From left: Zooey Zephyr, Liz Bennett, and Robert Garcia
Tuesday’s primary races saw many notable wins for LGBTQ+ candidates. Zooey Zephyr and SJ Howell are on track to become Montana’s first transgender state legislators, Liz Bennett to be Iowa’s first out state senator, and California’s Robert Garcia to be the first gay immigrant in Congress. Read on for more on these and other candidates.
Zooey Zephyr, a bisexual transgender woman, won the Democratic primary in Montana House of Representatives District 100, besting Dave Severson. She will face Republican Sean McCoy and Libertarian Michael Vanacek in November’s general election, but the district, located in the university town of Missoula, is considered safely Democratic, so she is likely to become Montana’s first trans woman lawmaker. The incumbent, Democrat Andrea Olsen, did not seek reelection but ran for state Senate instead. Olsen, a straight ally, won her primary and will face Republican Nick Knowles in November. The Senate seat is the one formerly held by gay Democrat Bryce Bennett, Montana’s first out legislator, who resigned last year to join advocacy group Vote Early Day in Washington, D.C.
“Montanans’ voices rang loud and clear tonight: They are ready for a leader ready to disrupt the status quo and fight for real change,” Annise Parker, president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which endorsed Zephyr, said in a press release. “From tackling the housing crisis to securing affordable health care to fighting back against attacks on human rights, Zooey has a persuasive vision for the future that voters are clearly enthusiastic about. Her win tonight is a deafening rebuke to the anti-trans bigotry plaguing the Montana state legislature and our country. We are confident she will be a skilled, powerful legislator and an inspiration for trans people across the country.”
SJ Howell is another history-maker in Montana, likely to become the state’s first nonbinary legislator. Howell was unopposed in the Democratic primary for House District 95, where incumbent Danny Tenenbaum did not seek reelection. Howell will be up against Democrat Lauren Subith and Libertarian J.C. Windmueller in November, but their district, also in Missoula, is considered a shoo-in for Democrats.
“One reason I decided to run for office this year is that I believe that representation matters and that conversations about LGBTQ communities should not happen without LGBTQ people in the room,” Howell, who is also queer and trans, told The Advocate upon being named one of this year’s Champions of Pride. “Being an out queer and trans state representative might not stop anti-LGBTQ legislation from being introduced in Montana, but it will change the shape of the debate and let queer and trans Montanans know that they are represented in the rooms where decisions about their lives are being made.”
Liz Bennett, who is bisexual, is a longtime member of Iowa’s House of Representatives, first elected in 2014. Now she’s won the Democratic primary for the state’s Senate in District 39, in the Cedar Rapids area, defeating Joe Zahorik. She was the first woman from the LGBTQ+ community to serve in the House, and if she wins in November, she will have that distinction in the Senate as well. The current senator from the district, Democrat Rob Hogg, did not seek reelection, and in November Bennett will face Republican Edward “Bernie” Hayes.
“For almost a decade, Liz has been an incredibly effective legislator. During her tenure, she led efforts to address the climate crisis, expand economic opportunity and investment and increase access to high quality education,” Victory Fund’s Annise Parker said in a press release. “Despite serving in a body comprised primarily of anti-equality lawmakers, she advocated for and passed key pro-LGBTQ legislation such as a ban on the gay and trans panic legal defense. She has the proven leadership and courage to be a critical voice in the state Senate when so many of our fundamental rights and freedoms are on the line. We are proud to support her historic campaign and ensure there is a pro-equality, pro-choice voice in a chamber with zero LGBTQ representation.”
Robert Garcia has been mayor of Long Beach, Calif., since 2014, and now he’s running for U.S. House of Representatives from California’s 42nd Congressional District. California has an unusual primary system in which candidates from all parties run against each other, and the top two advance to the general election, regardless of party. Garcia, a Democrat, received about 45 percent of the vote in the primary, according to the latest count, while Republican John Briscoe, a businessman, received 29 percent. So they will face off in November; because of redistricting, there was no incumbent in the race. Garcia, a native of Peru, immigrated to the United States with his family at age 5. He was the youngest mayor of Long Beach, the first out gay one, and the first immigrant to hold the office. If he prevails in the House election in November, he’ll be the first immigrant from the LGBTQ+ community in Congress.
“During his time as mayor of Long Beach, Mayor Garcia has demonstrated strong leadership and ability to advance policy that delivers real results, including protecting abortion rights, championing progressive education and climate policy, increasing workers’ rights and expanding LGBTQ protections,” Annise Parker of Victory Fund said in a statement. “His leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic has been recognized by the White House and Governor Newsom as a national model. His commitment to increasing equity is exactly what we need in Congress at a time of increased anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant hate. We are confident Mayor Garcia will be a powerful pro-equality, pro-choice voice in Congress and will inspire countless other people to run for office.”
Will Rollins was another Democrat who advanced in a California congressional district primary. Rollins, who is gay, came in second to anti-LGBTQ+ Republican Ken Calvert in the newly drawn 41st District; under the previous district setup, Calvert had represented the 42nd. Among the five candidates in the primary, Calvert had 44 percent of the vote and Rollins 36 percent. Because of the California primary system, as the top two finishers, Rollins and Calvert will face off in the general election. The district encompasses several desert communities, including the heavily LGBTQ+ city of Palm Springs.
“Will’s victory sets the stage for a battle between an LGBTQ candidate and an incumbent member who opposes that candidate’s most basic rights,” Victory Fund’s Annise Parker said in a press release. “As anti-LGBTQ bills flood legislatures across the country, voters will have the opportunity to elect someone who has made it his life’s work to increase equity in his community and fight for justice and accountability. As a federal prosecutor, Will tackled tough cases and won, including helping prosecute multiple insurrectionists who attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6th. This grit is exactly what we need in Congress at a time of heightened attacks on democracy, LGBTQ rights and reproductive freedom. We are confident Will would be a powerful pro-equality, pro-choice voice in the highest legislative body of the country.”
If victorious in November, Rollins and Garcia will join another gay Californian, Mark Takano, in the U.S. House. Takano, an incumbent Democrat running in a redrawn district in Southern California, won his primary easily and is expected to prevail in the general election.
Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara was California’s first out statewide official, and he is on track to continue in that office. Lara, a gay Latinx Democrat first elected to the office in 2018, finished first among nine candidates in the primary, with 37 percent of the vote, while it has yet to be determined who’ll face Lara in November. The race for second place was close among two Republicans and a Democrat, all with percentages in the teens. Before becoming insurance commissioner, Lara was a California state legislator.
“Throughout his career, Ricardo Lara has been a trailblazing force for progress and a champion for consumers, the LGBTQ+ community, reproductive freedom, immigrants and our planet,” Tony Hoang, executive director of Equality California, which endorsed Lara, said in a press release. “We’re grateful to the millions of Californians who have sent a clear message that they want Ricardo to continue fighting for them.
“With so much at stake — LGBTQ+ civil rights, abortion access and the climate crisis — it’s no wonder that voters chose Ricardo’s bold, progressive solutions over special interest smears and misleading attacks. We look forward to continuing our work together to create a world that is healthy, just and fully equal for all LGBTQ+ people.”
Another out California primary victor was Christy Holstege, who finished first in the race for state Assembly from District 47. Holstege, who is bisexual, is currently a member of the Palm Springs City Council and served for a time as mayor of the city; the position of mayor rotates among council members. Holstege received about 50 percent of the vote in the primary, and Republican Greg Wallis was second with 31 percent, so they will go up against each other in November. Wallis is a staffer for the current officeholder, independent Chad Mayes, who did not seek reelection. The district includes several other desert communities in addition to Palm Springs.
Holstege attributed her win to her “dedicated track record of leadership,” The Desert Sun reports. “People are raising issues like the cost of living, the cost of housing, gas prices, homelessness, public safety, and those are the issues I’ve been working on for five years on City Council, and I actually have a record of results and progress on those issues,” she told the paper.