about and understand our experience as women, as lesbians and as activists. I’m mindful that I must help and pass along what I have learned.”
She brought up the slow change of the last 25 years on the City Council to be more progressive has had positive impacts, even as more needs to be done for poor families, communities of color and homeless San Diegans. “We still need to press further and elect gender non-conforming candidates and many more candidates of color, especially African American candidates, in San Diego.
“When women, LGBTQ and candidates of color enter politics, the conversation changes; it broadens and goes deeper to address issues that are important to those communities. We are seeing it here in San Diego and on the national stage right now,” Kehoe said.
Gomez said representation is essential in changing conversations.
“We go through life and either we get rejected because of who we are or who your partner is. There’s a story there and that story is based on either rejection or oppression. If you experienced that, you want to break through that and you want to create a different environment. So, bringing that experience to whenever policy is being crafted or adopted is critical and you only are able to create a good outcome if you’re at the table,” Gomez said. “If it’s just all males at the table, that outcome of that policy is going to be based and shaped by that. So for me, being a woman, being a woman of color, being a woman that is part of the LGBTQ, I bring those perspectives to the table.”
While Gomez is glad harder discussions about issues such as the trans community, domestic violence, and police accountability are being had in City Council, she hopes the result will be action.
“I’m very hopeful that [in] 2020, even if I’m not there, conversations can lead to shaping new policies that are more inclusive and really reflective of [the] community,” Gomez said. “We have come a long way and we’re having better, more difficult conversations, but then sometimes it’s the same. It’s a mix of both. But I do think that by getting a new mayor, that’s going to be pretty significant.”
Atkins and Kehoe, as well as San Diego’s LGBT+ community at large, have not just worked to change the conversation at home. They mobilized to support Tammy Baldwin as she became the first openly LGBT+ person in the U.S. Senate and have helped other LGBT+ candidates.
“I can’t tell you what it felt like to see Danica Roem be the first transgender person elected in the country from my home state of Virginia. I would’ve never thought I could get elected in my home state, which is why I love California,” Atkins said.
This hope for the changing conversation in San Diego is coupled with a fear of what is happening at a federal level.
“What’s so sad is, in the face of all of [us showing] the world that we could be the leaders and that we cared about everything everybody else cared about, is to see what’s happening now at the federal level with this administration trying to come at us as if we shouldn’t be full citizens entitled to the protections, the respect, the dignity. It’s just shocking,” Atkins continued.
Kehoe is also worried about what is happening federally. “It’s getting better all the time at the local level, but at the federal level I have never been as worried about our country as I am now. Political action is a process. There is no finish line. When you win an election, the work is just beginning. We must all be ever vigilant and take our responsibilities as citizens seriously.”
Gomez is not afraid of the harsher political environment she will face if she is elected to Congress.
“I’m going to do the work and I’m going to find ways to push things regardless of what the environment is. To me, my commitment is to the community. My commitment is to really create a government agency, no matter which agency it is, to be responsive to the people; that, to me, is my commitment and I’m going to work towards that. I don’t look at things from, ‘I have a better environment here locally, so I should stay because it’s safe,’” Gomez said. “To me, it’s about delivering a government at the local level, at the state, at the federal level, to be responsive to the people. I will do the work no matter what.”
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.