When Todd Gloria was studying at the University of San Diego, majoring in political science, a professor told him the one thing an elected official couldn’t be was gay.
“I knew the guy was full of baloney,” Gloria tells The Advocate, and indeed, his record has proved the professor wrong. Out throughout his political career, Gloria has been a member of the San Diego City Council and is now in the California State Assembly, and his next ambition is to be mayor of San Diego, a position he’s already held on an interim basis.
The signs that Gloria, a San Diego native, was destined for a career in politics were there early on. “I was just that nerdy kid that would watch C-SPAN just for fun,” he says, referring to the public affairs network that televises sessions of Congress and other government proceedings.
Gloria, now 41, began volunteering with the local Democratic Party at age 14, working for candidates such as Christine Kehoe, San Diego County’s first out elected official, who served on the San Diego City Council and later in the state legislature. “If you’re willing to work for free, they’ll put you to work,” Gloria says of his early political experience.
After college he began his career at San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency, then was district director for U.S. Rep. Susan Davis, and volunteered with other public service entities. He was elected to the San Diego City Council in 2008, to the Third District seat previously held by Kehoe (“San Diego’s Harvey Milk,” Gloria calls her) and then another out pol, Toni Atkins. Gloria became council president in 2012 and interim mayor (with fewer powers than an elected mayor) for a time in 2013 and early 2014 after Bob Filner resigned due to sexual harassment allegations. He was elected to the Assembly in 2016 and reelected in 2018.
Now he’s a leading candidate for mayor in the 2020 election. If he wins, San Diego would be the largest U.S. city to elect an openly gay man as mayor; with a population of 1.4 million, it’s the second-largest city in California and the eighth-largest in the U.S. Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city, elected a lesbian mayor, Lori Lightfoot, year, and Houston, the fourth-largest, had a lesbian mayor, Annise Parker, from 2010 to 2016. Atkins had a stint as interim mayor of San Diego in 2005.
If he wins the election to succeed Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who is term-limited, Gloria would be not only San Diego’s first out elected mayor but also the first person of color to hold that post; he has Filipino, Dutch, Puerto Rican, and Native American heritage. A third-generation San Diegan, he grew up in a working-class family as the son of a maid and a gardener. He won a scholarship to attend USD.
He has seen San Diego evolve from a rather conservative city into a progressive, diverse, LGBTQ-friendly one, with Democratic and independent voters outnumbering Republicans. “I have witnessed this change — we’re a big city now,” he says.
And one with big-city problems, including homelessness, and Gloria calls addressing that his number 1 issue. While mental health services and substance abuse treatment play a role in the solution, he puts the greatest emphasis on the need for greater availability of affordable housing. “We’re going to have to build a lot more housing,” he says. There’s ample luxury housing and low-income housing, he notes, but not enough for working-class and middle-class people.
In the state Assembly, he authored a bill that encourages the construction of high-density housing near public transit; it passed, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law in 2018. And on the City Council, he helped strike a deal for San Diego’s first LGBTQ-friendly affordable housing complex for seniors; it opened a year and a half ago.
His other priorities include improving public transportation and other infrastructure projects, and having a “bully pulpit” on immigration policy. San Diego is the nation’s largest border city, and it needs more ports of entry for immigrants, not fewer, and certainly doesn’t need Donald Trump’s wall, Gloria says. “The president’s policies on immigration and border enforcement are woefully misguided,” he says.
Gloria’s campaign for mayor has attracted ample support. A dozen candidates have filed to run in the nonpartisan race; the top two finishers in the March 3 primary will go on to the November general election. A September poll showed 31 percent of respondents supporting Gloria, with City Council member Barbara Bry receiving 15 percent and community activist Tasha Williamson at 8 percent. Forty-six percent of voters were undecided, however. While the election is officially nonpartisan, the field is heavily Democratic — Gloria, Bry, and Williamson are all Democrats — but since the poll, two Republicans have joined the race.
He has received some high-profile endorsements, including those of Jerry Brown and his successor as California governor, Gavin Newsom; the state's U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris; Atkins, who is currently president pro tempore of the California State Senate; and the San Diego County Democratic Party. And while drawing support from labor unions, a traditionally Democratic constituency, he has also won the endorsement of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, which usually prefers Republicans. He has the enthusiastic backing of the LGBTQ Victory Fund as well.
Victory Fund President and CEO Annise Parker praised Gloria in a statement announcing the endorsement in September. “Todd is an exceptional public servant with a long record of improving the lives of his constituents — and that experience will be invaluable when he is elected mayor in 2020,” she said. “From clean water to traffic congestion to civil rights enforcement, big city mayors impact the lives of residents in ways no other elected position does. It is Todd’s lived experience as an openly gay man and a person of color that will shape his inclusive and values-driven approach to tackling those big issues, and as mayor he will ensure that no residents are left behind.”
Gloria does have some critics, however. One of them is San Diego gay activist Mat Wahlstrom, who wants to limit real estate development in the city's heavily LGBTQ Hillcrest neighborhood. He has accused Gloria of siding with Republicans on some development projects and getting a pass from progressives because he's gay. This year he filed suit in an effort to keep Gloria from using funds ostensibly raised for an Assembly reelection campaign for his mayoral bid instead. Gloria had filed a document with California election officials saying he would seek another term in the Assembly. A judge declined to put that restriction on the funds, and in November Gloria admitted to filing the document improperly (and mistakenly, he says) and agreed to pay a $200 fine.
Gloria and his campaign staff respond to the criticism by saying the projects he's backed will benefit all San Diego residents and that he has the most progressive approach to housing of anyone in the race. As for the filing, it was an "administrative error that was self-reported ... when it was discovered," campaign manager Nick Serrano says. "Todd believes it is important for leaders to own their mistakes and has taken full responsibility for the error."
The matter hasn't slowed Gloria down. "In terms of campaign cash, endorsements and institutional support," he "clearly has the momentum" in the mayoral race, San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Michael Smollens wrote recently.
Being openly gay has never slowed him down either, despite what that professor said. Gloria says he doesn't really have a dramatic coming-out story; he came out to various members of his family one at a time, and found that he had their unconditional love. His parents have marched in ever San Diego Pride parade for years, he notes. "I've been very blessed with my family," he says.
He notes that he learned to be an activist at USD, a Catholic institution where the LGBTQ student group met in secret for a time. Gloria ending up leading the effort on campus to get sexual orientation added to the school's nondiscrimination policy, he says.
Echoing many other prominent LGBTQ people, he hopes to be a role model for queer youth, letting them know they can achieve their dreams too, like the nerdy teenager who watched C-SPAN for fun and is now a successful and confident politician. "I'm just immensely grateful for being who I am," he says.