A Starbucks labor organizer and UC Santa Cruz student aims to be California’s first non-binary state legislator. But first, Joe Thompson must survive the June 7 primary race for the 28th Assembly District seat that straddles Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties.
Thompson, 19, is one of three Democrats vying for the open seat in addition to a Republican nominee. The leading candidate who has garnered the broadest support among Democratic officials and liberal groups is former Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin, who retired in 2020.
Pellerin is expected to be a top two voter next month and qualify for November’s general election. She would be the first woman elected to represent Santa Cruz in the Legislative Assembly.
It remains to be seen whether Thompson or fellow Democrat Rob Rennie, the mayor of Los Gatos, can grab the second spot. It’s also possible they’ll split the rest of the Democratic vote enough to allow Monte Sereno City Council member GOPer Liz Lawler to survive the primary contest.
Having raised little money for their campaign so far and lacking the name recognition of their opponents, Thompson is banking on their work to unionize staff at the Starbucks where they work as a shift supervisor to gain media attention and raise awareness of their candidacy just as ballots start rolling into voters’ mailboxes next week. On Wednesday, May 11, Thompson and their coworkers are expected to vote to form a union.
“When you look at the numbers and look at the map, because no one knows who these people are at the end of the day, I have a better chance than Rob and Liz thanks to Starbucks,” said Thompson, who also identifies as gay, told the Bay Area Reporter in a recent phone interview.
The Assembly District, reconfigured due to the decennial redistricting of California’s legislative seats, no longer includes Monterey or Prunedale. It stretches from the Santa Cruz Coast and Big Basin State Park over the Santa Cruz Mountains in the Bay Area to cover Los Gatos, parts of southwestern San Jose, and Morgan Hill.
The district takes the number of the Silicon Valley-based Assembly District currently represented by gay Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell). He is slated to run for re-election this year in the new Assembly District 26 seat and has yet to endorse the AD 28 race.
Pellerin gets support
A number of South Bay and Central Coast LGBTQ leaders support Pellerin in the race, including gay state senator John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) and Adam Spickler, a transgender man who sits on the board of the Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz. On Wednesday, the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee, or BAYMEC, an LGBTQ political group that focuses on the South Bay and Central Coast, also endorsed Pellerin.
Many LGBTQ leaders know Pellerin from his nearly three decades as county clerk and being a strong supporter of marriage rights for same-sex couples.
“I have a 30-year relationship with Gail and worked with her on suffrage issues. We were county employees together,” said Laird, who also has a photo of him and her husband with Pellerin after signing their marriage license in 2008. “For 15 years she was there on marriage equality as county clerk.”
Spickler recounted how he and his husband, who is also trans, had their photo taken in Pellerin’s office when she helped them re-register to vote with their updated genders on their forms. He had worked with her to run workshops to guide trans and non-binary people through the process of applying for a name and gender change on their government-issued IDs and other forms.
“She really helped people,” Spickler said.
Both Laird and Spickler told BAR they were unaware Thompson had identified as non-binary and didn’t know them very well. Thompson doesn’t talk about being non-binary on her campaign website, but her biography uses neutral pronouns.
Thompson also does not address LGBTQ rights on its website’s issues page. One has to scroll to the end of the page under the “Reproductive Rights” heading to find a reference that Thompson is “a low-income LGBTQ+ person.”
“I don’t want to make it the first plan of my campaign,” Thompson explained. “It’s something I want to talk about.”
Coincidentally, on the day the BAR interviewed Thompson, their campaign had emailed supporters with the subject line: “I’m a non-binary, plant lover, political geek, Starbucks barista and union organizer. .” In it, the environmental policy major wrote about the difficulty they had when they came out of the closet as gay during their freshman year of high school.
“Growing up in a home where my parents didn’t immediately accept me as gay, I learned early on the importance of standing up for my liberal beliefs, no matter the cost,” Thompson wrote, who became non-binary after enrolling in University.
Thompson told BAR they understand why LGBTQ lawmakers like Laird and Spickler endorsed Pellerin, as they know each other well. They were less lenient with Equality California, the statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization, for only endorsing her in the race.
“They could have chosen to do no endorsement or double endorsement,” said Thompson, who met with the EQCA’s political action committee. “Just deciding to endorse Gail, I wouldn’t say it’s a stab in the back, but it’s not what LGBTQ organizations should be doing at any time when trans rights are constantly and without release attacked.”
Samuel Garrett-Pate, EQCA’s chief external affairs officer, did not respond to BAR’s request for comment on Wednesday by the deadline. The organization often takes into account the amount of money a candidate has raised when assessing their viability.
On that yardstick, Thompson acknowledged to BAR that they are falling flat, having raised around $15,000 to date. Their goal is to raise $150,000 by the end of May.
“I’ve been told funding is an issue,” said Thompson, who hopes to trade the successful organizing campaign next week in a campaign donation appeal.
Pellerin returned BAR’s request for comment after the newspaper’s Wednesday press deadline. She said she was “extremely proud, honored and honoured” to have received such broad support from LGBTQ leaders and pledged to be a strong advocate for LGBTQ rights in Sacramento.
“It’s a difficult time with everything that’s going on right now. There’s never been a time in our history where our rights have been challenged so much,” Pellerin said. “It’s so important that we work in solidarity and unity to fight people who try to limit our rights. Especially when you look at hate crimes that hit the LGBTQ community and proposed legislation in other states, it’s is horrible, and we need to act quickly.”
Asked about being seen as the favorite in the race, Pellerin told BAR she takes nothing for granted.
“I’m just trying to stay focused on my campaign and what we’re doing,” she said. “I take one step at a time and I keep my balance.”
Thompson grew up in the small town of Lincoln, north of Sacramento. Their parents divorced when they were in high school and decided it was best for them to move to Argyle, Texas to live with their aunt and uncle.
Within five days of graduating, Thompson traveled to Colorado to visit their sister, then headed to Santa Cruz for college. They got a job as a barista at Starbucks and quickly organized efforts to organize staff at the coffee chain’s sites across California.
“We have the votes; we know we will win,” Thompson said of next week’s election at their outlet.
The lack of support they received from elected leaders for the union effort partly prompted Thompson to run for the Assembly seat.
“I would say only a handful of elected officials are true union allies. I really think that needs to change,” Thompson said. “As a non-binary, gay, young person, we need someone who will shake up the political landscape.”
When Assemblyman Mark Stone (D-Santa Cruz) decided not to seek re-election to the AD 28 seat, he tipped off Pellerin, who planned to run in 2024 when Stone retired. His decision pushed back the filing deadline, which left Thompson scrambling to qualify for the race. Their mother and sister each donated $600 towards the $1,300 filing fee, with Thompson making up the rest.
“It was one of my most expensive purchases this year,” noted Thompson.
If they can survive the primary, Thompson plans to particularly target voters between the ages of 18 and 36 and low-income residents of the district in the general election. They also plan to make a vigorous effort to get the vote over the summer during college vacations.
“I’m young, I can knock on doors 12 hours a day if I want,” they said. “I just need to beat Gail on the number of people I talk to.”
Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com on Monday mornings for Political Notes, the blog’s online companion. This week’s column examined fundraising reports for a quartet of West Coast congressional candidates.
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Do you have any advice on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or email [email protected]
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