Evan Low on Barriers to Democracy and California’s Travel Ban

Scott Shafer: He was the youngest and first openly gay mayor of Campbell and at age 26, the youngest Asian-American mayor ever. We’ll talk to him about his push to have voters formally remove the ban on same sex marriage from the California Constitution and a whole lot more.

But first Guy, this is really becoming known as the Hot Labor Summer. A lot of labor unrest. Of course, everyone knows about the SAG-AFTRA strike, the Writers Guild strike down in L.A. But there was another strike, a one day strike in L.A., 11,000 or so city workers. And then you’ve been covering in your neck of the woods, San Jose. What’s going on?

Guy Marzorati: Yeah, ‘Hot Labor Summer’ spreads to city hall. We saw in Los Angeles this week, on Tuesday, SEIU representing 7000 city workers holding a one day strike, you know, shutting down local pools, you know, community activities, having a broad impact there. San Jose, two unions representing city workers set to go on strike next Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday into Friday. And that has not been resolved. Both sides are back at mediation today and been told they’ve made some progress, but not enough to completely avert the strike to this point.

And I do think you’re seeing it’s, you know, part of a trend, as you mentioned, actors, writers, we seeing hotel workers in Southern California as well. This kind of fervor that I think is built up in large part because, look, workers have gone through the last few years of inflation. And when you’re dealing with a collective bargaining agreement, you haven’t had the chance to catch up with wages. Now, that’s all coming to fruition. You know, for folks in city hall, it might not be a great time because a lot of these local governments are now facing budget issues at this time.

Scott Shafer: Yeah, there’s also a worker shortage. I mean, there’s a it’s a hard time. I know pools in San Francisco. I swim a lot, play water polo. There’s they have a shortage of lifeguards. You know, they’re just having a hard time finding people. So that strengthens the hand, although in the case of San Jose are the contracts up?

Guy Marzorati: Yeah in San Jose, the contracts expired on June 30th. So that is relative, you know, makes more sense. The SEIU one was kind of an outlier in L.A. in the sense that they have an existing agreement. There have been a lot of discussions about kind of side negotiations on different issues that they’ve had to negotiate with the city. And so in that sense, it kind of came off as kind of a show of force, like, look, look at the kind of unity we have among members and the ability that we have to make an impact on city services if we walk off the job for a day.

The politics, though, have been very interesting and very different in these two cities. I’ve noticed in Los Angeles you have Mayor Karen Bass, who sits on the committee that’s kind of dealing with bargaining, but she was endorsed by SEIU, running for mayor. And in fact, you heard the local leaders at some of the rallies that were held on Tuesday say, look, this has nothing to do with Karen Bass. We have you have nothing but love for the mayor, even though she has a real impact in leading that committee. On the flip side, Matt Mahan, who, you know, ran with a lot of business support in San Jose and won the mayorship there. He’s just one vote on a you know, along with ten other city council members to to direct the city manager. That’s who’s actually negotiating.

Scott Shafer: And the labor candidate lost, Cindy Chavez.

Guy Marzorati: And the labor candidate lost and at the public comment on Tuesday. A lot of the comments were directed towards, you know, ‘We need the mayor to step up and increase these wages. We need the mayor to step in and take action.’ And at the very end of public comment, he said, like, look, folks, I’m just one I’m just one vote in this. But it’s kind of the different politics that we’re seeing in the two cities.

Scott Shafer: Exactly. And we’ll find out how that unfolds next week. Also this week, there was a very interesting Berkeley IGS poll. It’s a series of polls that they’re doing kind of looking at the state of democracy in California, how voters are feeling about it, who votes, who doesn’t. And one of the key findings in that first poll released this week, right. Not a huge surprise, but it really brought home this notion that people who vote in California regularly are more likely to be white, college educated, higher income, more likely to be married, own their home. And, you know, when you when they’ve talked to black, Latino, Asian American voters, a lot of them feel they don’t have enough information to cast an informed ballot. And there’s a lot of reasons for that.

Guy Marzorati: Yeah, I mean, I was struck, too, by the identification of kind of media deserts or information deserts, which campaigns, you know, they’re in the kind of crunch time of trying to get to a specific result. And they’re really targeting a lot of times towards the end of campaigns, people they know are going to turn out. So who gets left out of that? Maybe voters who haven’t voted in the last election are not likely to come out. And I think that’s where you kind of see that lack of information, pamphlets, mailers, things that regular voters get tired of by October. You know, for for other folks, they’re just not getting that same kind of communication.

Scott Shafer: Yeah, there’s like the digital divide. They may not have laptops or access to the Internet language barriers. They may have been involved in the criminal justice system, may be low income is all kinds of things that kind of. Conspire against those folks from voting. And, you know, there were some interesting thoughts about ways to address that democracy dollars, which they’ve tried in Seattle, where they gave a $25 voucher.

Guy Marzorati: And Oakland, didn’t Oakland do that?

Scott Shafer: Oakland passed it, but they haven’t implemented because of the budget. But in Seattle, they’ve tried it. And according to Common Cause up there, it can only be cashed in for contributions to local candidates. And people who use those vouchers were 11 times more likely to vote. So we’ll see maybe some more conversation about that in California.

Guy Marzorati: Well, it also brought to mind to me some research that the PPIC had done on election changes in California, voting changes. One of the things that this example reflected was that there’s great support for the kind of expansion of vote by mail, sending everybody a ballot by default, and that at least in the 2020 election, actually closed the gap in turnout between white California voters and then Black and Latino California voters. But at the same time, what accompanied that in a lot of cases was limiting or reducing the number of in-person voting places. And that actually cut in to the gains that were made in closing the divide. So you always hear you can’t put a price on democracy. But in a lot of ways we have made that choice when it comes to limiting in-person voting.

Scott Shafer: And, you know, we’ve lowered the barriers to registering and voting in California with that is only half the battle. You got to get people to actually cast the ballots. All right. We’re going take a short break. And when we come back, we’re going to be joined by Silicon Valley Assembly member Evan Low. You’re listening to Political Breakdown.

Scott Shafer: And welcome back to Political Breakdown, I’m Scott Shafer here with Guy Marzorati. We’re happy to have on the show today, live and in-person, Evan Low. He’s broken barriers in his political career: the first openly gay mayor of Campbell down in Silicon Valley and at age 26 or was it 29? I think was 26. The youngest Asian-American mayor anywhere in the U.S. Now, he’s a veteran up in the state Assembly where he’s been there since 2014. Low is a champion for LGBTQ rights and a lot more. Evan Low, welcome to Political Breakdown. How old were you when you became mayor?

Evan Low: I was 26 years old at that ripe age. So, yeah, there are, of course, fresher faces these days, too, and that’s a good thing to see.

Scott Shafer: Exactly. So we were talking about the elections and some of the barriers to voting. You’re on the elections committee in the Assembly. What are your thoughts about what kind of incentives can we give people to vote?

Evan Low: Well, we’ve done quite a bit in the state of California making Election Day a participatory event and trying to remove as many barriers as possible, whereas in other states are increasing barriers to entry. And so we’re going to continue with that. I authored legislation to lower the voting age to 17 and a half, coauthored by now Congressman Kevin Mullin, because both of us prioritize civics, in which in you’re a senior in high school classroom, why not be taught how to vote? And it is relevant to you. And imagine that political candidates and for public office would actually go to high school campuses because now you have an eligible voting pool and that those candidates will be speaking specifically to issues related to young people. And young individuals.

Scott Shafer: Voters turned thumbs down on that, didn’t they?

Evan Low: Yes we were perhaps a little bit ahead of our times.

Scott Shafer: Parents are probably like ‘I’m not going to let them vote, they’re irresponsible.’

Evan Low: We lost by about 8% or so. But I think it’s important to help empower the next generation, especially as they are paying their taxes and paying their fair share. No taxation without representation.

Guy Marzorati: Well, I know that, you know, civic education played a big role in you getting into politics back at Leland High School?

Evan Low: Yeah, that’s right.

Guy Marzorati: But I want to go back even further. Your dad was very civically involved. He worked with the local Chamber of Commerce in Campbell. Was it also something he was politically involved in? Were your parents interested in politics or was it more kind of civic engagement?

Evan Low: So you’re bringing back some history to a bit, too. But it was during that time, as I’m a fourth generation Californian, speaking more Spanish than I do Chinese. And in the Chinese culture and Asian Pacific Islander culture, politics is not an entity that you would pursue, is not a career that you pursue. Typical occupations would include becoming a doctor, lawyer or an engineer. And like my father, he want to be to become a doctor. But in fact I wasn’t as academic in that way. But I also realized in the community as I grew up as a younger adult, that perhaps I was not able to afford home in the community that was born and raised in, and that representation also equally mattered. And so that’s where helped what helped galvanize me into that realm to say, if we want to participate, then you need to be part of the system as well.

Scott Shafer: And you got involved pretty early. I mean, were you like high school class president or something? Did you run? A lot of our guests have done that, not you?

Evan Low: Yeah. Scott, I must admit I’m an introvert and I still consider myself really as well. Yes. But during this time, I also realized that I was coming to the sense of identity. Growing up in, as I mentioned, born and raised in San Jose. I remember we were a victim of a hate crime in which there was graffiti spray painted on my house saying ‘Go back to China.’ And during this time also identifying and coming to grips with my own sexual orientation as openly LGBT. And of course, growing up in this period of time, I know it’s hard to imagine, but the Internet was not a thing, we didn’t see phenomenal stars in the areas of sports, academics and media. And so I struggled because we didn’t talk about it at home. You didn’t see it on TV, you didn’t talk about it in school. So where else were you to learn about this? And so that’s where I also realized the importance of just being present and helping to provide a voice to those that are underrepresented.

Guy Marzorati: And I read a story about you coming out to your dad. I think he asked you about your sexual orientation on a scale, is that right?

Evan Low: Yes, yes on a scale of 1 to 10. Well, what he said was, as a loving father, …We sat down and he said, ‘Son, on a scale of 1 to 10, what do you think I am in terms of gay or straight?’ And I said, ‘This is a weird question for a father to be asking your son.’ But he said, ‘Well, I think I’m about a one and a half and one being straight. I think about one and a half, and I think that’s probably where I would be. Where do you think you are?’ And that was his loving way, so to speak, and how he asked. But, this again was back in early 2000, and we didn’t have the type of rights and acceptance that we do today. So it was a very frightening time in which there was many of conversation about being disowned, about what does it mean and frankly, not being educated on what it meant to identify as being openly gay.

Scott Shafer: So what number —

Guy Marzorati: How did you respond?

Evan Low: What I said at the time was 7, to try to give some flexibility and his response was, ‘Okay, so you mostly like men.’ And again, I used that number because I didn’t know. I’ve never been asked.

Scott Shafer: Isn’t seven a lucky number in the Chinese culture?

Evan Low: Eight is actually it is a lucky number. But I just I mean, I panicked and I said, Oh, what do I say?’ And I didn’t know. I didn’t have these experiences and of what it meant. And truly it was just a gut reaction to try to find some safe space. And but luckily, he did say, ‘Well, I still love you anyway. I am a doctor and I made you this way.’

Scott Shafer: So you, you know, overcame your introversion and you ran for the Campbell City Council in 2004, I think it was. And you lost the first time, right? So what was it that finally got you to say? As I recall also, you did like a senior project in college looking at how do you get elected to the Campbell City Council. Is that right?

Evan Low: That’s right. Yes. So one of my professors, Terry Christensen, long time politico in San Jose at San Jose State, that was the senior project in which I did that assessment.

Scott Shafer: We call that ‘Me-search.’

Evan Low: Well, again, I said, ‘Oh, okay, this sounds interesting. Why don’t I just do this and get a college credit for it as well?’ And I again realized as I knocked on doors for individuals, I was 20 at the time. And so you think, is it age? That’s the number one barrier or challenge? Is it sexual orientation or is it my ethnicity? And I will submit to you that is actually my ethnicity. I’d had a number of individuals asking me, who do I root for in the Olympics, the United States or Japan? And again, I’m Chinese-American. And so there’s a question about loyalty and about patriotism that still permeates in our politics today, unfortunately.

Guy Marzorati: And did that have any effect when you won, when you took a seat on the council? Did any of those kind of prejudices or attitudes? Did you feel that within city government as well? Because Campbell is a lot more white than San Jose, it’s, you know, within San Jose, but it’s a different place.

Evan Low: Certainly. I think many of those factors, whether it be age, imagine than being 23 then at the time to being elected at 23. Individuals questioning does this individual demonstrate experience to govern, whether or not is it mean that, oh, this isn’t, you know, an Asian-American or someone who may be foreign and not quite truly American or the accusations, therefore, and then, of course, that of LGBT, many said in terms of whisper campaigns, which is prevalent during that period of time, about ‘Is he going to bring “homosexual” agenda from San Francisco to the city of Campbell?’ So there are a number of challenges that I faced, but I think these are important to recognize so that we can create environments such that others can also serve and these lived experiences and capacities.

Scott Shafer: You got elected to the Assembly in 2014 and were a member and I think at one point co-chaired the LGBTQ caucus up there. And I was just looking, you know, at the membership. And it’s not only is it larger than than it used to be, but it’s so much more diverse geographically. I mean, there’s people from Chula Vista and, you know, the Inland Empire, couple of them really. And, you know, I’m wondering what you make of that? I mean, are you seeing an echo of that among your Republican colleagues? Not that they’re gay necessarily, but they look at issues differently than they did a decade ago?

Evan Low: California, as both of you have well reported, is a different beast in itself. And we hope that we reflect the values of everyday Californians. But frankly, everyday Americans. If you look at the diversity in the makeup of the LGBT legislative caucus, we affectionately say we’ve completed the rainbow. In other words, we have an openly Black member, LGBT member of the legislature in Corey Jackson. Female Latinos, Asian Pacific Islander, bisexual, the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, we still have yet to have an openly trans member of the California state legislature in which, for example, the state of Virginia beat California in terms of representation. So we still have a long ways to go. But again, when this is so personal and dealing with so many of our colleagues, these are lived experiences. And when we tackle these policy issues, the individuals have a sense of who we are. They’ve met our significant others, our children, our families, and we work with them. And so I’m hopeful that they’ll continually change the hearts and minds.

Guy Marzorati: I want to ask about your brother. He took a different path in public service, became a police officer. Talk about your relationship and maybe how that informs the work that you do as a legislator.

Evan Low: I appreciate that question very much. Because I also authored and passed a piece of legislation that would require diversity training with respect to LGBT education and cultural sensitivity and post the training for peace officers in the state of California. And in fact, just this week we have police officers coming from all over the country doing a training here in San Francisco right now because of that piece of legislation on the cultural sensitivity, on training police officers on standards and training. But that is an important relationship as well, too, especially when we are talking about the relationship with the LGBT community and the dark history, frankly, with the LGBT community and public safety. He’s been able to understand and have that conversation with some of his coworkers. Oftentimes when they’re out and about talking about the importance of representation, but also diversity in the most meaningful sense of it in an entity, an organization that perhaps historically and traditionally has been more rough around the edges with respect to diversity. But again, living in the Bay Area and in California, we’ve been able to really partner with law enforcement in that way to be accepting and also be a conduit to our communities.

Scott Shafer: One of the bills you authored a few years ago, I think was 2016 was AB 1887, which was a reaction to some of the very virulent anti-gay anti trans bills that were being passed in places like North Carolina, I believe. And what it did was it creates a list of states where travel to being banned at least in getting reimbursed by the state. That list has now grown, I think, to 26 states. And there’s an effort in the legislature from Toni Atkins, who is the president pro tem in the Senate, openly lesbian, to repeal it and replace it with something else. Where are you on that piece of legislation?

Evan Low: Yeah, thanks for the question. If we remember the context back in 2017 in North Carolina and the discriminatory laws that were passed, there was significant outrage from not only public sector but private sector. And frankly, that was the impetus for the piece of legislation in which we followed many other entities the NBA, the NCAA. Marc Benioff is here at Salesforce, as well as PayPal. And so many other Fortune 50 companies said that they would no longer expand and they would rescind any type of engagement in these states. And that worked. Many of these laws were repealed, and it was made very clear and well that this is not in the best interest of private sector as well. And that would be a significant financial and economic hit in attacking members of the LGBT community.

Unfortunately, the progress to full equality is oftentimes like a pendulum and swings backwards. And that’s what we’re realizing in this day and age. When that law was passed, we were just a handful of states, close to 11 states. But as you referenced, now close to a majority of the states in the union now have discriminatory laws. And it’s important to remember, though, what we are talking about. There has been conversations about the outrage over such a ban. But let’s be focused on what the conversation is about. Many of these states allow teachers to knowingly misgender individuals and not be reprimanded. Many of these states are allowing licensed health care professionals from denying service based on their own personal beliefs or preventing any type of conversation of LGBT individuals in K-12 curriculum. That is the outrage that we’re talking about.

But back to the question at hand, is the legislation working as intended? And unfortunately now with the majority of the states, we need to reevaluate how we can help tackle and win the hearts and minds of individuals. The proposal, then, is to take a look at repealing just a blanket ban, but replacing it with a proactive approach of a PSA, so to speak, that we welcome you to California. You are welcomed. And we have inclusive laws that will protect you. And that’s what this conversation is about. So I think it is appropriate, a conversation about how we can reimagine, how we can win the hearts and minds, especially as we’re seeing it being politicized for attacking our community.

Scott Shafer: So are you a yes on SB 447?

Evan Low: I’m hopeful we can get to that.

Scott Shafer: Well, like, what’s missing?

Evan Low: Well, I think there I think there are specifics on how is this funded? To which states are we going to identify? What these PSAs look like? What is the messaging? What’s the long term? And where’s the oversight? And that’s the key components that I think are important for us to legitimize, because at the end of the day, let’s remember what is actually happening. We are sending potentially public California employees into states into harm’s way in which there could potentially be no public accommodations for them. So do we want to protect individuals? And that’s an important thing to ask.

Guy Marzorati: Because another one of the arguments against the ban is not just that, as Scott mentioned, the number of states passing these anti LGBTQ laws, has extrapolated, but also that it’s putting hinderance on everything from UC researchers trying to go to libraries in other states to, you know, the Cal football team. And I bet that will get even worse when they’re in the ACC. Is that something you’re thinking about as well as kind of the burden it’s placed on, you know, state institutions and employees?

Evan Low: Certainly. And I think these are relevant and fair points to be made. During this period of time, there have been auxiliary funds and foundations that have supplemented such resources for individuals to travel with private funds. And similarly, Fortune 50 companies have also said we don’t have the bandwidth any longer to be, you know, previously it was targeting one or two states. But now how do they implement this policy and go to 26 states and say, well, we’re not going to be present in 26 states. That is not going to be something that they can actually implement for themselves directly. So it is an appropriate conversation to have about how we can think about the current times that we’re in.

Scott Shafer: You know, we California likes to think of itself as sort of a beacon of hope for LGBTQ folks. And in many ways, California is at the same time we’re seeing down in the Inland Empire and San Bernardino and Riverside counties school boards, in one case, voting to inform parents when their child identifies as trans at school. Another case not wanting to use curriculum with Harvey Milk referred to the civil rights icon from San Francisco. You know, the governor weighed in on the Harvey Milk piece of that, going to send textbooks down there if necessary. They sort of backed off a bit. But like, what are your thoughts? What’s the state’s role in those questions?

Evan Low: Well, I think it’s frightening. This is absolutely frightening that we’re seeing this in 2023 and that we’re seeing this being mirrored in many other places, not just in the country, but within within the borders of the state of California. And in fact, even you referred to what we call forced outings, a piece of legislation, even in our state of California that was introduced by a Republican colleague in the legislature this year. And so we are in significant pause of alarm. In fact, the Human Rights Campaign have said they’re in a state of emergency given all of the attacks throughout the country. And we’re seeing these being mirrored everywhere. So the role of the state is fundamentally to help promote the diversity, inclusion and equity as much as possible, especially in comparison to these other states in which they are going the opposite direction and targeting the most vulnerable members. We hope to be a state of inclusion of education and respecting not just tolerating, but accepting diversity of opinion and also experiences.

Guy Marzorati: Another effort you’ve been involved in this year is to put a ballot measure before voters next year to officially remove Prop 8 from the state constitution. This was a ballot measure passed back in 2008 by California voters banning same sex marriage. It has been overturned by the courts, but you want to remove it from state statute. What’s kind of your mission behind that and putting that before the voters?

Evan Low: Well let’s again, remember the times that we’re in. No one would ever imagine that marriage equality for same sex couples would be a threat in our state of California in this day and age. But unfortunately, that is the reality that we’re dealt with. Oftentimes, it’s said if they show you who they are, believe them. And the United States Supreme Court has rolled back protections that have been afforded for over 50 years with reproductive freedom. In that decision, two justices decided that marriage equality will be next. We should believe them. And that’s why we have this language that was passed in 2008 with Proposition 8 which eliminated the rights of same sex couples to marry. When and if indeed the United States Supreme Court comes after marriage equality, that would revert back to the states. And if so, in California, it would not be law of the land. And that’s why it’s important that we enshrine constitutional protections for marriage equality.

And I’ll just say also that this piece of legislation required two-thirds of the legislature to vote in support. There was zero no votes in the California state legislature with multiple Republicans in both houses supporting it. And also those typical organizations that were in opposition from the religious denominations: the Catholic Conference, the Church of Latter Day Saints were neutral, did not weigh in in opposition of this measure. So it’s a different time and day that we’re in, in California. But of course, we can’t take things for granted.

Scott Shafer: Well, exactly. And it’s going to be on the ballot in March, which is presidential primary, lower turnout than November. Why put it on in March? And what’s at stake like? You don’t want to just get 50% plus one here to get it passed, right?

Evan Low: Yeah. And in fact, Scott, we are going to be putting it on the presidential in the November.

Scott Shafer: Oh you are?

Evan Low: Yes. We have a pending piece of legislation that will move it to the November 2024 ballot.

Guy Marzorati: Was that like a procedural error or what happened?

Evan Low: It was just procedural to allow us to go to a November election that would allow us to focus on that election versus the primary election. Of course, in the general election, in terms of viability, it is most conducive and better for the electorate and the results of the election for this measure. And it looks like it’s polling in the high 70 percentile of success. Again, given the bipartisan support and the nature of this.

Scott Shafer: Okay, we are almost out of time. But we’d like to ask kind of a fun question. I know that in June you turned 40, which is like 60 in gay years.

Evan Low: You had to remind me Scott, thanks.

Scott Shafer: Wat did you do to celebrate? Like, what’s different now that you’re 40?

Evan Low: You know, it just comes at a time that you just a recap and think about what else is to be done. And it’s important time. But thanks for that reminder, Scott. You’re so kind.

Scott Shafer: Anytime. Evan Low, Assemblyman, thanks so much for talking with us.

Evan Low: Thanks to you both.

Scott Shafer: All right. That’ll do it for this edition of Political Breakdown, a production of KQED Public Radio.

Guy Marzorati: Our engineer today is Katherine Monahan. I’m Guy Marzorati.

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