By Kelley Dupuis
When Chula Vista Mayor Steve Padilla went public this week with the fact that he’s gay, he insisted that he wasn’t really “going public” at all.
Padilla says he told his family and friends as far back as 1999 about his sexual orientation, and while he has not flaunted it, he has made no particular effort to keep it a secret.
Well, except maybe once. On the day after the November, 2002 election when he first became mayor, Padilla kicked up a fuss with a South Bay newspaper which appeared about to take his sexual orientation public.
The Star-News in Chula Vista questioned Padilla about his sexual preference back then, and Padilla made an angry phone call to the paper’s publisher to get that part of the story about his election quashed.
Former Star-News editor Michael Burgess said Padilla responded with outrage that morning, when reporter Laura Mallgren, acting on instructions, asked him point-blank if he were gay. Burgess said publisher Linda Townson had just heard the rumor about Padilla, and seemed so interested in it that Burgess thought he himself was being given instructions to make it part of the story.
But within minutes of being asked the question, Padilla telephoned Townson in her office. The new mayor, Burgess said, was furious.
Whatever changed in two and a half years, Padilla acknowledged being gay last week when introduced as gay during the San Diego Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Pride festival.
Padilla said Wednesday that the only reason he reacted as he did to the newspaper’s 2002 questioning was that he objected to the way it was done.
“They handled it very unprofessionally,” Padilla said. “It was extremely minor league. That’s what I objected to. It was a very salacious, gossipy, juvenile attitude and approach about it.”
Padilla said he does not expect the general public revelation about his gender preferences to affect his standing with voters particularly, not even with his Hispanic voter base, which tends to be economically liberal but socially conservative.
“I’m not the gay mayor of Chula Vista any more than I’m the Latino mayor or the half-Portuguese mayor,” Padilla said. “I don’t believe in hyphenated Americans. I’m an American and I’m the mayor. I represent all of them and that’s it.”
He added that having acknowledged his preference to a public gathering of gays, lesbians, bi-and-transsexuals does not mean that he will be pursuing a ‘gay agenda’ in the days, months or years to come.
“I don’t have any particular agenda for any particular group,” he said.
A quick sampling of Hispanic public opinion in the South Bay this week augurs well for Padilla. Latino residents of Chula Vista do not seem particularly concerned about Padilla’s sexual orientation.
“It’s okay, I have no problem with that,” said Christal Vazquez, 19. “His being gay doesn’t affect his work, and he’s doing a great job. Those [preferences] are his personal issues.”
Marlene Bravo, 21, needed some help getting her comments into English, but they were similar.
“In my opinion, sexual orientation doesn’t matter,” she said. “It doesn’t affect his job.” Bravo said she would not hesitate to vote for Padilla if he were running for re-election.
Anthony Venegas, 63, reflected what may be an older Latino generation’s ‘take’ on the issue. Venegas explained that he does not, personally, regard homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle, but he approves overall of Padilla’s performance as mayor, and like the two younger women, said he would vote for the mayor again.
“He’s been kind of low-key as mayor, and now that he’s come out, well, there’s nothing we can do about it,” Venegas said. “He’s done a good job as mayor, and other than that, it’s hard to put him down.”
These and other low-key responses to his announcement don’t surprise Padilla.
“We’re very accustomed to diversity in Chula Vista,” he said. “It’s a very small percentage of people who will suddenly not support me because I’m gay. It may have some impact, but not to any great degree.”