Karen Ocamb

Openly Gay LA Mayor Deputy Chief of Staff to Run for Council Seat

Filed By Karen Ocamb | July 13, 2012 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Anthony Villaraigosa, Los Angeles, Matt Zsabo

The rumor has circulated since last January, perhaps even since the summer of 2011 when Matt Szabo, the highly regarded, openly gay Los Angeles Deputy Chief of Staff to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, gave up his West Hollywood apartment for an apartment in Hollywood, in Eric Garcetti's 13th Council District. Late Wednesday afternoon, July 11, Szabo, 36, made it official in a letter to the mayor: he is resigning to run for Garcetti's seat, which the popular councilmember is vacating to run for mayor next year.

Deputy Chief of Staff Matt Szabo and LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Szabo says that he will roll out his campaign over time - but he knows what he wants to focus on:

Without question, aggressive focus on building out a modern mass transit system will be a central priority should I be elected. There is so much hope and progress that sprouts along mass transit lines - you can see it happening now in Hollywood. Once we extend the Wilshire subway to UCLA, I want to build a "Pink Line" connecting Hollywood and Highland to Century City through West Hollywood, and a "Sunset Line" under Sunset Boulevard - connecting East Hollywood to Union Station with stops at Sunset Junction, Echo Park and Dodger Stadium.

And of course, he notes, there is the daunting task of fundraising for a primary next March during a major election year:

An unfortunate reality of city campaigns is that candidates must raise money in order to win. It's just a fact. You can have the best ideas, most experience and greatest passion for doing the right thing - but if you don't raise, you can't win. The inverse also holds true - you can be unqualified for public office, but raising money confers instant credibility. This is such a consequential time for our City - decisions we make in the next five years will shape Los Angeles for the next 50. And although we are in the middle of summer, and most progressives rightfully have the reelection of President Obama as the top priority, it is absolutely critical to donate early to the local candidates who you think can do the best job and who share your values. If not, your preferred candidate is not likely to remain standing after November.

In his four-page resignation letter, Szabo is effusive in his praise for Villaraigosa while at the same time quietly noting his own role in the mayor's achievements. For instance, Szabo notes that Villaraigosa put Szabo in charge of managing the City's budget crisis and

"brought Los Angeles back from the very brink of financial disaster, and history should recognize that just as much as contemporary perception does not.....

Re-writing the traditional mayor playbook by assembling a team of seasoned, apolitical career financial professionals to take on the greatest fiscal crisis this city has faced in nearly seven decades was an essential step - and I believe it was the most critical factor in putting an end to the frantic whipsaw of financial chaos and uncertainty that followed the market crash of 2008.”

Szabo also notes how he, along with Garcetti's office and the CAO, renegotiated "the civilian labor contracts the City could no longer afford" - but unlike Wisconsin's Gov. Scott Walker, "we proved against steep odds, and against the predictions of even some involved in the process, that in Los Angeles collective bargaining still works."

Szabo thanks a number of city staffers with whom he has worked - including Nancy Sutley, the openly gay Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality – and he heralds the progress made by the LAPD under Chief Charlie Beck.

LGBT liaison Suzy Jack, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, Deputy Chief of Staff Matt Szabo (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Szabo concludes by giving some personal biography and the reason he is running:

Mayor, since my earliest days as a student of government at Notre Dame, I intended for my career to be dedicated to public service. And I always assumed that career would be served as a policy analyst, legislative advocate or behind-the-scenes advisor to an elected official - as I have been to you for the past six years.

But serving your administration with the charge to take on and solve some of the most difficult challenges has made me realize how much I love this City, and how deeply I care about the people we serve. The experience I've gained working on your behalf has given me a particular skill set and knowledge base: I know how the City works, I know how it doesn't work, and I know how to make it work. And I'd like to put that to work directly for the people of this City - and particularly for those who remain in the shadows with little or no voice in City Hall.

Szabo's resignation is effective at the end of this week. He appears to be liked by many, including blogger Mayor Sam's Sister City who on Jan 9 tried to kindly counsel Szabo on the difficult job of being the mayor's spokesperson, especially walking back some of Villaraigosa's comments on Patrick Range McDonald's cover story on Villaraigosa for the LA Weekly.

But despite his popularity and his achievement with the City budget, among other accomplishments, Szabo has entered a crowded field of 12 other candidates to represent the 13th CD that includes Hollywood, Silver Lake, Echo Park and Atwater Village. He will face strong opposition in next year's March Primary from some of the other candidates with whom the voters of the 13th CD might be more familiar - including openly gay Mitch O'Farrell, who has served on Garcetti's staff. However, KPCC reports that O'Farrell is not among the four candidates - Alexander De Ocampo, John Choi, Josh Post and Emile Mack - who have reached $50,000 in fundraising by the end of June. Another candidate - Scott Crawford - is apparently also gay, but he does not indicate that on his website, other than two mentions of being honored in the 1990s.

This race may well pose a problem for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which I believe declines to endorse in multi-gay candidate races. Technically, that's understandable. But it's also problematic if they do not also consider how much or how little the candidate has actually done for the LGBT community.

Mitch O'Farrell (center) with Wes Joe (left) and Stuart Timmons (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

I know neither Scott Crawford nor Mitch O'Farrell and can find no email trail of either having contacted me over the years regarding LGBT issues. In fact, I was totally unaware of who O'Farrell was during the important salute to Harry Hay that he helped organize. Not that my knowledge of them is important but one would think that as an LGBT reporter covering LA for more than 23 years, you'd think I'd have at least heard of them.

Matt Szabo, on the other hand, I've known for years: he worked for Republican Mayor Richard Riordan and Riordan's unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2002, after which Szabo relinquished his registration as a Republican; then he worked for LA City Councilmember Wendy Greuel, now City Controller who is also running for LA mayor; he also worked for City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, after which he served as the communications director for former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg who ran against Villaraigosa for mayor in the 2005 election.

In full disclosure, I was thrilled when Villaraigosa hired Szabo for his communications team in 2006. I was in disfavor with the mayor after I publically questioned why his meetings with LGBT leaders - to which I was invited as a pool reporter for the community when Villaraigosa was Assembly Speaker - were suddenly held behind closed doors when organized by his new consultant Torie Osborn. Additionally, I complained that there was no LGBT liaison, as there had been since Riordan, and no one in the communications office seemed aware of LGBT issues. When Villaraigosa hired Szabo and then the two brought on Suzy Jack as the official liaison, things changed for the better. The rift was essentially resolved when Szabo asked me to introduce the mayor at the big post-Prop 8 Equality Summit in Jan. 2009.

And speaking of Prop 8, Szabo provided a refreshing point of view in his great interview with Neal Brovermann for The Advocate in Nov. 2009:

When do you think Proposition 8 should go back on the California ballot?

One of the most disappointing consequences of Proposition 8's victory in November [2008] was the manner in which the gay community turned on itself in the aftermath. I believe strongly that this controversy over whether we take it back to the ballot in 2010 or 2012 is a manufactured
controversy. I've been in politics for enough years to understand that the notion that we're guaranteed to win in one year or guaranteed to lose in another is simply naïveté. It falls somewhere between novice naïveté and really malicious arrogance.

As much as we would like, as much as many in the gay community would like the campaign for marriage equality to resemble a Prius commercial or an Obama YouTube video, we can't lose sight of the fact that winning marriage equality is fundamentally about winning; it's about getting one more vote than the opposition. I believe there would be no greater tool for which we can reach out to communities who currently don't support marriage equality than winning marriage equality. We won't be able to convince people of our position; people will have to come to that realization themselves when they see close friends or relatives who are gay and married and see that they’re no threat to their marriage. I don't think the question should be when should we go back, the question should be when can we win. And if we can win in 2010, we should go back in 2010. If we can win in 2012, we should go back in 2012. That's what we're doing here -- we're trying to win equality.

I'm a little unsettled that there's a divide by those who want to fight for our rights now and those who want to fight for our rights later. I think we're all on the same team here and we're going to reach out far, far beyond the gay community if we're ever going to achieve full equality.

As he has repeatedly discussed elsewhere, Szabo also told The Advocate that Villaraigosa is the most pro-marriage equality mayor he knows:

Mayor Villaraigosa is a staunch supporter of gay rights, including same-sex marriage. Would you be able to work for a mayor who was less of a gay advocate?

I don't think so. I think that for me it is a threshold issue. I've been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work for a number of elected officials who all supported gay rights and ultimately same-sex marriage. That's particularly what I admired initially about Mayor Riordan who was a Republican, but who held firm in his support for gay rights, even to his political detriment. I don't think there is a stronger advocate of gay rights or same-sex marriage than Mayor Villaraigosa, particularly among straight elected officials. He has been a supporter of gay rights since well before he was an elected official, for decades before it was the "in thing" among Democrats.

What is not known is that - while Villaraigosa is personally very pro-marriage equality - some of his handlers and advisers do not want the mayor to be so outspoken. In fact, a very reliable, well-placed source told me that it was Szabo who "fought hard" behind the scenes against those insiders to have Villaraigosa assume a leadership role in the Mayors for the Freedom to Marry campaign and that Jan. 20, 2012 news conference.

Matt Szabo ensured that Mayor Villaraigosa was a leader at this Freedom to Marry news conference (Screen grab from video)

I think Szabo's gay Republican friend and former West Hollywood City Council candidate Scott Schmidt gets it right when he says Szabo is not a "politician" in the traditional sense. He says:

“The City of Los Angeles has been lucky to have the services of Matt Szabo as a City Council deputy and Mayoral aide. Matt is not a politician, but he is an effective and proven policy-maker–and that’s what Los Angeles needs in these times. Matt Szabo will be a fabulous member of the Los Angeles City Council.”

Matt Szabo and Suzy Jack (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Villaraigosa's LGBT liaison Suzy Jack (the 2011 recipient of the CSW Harvey Milk Award) has worked closely with Szabo. She says:

Matt has been not only my boss but a mentor to me for the past 4+ years. He has taken great care to invest time and energy to develop young leaders within the Mayor’s Office, and I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work for him and learn from him during his tenure. Since my first conversation with him at the opening of the No on Prop 8 field office, he has challenged me every day to work harder, take risks, think creatively and strategically in the midst of a rigid bureaucracy, find ways to get to 'yes,' and to persist even when the task at hand seems impossible.

With Matt’s support and guidance, the City has created a new chapter in LGBT history: the first-ever LGBT Heritage Month, Harvey Milk Day of Service, Lavender Lights, first-ever Annual LGBT Event at Getty House as well as major changes in LAPD’s policies as it relates to the Transgender community.

Matt’s in-depth knowledge of the City, passion for public service and public policy, coupled with his ability to think innovatively, are huge assets to the City, and I wish him the best of luck on his upcoming campaign for Council District 13.

One other thing to know about Matt Szabo is that while he's a smart policy wonk who understands how to achieve a compromise - he also appreciates sitting in the nose-bleed section at Dodger Stadium enjoying a good baseball game with his family.

Matt Szabo and his family at Dodger Stadium (Photo courtesy Matt Szabo from his Facebook page)

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