Saturday, March 08, 2008

Queer Democrats Hold Love-Fest for School Board Candidates


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Sarah Reece, John Lee Evans, Richard Barrera, José Preciado

In sharp contrast to the previous month’s meeting of the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club — a debate between incumbent city attorney Mike Aguirre and two challengers, Lee Burdick (who has since withdrawn from the race) and Dan Coffey — the club’s February 28 meeting was a virtual love-fest between the club and three school board candidates. The three — John Lee Evans, running against incumbent Mitz Lee for District A of the San Diego Unified School District board; San Diego Unified District D candidate Richard Barrera; and José Preciado, candidate for District 2 of the San Diego County Board of Education — all scored 100 percent on the club’s issues questionnaire, and all emphasized their commitment to public education as contrasted with the skepticism of their opponents.

“I’m running for the school board because free public education is the cornerstone of our democracy, and is a lot more than just learning to read and write,” said Evans. “Technically, this is a non-partisan race, but do you really want people on the school board who want to privatize everything? In 2005, Mitz Lee refused to support a resolution to ask the California legislature to guarantee funding for public education.” Evans proudly boasted that “I’m the product of a public school education” and also said he had taught preschool while himself a college student.

“The public school district is the foundation of our democracy, and also the family,” said Barrera. “My father and grandparents came to this country as immigrants, not speaking English, and the public school system helped enculturate us. I have hope for the future if our public school system continues to work. Our problems are severe. Ten times as many young Black and Latino men are going to prison than graduating from college.”

“I’m a first-generation American, and because of public education my three siblings and I went to college and are contributing members of our community,” said Preciado. “Even though I’ve only been a citizen for five years, I’ve been registering voters and working on campaigns since high school. Public education is the root of our society, and the primary function of a County Board of Education member is to promote public education.”

Asked why Queer people, who ordinarily don’t have children, should care about the public schools, Barrera said, “We just came from the reason why” — referring to a community vigil held earlier that evening at the Center in memory of Lawrence King, the 15-year-old Oxnard high-school student murdered by a classmate for being Gay. “I’m on the board of the San Diego Cooperative Charter School, the only public school in San Diego that’s marched in the Pride Parade. Where we begin with our kids and community is not just talking tolerance, but appreciation and love. When we raise kids in an environment of love, we have amazing possibilities for the future.”

“We used to hope for tolerance; acceptance needs to be the standard,” Preciado added. “Government works for all of us when it serves and provides equal opportunities. We as a society are a collection of individuals, and society cannot persist if individuals are all we care about. Those baby boomers will need a strong workforce to pay into Social Security.”

“Ditto and ditto,” said Evans. “I do have one other answer, and it’s related also to it being a non-partisan race. I talk to Republicans and say it’s really in their self-interest to have a well-educated population. If we don’t create a workforce, we won’t have a strong economy. If we have a permanent underclass, we’ll have to spend more money on prisons.”

One club member claimed the public schools had had a “massive failure” in addressing bullying — including the kind of constant homophobic tormenting Lawrence King received from his fellow students before one of them killed him — and said that the much-ballyhooed creation of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA’s) on several campuses actually made matters worse because they “put a bull’s-eye on the students in them.”

“Having talked to both kids and adults, certainly nothing has been more targeted [by bullies] than gender identity and sexual orientation,” Evans said. “I would love to form a coalition with conservative religious people with very strong feelings against this community to talk about violence in our community. There needs to be training for everyone in the district, and it needs to be incorporated into the entire curriculum.” Evans also told the story of a young man who grew up with his mother and her Lesbian partner and was told by nis mom “never to invite anybody to the house, for his own protection.”

“We have a start with Sheila Kuehl’s bill,” said Barrera — referring to SB 777, passed last year, which rewrote the definition of “gender identity” in the California Education code, gave Transgender students specific protection against hate incidents for the first time, and has been targeted for repeal in a referendum by the radical Right. “At our school, two years ago, out of concerns with increased incidents of bullying, we put together a task force of not only parents and teachers but students. Young people want to work with and respect each other.”

“Ditto, ditto, right?” said Preciado — who went on to disagree strongly with the club member who’d asked the original question. “At Sweetwater High School, there’s an LGBT Alliance, and most of the members are straight. It’s working really well because students are making the right decisions. I would like to find opportunities to have students share with other students how good it can be. Because I work at a college campus, I deal with a lot of students who aren’t used to being able to be who they are. It needs to change. We need to create environments where everyone is safe.”

Asked whether it’s possible to maintain education funding given the massive California state budget deficit and the refusal of Republican legislators to support tax increases — and where they would propose to cut funding in other areas of the state budget to avoid cuts in education — Barrera said, “We’ve got to start a conversation about going after revenue sources, but the real answer to the question is what we are going to do about it in our community. I fully support going to the voters and asking for a parcel tax increase. If we step forward as San Diegans we’ve got a better chance to lobby the state.”

“We need to encourage our legislators to examine the tax structure of our state,” said Preciado. “Policymakers have been given an option to cut 10 percent across the board, and that’s talking about devastating school districts. We need to encourage the governor to lead and find fiscal opportunities for the state to avoid cutting public education. The way our economy is going, it’s not appropriate to cut vocational training or special education, and it goes on and on. We aren’t having the right conversation.”

“We need to speak up very loudly for funding for public education,” said Evans. “We are one of the largest school districts in the country, and our voices should be heard in Sacramento and Washington. Only two to three people in the state understand the funding formulas [for state aid to public education]. Making drastic cuts is penny-wise, pound-foolish. We need schools now and we will need them in the future. [The threatened funding cuts] will discourage people from becoming teachers — and teachers are the last people we should be cutting.”

Eventually the club endorsed all three candidates by acclamation. Evans and Preciado were endorsed unanimously, and Barrera had only one opponent — and later she said that she “didn’t mean it.” The club also heard from Sarah Reece, who’s organizing the “decline to sign” campaigns to keep people from signing the initiative to put a permanent ban on marriage equality for same-sex couples into the state constitution, and agreed to make participating in that campaign a major organizational priority for March and April.

Finally, the club considered the District 5 race for the San Diego City Council in an unusual way. Both declared candidates are Republicans, and one, Carl DeMaio, is openly Gay. Nonetheless, it was DeMaio whom former club president Craig Roberts asked the club to single out with an “unacceptable” rating, partly because DeMaio, through a group he founded called the Performance Institute, has been a strong advocate for privatizing city jobs, and partly because “there are so-called ‘non-partisan’ organizations in this community that have endorsed him months ago.”

“A lot of DeMaio’s positions are odious, but he is a member of our community,” club member Carlton Littleton replied, speaking against the motion.

“Being part of our community comes with some responsibilities, including being a voice for our community and not against it,” said San Diego Democratic Party chair and former San Diego Democratic Club president Jess Durfee. “He opposes same-sex marriage and thinks it should go before a vote of the people. When he takes a position like that against our community, he is unacceptable.”

Two other former club presidents, Gloria Johnson and Jeri Dilno, questioned DeMaio’s refusal to attend a club meeting. Dilno, who as the club’s current vice-president for political action is responsible for inviting candidates to speak to the club, said that on three separate occasions DeMaio had told her the date of the meeting conflicted with the official announcement of his candidacy — and he refused to attend even though she pointed out to him that his event was scheduled to end at 7 and he could come speak to the club after that. Johnson said, “I had a personal conversation with him just before Pride, ad I asked him if he would participate [in a club event]. He said, ‘Oh, no, I’m not going to be there.’”

Eventually, the motion to rate Carl DeMaio “unacceptable” for City Council passed with no votes against it and only one abstention.