Could Gerrie Schipske Be Long Beach's First LGBT Mayor?

The councilwoman stands on the cusp of making that title a reality. But getting there hasn't been easy

Could Gerrie Schipske Be Long Beach's First LGBT Mayor?

"My dad and mom met at the Pike," Gerrie Schipske began. For the broadly accomplished, 62-year-old, Long Beach City Councilwoman, that was the beginning—the chance interaction of a couple of teenagers on the bright, bustling midway of a classic old amusement park in 1948. Of course, even without such a personal connection, mentioning the Pike is always a good icebreaker in Long Beach. Judging from the sentiment that fluttered through the banquet room at McKenna's as Schipske opened her address to the Women Lawyers of Long Beach a few weeks ago, the image of finding love at the Pike may still be the city's favorite meet-cute, more than three decades after the park's 1979 demolition.

Schipske grew up in what was left of this Long Beach, a city that people variously strain to remember, struggle to imagine, find themselves yearning for, regard as a Golden Age, hold up as the standard the city should strive to meet again. She was born in the Naval Hospital, nowadays known as the Veterans Administration Hospital. She was baptized at St. Lucy's Catholic Church on the west side of town, the one in which her parents were married, not far from Silverado Park, where they had their reception. Her family shopped on Pine Avenue when it was the center of a retail district full of department stores and specialty shops. She read the Independent and Press-Telegram. Schipske is proud of her deep Long Beach roots and delights in dropping the names of the architectural masterpieces, historic people, landmark places, unique traditions—the icons, so many long gone, but some still around—that gave context to the milestones her life was passing, that opened up options and encouraged her to focus on the future she would inhabit.

"I've known I wanted to be in politics—to be an elected official—since I was voted student-body president of my high school," declares Schipske, whose desire has always been obvious, but whose Election Day results haven't been so gratifying . . . until recently. Schipske has been running for political offices—mostly among assorted state assembly and congressional districts—since 1988, and after being crushed by Orange County Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher in the 2002 edition of his biannual Waltz Back to Washington, her record as a finalist was 1 win and 5 losses. Since then, however, Schipske's neighbors in Long Beach's Fifth District have twice elected her to represent them on the City Council—by a nail-biting margin in 2006, then via landslide in 2010.

Gerrie Schipske
John Gilhooley
Gerrie Schipske
Schipske speaking at a rally for marriage equality
Courtesy of Gerrie Schipske
Schipske speaking at a rally for marriage equality

Was that a referendum on Schipske's solid Our Town background? Or was there something in her résumé, Schipske's chronicle of her various jobs and responsibilities—with the Central Intelligence Agency, as the City of Long Beach's first public-information officer, registered nurse, attorney, author of three books about Long Beach history, as a member of the California Medical Board, as head of the Orange County Democrat Party, as a foster parent, as the adoptive parent of three now-adult children, as a grandmother—that reads as though Jack Kerouac helped her with it? Schipske's about to find out.

On March 21, she launched her campaign for mayor. The primary election is next April, and if she gets more than 50 percent of the votes in that primary, Gerrie Schipske would be the mayor of Long Beach . . . meaning, therefore, that Gerrie Schipske would be the first openly gay mayor of Long Beach . . . because . . . inasmuch as . . . basically . . . as we have all known, probably since we have known of her, Gerrie Schipske is gay.

Why does all that feel so weird to say?

Maybe because we haven't had any practice?

My first conversation with Schipske was in October 2002, a month before her Election Day mismatch against Rohrabacher. We met in her campaign headquarters, a rented office on the fringe of an old Long Beach shopping center, directly above a beauty college. We went into a windowless room, sat on metal folding chairs and talked—starting with topics suggested by my questions, then traveling along some tangents until we arrived at some of her talking points. The central theme was how Schipske's campaign—despite less-than-1-percent losses to congressmen Steve Kuykendall in 1996 and Steve Horn in 2000—was being financially abandoned by the Democratic Party and its PACs, and thus not considered for endorsements by traditionally supportive organizations because of a bipartisan redistricting deal among California legislators to protect incumbents. The conversation touched on oil drilling, health and education, automotive-fuel efficiency, job creation, terrorism, sewage treatment, and the number of flights at Long Beach Airport. Lesbians, gays and bisexuals were mentioned, but in most cases, their issues were covered by larger umbrellas.

Schipske never mentioned she is a lesbian. I didn't ask her about it. I never mentioned I'm a straight male. She didn't ask me about it.

It's been the same for the past 11 years, with only two exceptions that come to mind. Two years ago, when public opinion seemed to take the side of Robert Garcia—Long Beach's other openly gay council member—in a difference of opinion with Schipske over the naming of a downtown square that's now called Harvey Milk Park, Schipske quipped, "I hope they don't revoke my gay card." And early this year, when the opening of the Historical Society of Long Beach's exhibition, "Coming Out In Long Beach," drew a large number of elected officials, Schipske observed, "At one time, politicians couldn't be seen with us; now, they can't be seen without us."

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