Wednesday, June 28, 2017

By Scott Herhold

Sometimes it takes criticism from another quarter to make you understand your own beliefs. That’s the way I feel about California’s ban on official travel to states that are seen as hostile to LGBT rights.

When California’s new law went into effect at the beginning of the year, it banned paid travel by state employees to Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee. I saw it as a symbolic move that did not offer much grist for a columnist. The culture wars tire me.

Now Attorney General Xavier Becerra has added Alabama, Kentucky, South Dakota and Texas to the list. And on social media and elsewhere, the red states have retaliated with mocking attacks at California’s political correctness.

“It’s funny how the very state that is so adamantly against keeping terrorists out of our country — they opposed the president’s travel ban — now wants to keep California out of Texas,” said Marc Rylander, the communications director for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. “I guess that’s California logic.”

Now I’ve always liked Texans. They speak their mind and they’re unafraid to be quoted. I understand politics, too, and attacking California is always good politics in the South.

But Rylander’s comment departs so far from logic that I’m tempted to say that California should warn citizens away from the Texas attorney general’s office.

Aside from the words “travel ban,” there is no real comparison between the president’s travel ban from Muslim countries and a California law written by Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Cupertino, to emphasize commitment to LGBT rights.

Donald Trump’s order affects broad classes of people, curtailing their freedom for things not in their control. California’s travel ban is narrowly crafted — it affects publicly-funded travel by state employees — and the states on the banned list have the power to change their approach to LGBT rights. Sacramento is not trying to say that Californians cannot visit Texas on their own.

Is the California law perfect? No. It leaves a lot to interpretation. And Gov. Jerry Brown seemed to flout its intent with a trip to China, which bans gay marriage and does not extend the same kind of rights to its LGBT citizens.

(California’s law does include a few exceptions, like trips meant to retain grant funding or collections, or necessary travel by law enforcement. The attorney general’s office said Friday it has yet to issue an opinion on whether the ban will eventually apply to athletic staff members from UC and CSU, which could affect games.)

But the criticism from the banned states ignores history. A resolution from Tennessee lawmakers, for example, says, “we urge the other 48 states to refrain from imposing their unfounded moral judgment on their sister states as California has done to prevent escalating foolishness.”

Unfounded? Almost anyone who has grown up gay or lesbian or transgender can tell you stories of prejudice and bullying they have faced. As the most successful civil rights movement of the last four decades, the cause of gay rights has relied on the willingness to confront that prejudice directly — in large part by coming out of the closet.

California’s travel ban to the eight states is a modest thing, a symbolic rather than an economic weapon. But the criticism it engenders should remind us of where we stand. The defense of civil rights is a moral judgment, yes, and one that all Americans ought to share

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

South Bay Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Campbell) and Los Angeles Sen. Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) were in a mischievous mood when they stopped by KQED’s Sacramento bureau recently to talk about their paths to the State Legislature as openly gay men.

Low is chair of the Legislature’s LGBT caucus and Lara is vice chair. Both men arrived wearing appropriately lavender ties and Low playfully sat on Lara’s lap to pose for a photo.

It wasn’t always so easy to be public about their sexual orientation.  Low remembers his very first campaign for local office more than a decade ago. At the time, many of his friends knew he was gay — but his parents did not. That changed after a local reporter covering the race found out.

“And then on the front page of the paper it said ‘Evan Low, 21 years old, Chinese American and openly gay runs for city council.’  I had to tell them before they read that local paper,” Low recalls.

At the time, Low says, it was hard finding the words to tell his parents.

“Even in the Chinese culture, the word, they always said openly gay but the translation they would use is “admits.” Like an admission of guilt.

Low is fourth generation California but when he was growing up “no one talked about LGBT, there was no one on TV so I found myself stumbling through Barnes & Noble getting lost in the gay and lesbian books section,”

Now 34 years old and serving his second term in the Assembly, Low says he’s been shaped by those early experiences in his work as a legislator.

For his part, Senator Lara, 42, is unabashedly liberal. He’s one of the lead supporters of SB 562, legislation that would help create a single payer (or “Medicare for all”) health care system in California. Lara says as a gay man he feels an obligation to tackle big issues, even when they’re controversial.

“We stand on the shoulders of giants that have come before us in the LGBT caucus that have pushed these big issues,” Lara said. “As legislators we need to have those discussions but we also have to figure out how to get this (single payer) right.”

Like Low, Lara describes his coming out as overcoming isolation.

“Growing up in East L.A., I really didn’t see any role models in West Hollywood,” Lara says. “All I would see were white men.” It was only when he went to college that he met other out Latinos “with our own gay Latin icons with telenovela stars and singers.”

Lara says his coming out was made easier because his youngest brother Vinny came out first. “He came out with guns ablazing,” Lara jokes, “he was like ‘I don’t care, I want to go fashion school. ‘” It was a long process, but Lara says his relationship with his father is on firm footing

As legislators Low and Lara see part of their job as being open to questions from colleagues about their personal stories and how they relate to their thinking on issues.

As Lara puts it, “I’ve had my Republican colleagues come to me sometimes after a heated debate on something that’s passionate for me and say ‘I get it, I understand.’ Because they understand my story, my upbringing and what I care about.”

Being openly gay also gives their colleagues in the Legislature a safe place to share family stories — a sounding board for how to support their LGBT children and other family members.

The LGBT caucus was created 15 years ago by Sen. Sheila Kuehl and others. Today the caucus has eight members, including Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes from Riverside County and two from Stockton — Assemblymember Susan Eggman and Sen. Cathleen Galgiani.

In the earliest days of the gay and lesbian rights movement, the leadership was sometimes criticized for being mostly male and white. As Asian and Latino Americans, Low and Lara  hoping to broaden the movement.

“We’re really showing mainstream gay culture that there’s a place for us to integrate all our communities into our LGBT caucus movement,” Lara said.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Uber and Lyft have had lots of success getting friendly laws passed at the state Capitol. For that, they can thank young, tech-friendly Democratic lawmakers, who have teamed up with Republicans who generally support fewer regulations. At the head of that coalition is Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell), who co-founded the Legislature’s tech and millennial caucuses.

The 34-year-old Low, who was elected in 2014, has also written legislation to make it easier for the taxi industry to compete with ride-hailing companies.

State regulators in recent years decided to oversee Uber and Lyft, allowing the companies to avoid the patchwork of local rules that taxis have to deal with. Low’s new legislation aims to regulate cabs regionally so that they also won’t need city-by-city permits.

The idea, Low said, is for the state to create a more level playing field and prepare for the impact future autonomous vehicles will have on how Californians travel. We spoke with Low about the role of the Legislature in shaping how Uber and Lyft, which are known formally as transportation network companies, or TNCs, operate. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Monday, May 22, 2017

LGBT legislative staffers and their allies have formed their own association in Sacramento, believed to be the first in the country based at a statehouse. They are publicly launching the group Monday (May 22) at an event being held to mark Harvey Milk Day.

Dubbed the Capitol LGBT Association, the employee affinity group is open to anyone working in the Statehouse, whether for legislators or state officeholders, at state agencies and departments, or at advocacy groups with offices in Sacramento. Membership is also open to those staffing the district offices of state lawmakers.

While there is a similar group for LGBT congressional staffers in Washington, D.C., the California group appears to be the first one formed at the state level. The Golden State also saw the creation of the first affinity group for LGBT state lawmakers, which formed in 2002.

"There is a need for the staff to organize and have that group identity as well. For members around the Capitol, we all need support," said Carrie Martin Holmes, 37, a policy consultant working for Senator Jim Beall (D-San Jose) and vice president of the Capitol LGBT Association.

Holmes, who identifies as queer and last July married her wife, an Oakland firefighter, has worked in the Capitol for seven years. She started off in a fellowship program, and then went to work in the secretary of state's office until being hired by gay former state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who presided over her wedding. With Leno termed out of office last year, she joined Beall's staff in November.

"In every profession, and a lot of leadership groups, people with more privilege end up there. We see the same thing in the Capitol and in the queer community as well," said Holmes. "So I think our focus is on making sure we are bringing people in who are underrepresented."

The association aims to promote professional mentorship, career development, and networking opportunities as well as serve as a resource for its members. Already, 80 people have either joined or expressed interest in doing so, according to board members.

"I think it is wonderful. There has been an informal network of LGBT staff who know each other socially or professionally," said Dharia McGrew, 39, a lesbian and a senior policy analyst for the California Dental Association. "It is really heartening to see this group formalize in the way it is coming together."

For five years McGrew had worked for the state Legislature in various positions. She is serving as the dental association's lobbyist liaison on its board.

"It is really useful to have ways of connecting with members of your community with different job titles and who are at different stages of their life to have as a resource," she said.

All 15 of the group's founding board members happen to be LGBT and represent the community's diversity in gender and ethnicity. But being LGBT is not required to join the group, and members of all political parties are welcome. The only membership requirement is paying a $20 annual fee.

Ryan VanZuylen, 28, who is gay and works as a legislative aide for Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin (D-Thousand Oaks), is the association's events coordinator on the board. He is looking forward to having more frank and open conversations with other members of the group about working in the political arena, especially with those who have spent years in the trenches of the Capitol.

"I hope to learn about some of the difficulties they have faced working in the building and learn how to grow more as a legislative employee and legislative aide," said VanZuylen, who had been living in San Francisco until he was named a Capitol Fellow in 2015. "A lot of these issues I might be facing now, people faced before and probably many times over. Hearing how they faced it would probably be really helpful."

For years there had been talk of forming such an affinity group for employees in the state Capitol. With the backing of gay Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell), who in January became chair of the California Legislative LGBT Caucus, a core group of staffers began to seriously look at launching the association earlier this year.

"He really wanted us to be able to do this," said Biswajit "Bish" Paul, Ph.D., 32, a 2017 California Council on Science and Technology Science and Technology Policy Fellow. Initially placed in Low's office, Paul, who is gay, has now been assigned to the staff of the Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee, chaired by Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Palo Alto). "We've been able to move much faster because we had Low's support behind us."

Participation in the association is outside of the staffer's day jobs, and it will not be endorsing candidates or backing specific legislation, noted Paul, president of the association's board. But it will serve as a unified voice to ensure certain issues are being addressed, he explained.

"A lot of us, like other people in the country, are worried about what rights might be taken away and what could come down the federal pike. We wanted to be able to build a resistance and be able to do things if things do go bad to protect our loved ones," said Paul, a molecular biologist who 18 years ago moved from India to Seattle, where his husband still lives.

He is in the process of applying for permanent residency, and sees his role with the staff association as a way to speak up for other immigrants and queer residents of the state.

"There are a lot of issues we wanted to work on, " said Paul, "but we felt we needed to organize to be able to work on so many different issues."

By offering mentorship and trainings on different skills and topics, Paul believes the association can play a role in recruiting more LGBT people to work in the Capitol and assist them with their career development and advancement.

"We wanted to make sure in the future we always have, as soon as a staffer comes in, a way to introduce them to a community and make sure they meet the right people," he said. "We want to have job opportunities for them so there is more queer representation inside the building."

Piggybacking off the event celebrating Milk, the late San Francisco supervisor who was the first out LGBT elected official in the state, allows the association to appropriate his famous line "I am here to recruit you," noted Paul, as it works to sign up more members.

Holmes credited Paul with building excitement about the association and recruiting people already to the join both it and the board. It is starting out with a strong foundation, she said, due to his leadership.

"People are showing up and that is a response to both the enthusiasm of the group, the diversity of the leadership we are putting in place, and the real organizational talent that Bish has," she said. "It just seems like this group is going to get a lot done, and it is a really fun group."

The association's public coming out party will coincide with the Harvey Milk Birthday Bash the LGBT legislative caucus is hosting. The event takes place from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Monday, May 22 in Room 317 at the State Capitol, 1315 10th Street in downtown Sacramento.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The California Legislature has readily embraced its status as vanguard of the "resistance" against President Trump. Now, a Silicon Valley Democrat is ramping up that opposition with a formal measure calling for Trump's removal from office.

Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell) introduced a resolution on Wednesday asking the president to resign from office — and if he doesn't, calling on Congress to impeach him.

The nonbinding measure would not have the force of law, as only Congress has the authority to undertake impeachment proceedings. Low said he was compelled to introduce the provocative, if symbolic, measure in the wake of a series of controversies facing Trump in the last week, including the firing of James B. Comey as FBI director and recent reports that Comey documented in a memo a request by Trump to halt the investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

"We can't wait any longer for the next shoe to drop," Low said in an interview.

The resolution, AJR 17, details a laundry list of actions that Trump detractors call inappropriate, from the president's continued entanglements in his business dealings to allegations that he disclosed highly classified information to Russian officials.

Low initially drafted the bill months ago, but said it was the Comey firing that inspired him to finally submit the measure.

Since Trump's election, state legislators have often acted in ways seen as direct knocks to Trump, either through legislation, such as the so-called "sanctuary state" bill meant to blunt the president's immigration enforcement, or resolutions. Earlier this week, a resolution by Low to abolish the Electoral College was approved by the Assembly.

The new resolution comes as national Democrats are increasingly speaking openly about impeachment, although that decision lies with the Republicans who control Congress.

California Democrats have been eager to jab at the president, but some have signaled a weariness with constantly talking about Trump. 

"I don't think we should react to everything he does," Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) said in an interview last week.

Low acknowledged that tension, saying, "There are many issues that affect individuals in their daily lives. At the same time, we have an obligation to our country and it's important... to call it as we see it."

Low said he also grappled with how his measure could worsen California's already tense relationship with the federal government.

"I'm always concerned about unintended consequences and the negative ramifications that can occur from this, which is why for me this took great pause and thought," he said. "But... this is why it's country over politics."

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Donald Trump's characterization of Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists during his presidential campaign angered Heidi Sainz, whose family is from Mexico and who has close friends who are immigrants. She was also upset that she couldn't do anything about it at the ballot box because she was a year shy of being able to vote.

Sainz favors a bill in the California Legislature that would lower the voting age to 17, which she thinks would give a voice to more people affected by the outcome of elections.

"Looking at all the protests throughout this year throughout all the high schools across the nation, we could see a lot of the minors were protesting because they felt as if they didn't have a voice," said Sainz, a senior at Inderkum High School in Sacramento.

Lawmakers in more than a dozen states are trying to increase voter participation by targeting young people. Their bills are among nearly 500 pieces of legislation introduced around the country this year to make voting easier, according to a March analysis by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice.

While Republican-leaning states have moved to tighten voting rules — nearly 90 such bills have been introduced — those efforts have been outstripped by the number of bills seeking to expand access to the polls.

"A lot of young people last year wanted to make their voices heard but were unable to do so because the rules prohibited them," said Jonathan Brater, counsel with the nonpartisan Brennan Center Democracy Program.

"That has certainly renewed interest in making the system more accessible," Brater said.

Democrats and Republicans have supported efforts to expand access, particularly online registration. But it's mostly Republicans who are pushing restrictions such as requiring photo identification at the polls.

Roughly 20 states are considering voter ID laws this year that supporters say prevent fraud and boost public confidence in elections. Critics say such laws target minorities and the poor, who might not have driver's licenses and find it difficult to obtain them.

Recent voting expansion efforts include automatic registration and extending absentee voting opportunities.

Republicans control the governorship and legislature in 25 states and so far have been relatively successful in pushing through the more restrictive laws. Democrats control just a half-dozen states.

In California, where Democrats command a supermajority in the Legislature and control the governor's mansion, lawmakers say they want to take the lead in expanding voting access as other states move to restrict it.

The bill to lower the voting age to 17 proposes an amendment to the state Constitution. Passage would require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature and approval by voters.

Assemblyman Evan Low, the bill's author, believes now is a good time to lower the voting age. Britain's vote to leave the European Union and the ouster of South Korea's president have shown people the importance of voting and holding public servants accountable, Low said.

The Silicon Valley Democrat also pointed to the election of Trump, whom Low and his Democratic colleagues routinely criticize.

"We've realized that democracy is relatively fragile," Low said.

Lowering the voting age could help foster a sense of civic duty before teens move away from home to attend college or start a job and become less motivated to vote, he added.

Tyler Christensen, one of Sainz's classmates at Inderkum High School, said he's torn on the issue.

"I liked the idea when I was 17," said Christensen, who turned 18 in February. "But now that it doesn't matter for me anymore, I feel like a lot of people are still too immature."

Sen. Joel Anderson, a Republican from the San Diego area, said he supports encouraging young people to vote but opposes some approaches pushed by Democrats.

He voted against a 2014 bill that legalized preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds because he worried it would make voter rolls less accurate and lead to voter fraud. He thinks Low's proposed amendment to lower the voting age is simply an effort to get more Democratic votes.

"Every poll that I've seen says that young people tend toward voting for Democrats, so I believe that it's self-serving," he said. "It can't just be about gaming elections for your own support."

In Iowa, two Republicans introduced bills this year to expand teen voting. One bill would have allowed 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they turned 18 by the general election. The other would have allowed Iowans to preregister to vote when they turn 16. Both bills stalled, but the primary voting provision has since been added to a voter ID bill advancing through the Legislature.

The same reforms were proposed by Democrats in Minnesota, but they have since stalled in the Republican-controlled state Senate. Jack Joa, a high school student who suggested letting 17-year-olds vote in primaries, said he was preregistered but was turned away at his polling place during Minnesota's August primary because he was not yet 18.

Joa said he spent hours a day for months researching policies in other states and studies on teen voter participation before he took his proposal to lawmakers. Joa is a Democrat but has worked on multiple campaigns for Republicans and Democrats in the state Legislature, as well as the Democratic presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

"I felt that the people that turned 18 by the general but weren't able to vote in the primary would feel disenfranchised," he said.

The Nevada Legislature is also considering letting 17-year-olds preregister to vote.

"Early pre-registration is one way of getting youth and teens more engaged in the civics process early on," said state Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, a Las Vegas Democrat who proposed the bill.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, declined to comment on the measure.

He has previously vetoed proposals to establish same-day voting registration and automatic registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles.


Associated Press writers Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta; Alison Noon in Carson City, Nevada; Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis; and Linley Sanders and Barbara Rodriguez in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Santa Clara County’s gaffe-plagued elections office has made one mistake too many for state officials.

An Assembly committee Wednesday approved an audit of Santa Clara County’s Registrar of Voters office requested by Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, who cited a litany of errors since 2010 from erroneous ballots to counting mishaps that could raise doubts about the validity of election results.

“It’s not uncommon for administrative mistakes to be made, but the frequency of these mistakes is of particular concern,” said Low, chair of the Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee. “And I don’t know of any other county having such issues.”

Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters Shannon Bushey said that she’s all ears if the audit  — expected to take about five months — approved by the Assembly’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee results in productive insights. But she said her office has implemented various measures in the wake of past mistakes and “we continue to do our best to look at ways to improve all of our processes.

“There are unique situations, hundreds if not thousands of situations in which something could be programmed wrong, the wrong document could be submitted for processing — there are so many avenues of something going wrong,” Bushey said. “And we have had some things slip through in the past.”

The call for a state review comes after a county auditor recommended a move toward holding elections entirely by mail as soon as possible. The state has been pushing for that after Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation last fall allowing the change.

The new model, which will be phased in starting next year in some counties, would involve sending all registered voters a ballot four weeks before the election. That ballot could be returned by mail, via drop box, or cast in person at a “vote center” — universal polling places where anyone in the county could go.

When the law was passed in September, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla lauded it as “landmark legislation” that would modernize the ballot and “improve the voting experience.”

“For many working Californians it may make more sense to cast a ballot the week before Election Day at a location closer to where they work, or where they drop off their kids, or where they go to college,” Padilla said. “Why limit voting to one location on a single Tuesday?”

Bushey said the soonest that Santa Clara County could do elections entirely by mail-in ballot would be 2020. The idea has yet to be approved by the county board of supervisors.

“We’re just at the beginning of the process,” said Bushey, who added the system makes sense in a county where about 75 percent of voters already use a mail-in ballot. “I think it will be more convenient for voters and it doesn’t increase any problems.”

But Low said voters need to be assured the ballots they receive are 100 percent accurate before the county can be entrusted to run elections entirely by mail ballot, and cited recent errors by the registrar’s office.

Those mistakes include a wrong ballot argument being sent to a Campbell school district in 2016, sample ballots missing candidates in two school districts in 2014, a missing opposition argument on a San Jose measure in 2014; and numerous issues involving vote by mail ballots that were either erroneously counted or sent to ineligible voters, Low said.

Former San Jose City Councilman Manh Nguyen, narrowly defeated by 12 votes in the June 7, 2016 primary, has sued the registrar’s office and his opponent, Councilman Lan Diep, alleging election officials botched the tally. Vote totals changed over two recounts, though Diep still finished ahead of Nguyen.

The registrar’s office last week announced an error in voter information guides for an April 25 special election in Campbell that misstated the month a moratorium on considering medical marijuana dispensaries would end. The registrar’s office said the city sent incorrect information.

“This audit will shed light on what mechanisms and safeguards the county has in place, and what should be in place to prevent mistakes from happening in the future,” Low said.