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L.A. Confidential


The Velvet Mafia has yet to break the pink ceiling within the Senate or inside governors' mansions, but gays and lesbians have successfully invaded the power circles of America's biggest cities. Sam Adams runs Portland, Ore., Christine Quinn is the speaker of the New York city council, and in December, Annise Parker has a good shot at becoming Houston's first lesbian mayor. In Los Angeles, Matt Szabo took over one of the top spots in city government when he was announced as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's deputy chief of staff in September. The 33-year-old Southern California native talks to about his new job at City Hall, Proposition 8, and balancing (or not balancing) career and love. What exactly does your job entail?
Matt Szabo: Everything. I report to the chief of staff and the mayor on all of the issues under their purview, which include the budget, labor relations, public safety, gang reduction, intergovernmental affairs, etc. But my specific charge in the administration is to be the administration's problem solver. And in my prior role in the press office I'm used to immediate responses and crisis management, and that's essential to my role within this administration.

How did you start in politics?
I was a graduate student at the University of Southern California and was fortunate enough to get an internship in the office of former mayor Richard Riordan. I was working for a deputy mayor who liked my work, and he hired me after a couple of months. Then I held a couple of positions in Mayor Riordan's office, dealing with state politics and serving as a liaison to the city council and continued on with Mayor Riordan on his [unsuccessful] campaign for [California] governor. I then worked after that campaign for state councilwoman, now controller Wendy Gruel, city attorney Rocky Delgadillo, and then ran the communications for one of the Mayor Villaraigosa's opponents in the 2005 election. After which he hired me to work in his press office.

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.

Has being gay made any impact, positive or negative, on your career?
I've had the opportunity to represent the concerns and interests of the community in this office and the offices I served previously. But I also think that working in Los Angeles, we are fortunate here, and I'm [in this job] because of my qualifications, not because I checked a box. But I also know that L.A., San Francisco, and New York are still the outliers. And the mayor understands when he is fighting for rights for gays and lesbians, it isn't just for people living in Los Angeles. It's important that we continue to support gay rights for those who are not fortunate enough to live in cities as open as Los Angeles.

What is the most pressing problem in L.A. right now?
Without question, the damage the recession has done to the city's finances is unprecedented, and it put into jeopardy every major critical service that the city provides to its residents from the police officers to firefighters. We are dealing now in a new reality. We don't have the luxury like the federal government has of printing money or borrowing huge sums from China. We have to live within our means and the recession has just ravaged our city finances in a way that's forcing us to make very difficult decisions. For the past two years we haven't had the opportunity to make good decisions anymore. We're choosing between bad and worse. We have no margin of error right now. And it's critical that every single dollar we spend is in the most judicious way possible.

What recent city accomplishment are you most proud of?
I'm most proud of this mayor's success in growing and diversifying the Los Angeles Police Department. I'm even prouder he's been able to maintain the expanded department even while facing huge budget deficits.

Neither Villaraigosa nor San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom is running for California governor next year. Will you support state attorney general Jerry Brown?
I'm likely to support the Democratic nominee, whoever he or she may be. As I understand it, right now there are no declared candidates. But if Jerry Brown is the candidate, I'd be happy to support him.

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 naivete. It falls somewhere between novice naivete 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.

What are your political aspirations?
To serve Mayor Villaraigosa in the best way I possibly can and help pull this city out of this recession and ensure it's in better shape than it was before we entered it.

Would you consider running for elected office?
I have no immediate plans to even consider running for elective office. I would never rule anything out, but one thing that has become clear from working on the inside for so long: There are a number of ways to affect public policy to make positive change other than holding elected office. In many ways, elected officials are not in the strongest position.

You have a high-stress job, how do you keep your stress level down?
I don't.

That can't be good.
That's for the doctors to determine, I suppose. This is a high-pressure job and a high-stress job and that's what I signed up for.

Are you partnered?
I'm single. Given the high stress and high pressure of this job, I would be perhaps the world's worst boyfriend.

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Neal Broverman

Neal Broverman is the Editorial Director, Print of Pride Media, publishers of The Advocate, Out, Out Traveler, and Plus, spending more than 20 years in journalism. He indulges his interest in transportation and urban planning with regular contributions to Los Angeles magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times and USA Today. He lives in the City of Angels with his husband, children, and their chiweenie.
Neal Broverman is the Editorial Director, Print of Pride Media, publishers of The Advocate, Out, Out Traveler, and Plus, spending more than 20 years in journalism. He indulges his interest in transportation and urban planning with regular contributions to Los Angeles magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times and USA Today. He lives in the City of Angels with his husband, children, and their chiweenie.