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Palm Springs Elects its First Gay African-American Mayor in 'Lavender Sweep'
One on One With New Mayor
by Ed Walsh

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Pictured: Ron Oden, Palm Springs Mayor-elect. Photos by Ed Walsh

Palm Springs made history this month when a GLBT majority was sworn in to its city government and a gay African American man took the reins of the mayorís office.

"It's the second lavender sweep in the State of California," said Palm Springs resident and political advisor Jean Harris, reflecting on the so-called lavender sweep in San Francisco in 1990. That election swept in gay candidates Carole Migden and Roberta Achtenberg to the Board of Supervisors and Tom Ammiano to the school board.

In the Nov. 4 election, Palm Springs voters replaced incumbent mayor Will Kleindienst, 50, with Ron Oden, 53, an 8-year veteran of the Palm Springs City Council. Oden is the city's first gay mayor and city's first Black mayor. About a third of the Palm Springs population is estimated to be gay but the African-American population is only about two percent.

Oden's election has generated international media attention. After he talked with this reporter, he was scheduled to be interviewed later that day by Franceís largest newspaper, Le Monde, and by the Washington Times. He said he has mixed feelings about the headlines that refer to him as Palm Springs' first openly gay African-American mayor.

"I don't resent it because I am African American and I am gay," he explained. "It's part of who I am. However, the way it's presented is that somehow you don't see a person in that. You spend a lot of years developing who you are and that title or partial title doesn't cover it."

Oden explained that his message resonated with voters because he represented change. Like another famous Palm Springs mayor, the late Sonny Bono, Oden was voted into office on a pro-business platform.

The other winning gay candidates, Steve Pougnet and Ginny Foat, also took a strong pro-business stance. The Palm Springs City Council consists of five members including the mayor, who is considered the fifth council member

Oden said voters didn't support him or the gay City Council candidates because of their sexual orientation. He said people voted for change and against a government that was perceived to be unfriendly to business.

"The gay thing was a non-issue," agreed Michael Green, co-owner along with his partner, Stephen Boyd, of the historic Triangle Inn. Green serves on the boards of several Palm Springs business associations. He said the election results came as welcome news to most small business owners who have often been at odds with city hall.

Palm Springs Facts

Area: 96 Square miles, about twice the size of San Francisco

Population: 43,800 permanent residents, with a total winter population of about 75,000.

Number of gay inns or resorts: 37, including two lesbian resorts

Number of Tourists who visit Palm Springs each year: 1.6 million

Drive time from Los Angeles: About two hours.

Source: City of Palm Springs and the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism


EW: Why were you elected?

Oden: People know me and they trust me. I don't think people voted for me because I'm African-American nor did they vote for me because I'm gay. I believe people voted for me because they have confidence in my leadership and my ability.

EW: What does it say about how far we've come that a gay African-American man can be elected mayor of a major city?

RO: It says a lot about the progressive attitudes of the people of Palm Springs for sure. Someone recently asked me if I thought this particular election could have taken place in other cities. I said absolutely. You will see more of this in other cities and soon it will be inconsequential, the person's race or their sexual orientation, because those aren't issues.

And it wasn't just the mayor. We also elected a council that is majority gay, but that certainly wasn't an orchestration. Out of the nine candidates, the community looked at the people running and elected people they thought were the best and two of them happened to be gay.

EW: Were you prepared for all the media attention?

RO: I was prepared for the local stuff but the national press is on an entirely different level that I was not prepared for. I think the swearing in will be quite an ordeal for the city.

EW: I read that you won't run for reelection after serving your four-year term as mayor, is that true?

RO: I'm only elected for one term. We will see how this all works out but at this point I'm just looking to finish the four years. I don't know what tomorrow holds for us. I think you have to know when to move on and what's best for the city. If in four years, they think it's best for me to stay longer, I will be open to that. It's a matter of evaluation.

EW: Any thoughts of running for higher office?

RO: I won the 2000 Democratic nomination for Congress. I did better than any other Democrat has in this area. I didn't have the party support but I still did better than the candidate that they endorsed.

EW: What do you hope to accomplish?

RO: One of the first things I want to address is to make the city business and people friendly. That's from our local residents to people who wish to locate or relocate their business here to the city of Palm Springs. We have a reputation (for being unfriendly to business), a shadow that's been lingering over us for a number of years. While we have vast opportunities that lie ahead of us, if we don't address that concern, those opportunities will be limited.

EW: Will business be your focus?

RO: We're looking at a $4 million deficit. And we only have one industry, tourism. So it's important that we enhance our identity as an inviting tourist destination. While at the same time, we are bringing in or creating an environment to bring more businesses into the city so that we expand our tax base. So that if, God forbid, anything should happen to tourism or to the economy which directly affects tourism, we will have something else to fall back on.

There's another component. We have more year-round residents in Palm Springs than we ever had. So we have to balance our identity as an inviting tourist destination with the quality of life for our residents. We have a very delicate balancing act to perform.

EW: How important is gay tourism to the economy of Palm Springs?

RO: I think it's very important. Currently, gay visitors are bringing in a significant portion of tourism dollars and we are looking at whether or not we need to invest more money in what we know is working for us. It's not just the success of our gay hotels but the slipover effects because there are a lot of gay tourists who stay in the mainstream hotels.

EW: What percentage of the city is gay?

RO: We're better than 30 percent. I've heard 40 or 50. We're not 40 percent but it might be moving to 35. A lot of people think the political clout is commensurate with the economic clout, and it is not, because for a lot of people who live here, it is their second home, so they don't vote here. The appearance of the power and influence of the community is different from its actual impact.

EW: Do you get the sense that some people fear that Palm Springs will turn into a gay city, that gays are taking over?

RO: People have not verbalized that concern. But it would be the same if this community became a third Black, or a third Latino, or a third Jewish.

But in the very near future, I am going to have a meeting with the clergy from Palm Springs and I am going to say to them quite pointedly that these are some issues that you are going to have to talk to your congregation about. And for some of them, I know it's a non-issue but for others, it's a major issue.

EW: What are some of the biggest changes you've seen in the 14 years you've lived in Palm Springs?

RO: We've been pretty stable overall in population of about 42,000 to 43,000 people, but there's been a complete overturn of the population. I did a poll two years ago that found that 30 percent of the people who lived in Palm Springs lived here for five years or less. But what was astounding to me is that 60 percent lived here for 10 years or less. While the whole population is stable here, there's been a complete overturn in terms of the population itself.

EW: How has the business climate changed?

RO: It hasn't changed that much. It was negative when I came on the City Council (eight years ago). In spite of the fact that we've made a lot of changes, the perception is that we're not business friendly and so the perception is the reality for the perceiver. We've never addressed the perception. I've been saying that on the council consistently for the past four years and it fell on deaf ears. There are some very specific things that need to be changed and until we do those things no one is ever going to believe that things are different.

EW: What are some of those things?

RO: We need to make some adjustments of management. One area is our legal staff. If you sit down to talk to any developers, or people who contract with the city, they say our legal staff is the most difficult legal staff that they've ever dealt with. People have said to me that I will not come to Palm Springs as long as you have that legal staff. That's wrong. And we've heard that over and over again, yet we haven't done anything about it.

EW: With your strong emphasis on business, you sound like a Republican, why are you a Democrat?

RO: I'll tell you why I'm a Democrat. At the last convention, as I walked through the Staples Center, I saw America. I saw rich, poor, every race, color, every sexual orientation seated side by side talking about the democratic process in this country.

Somehow people think that to be a Democrat means that you're not fiscally responsible or that you're not pro-business and they see them as the antithesis of one another and I completely disagree with that. Completely.

But I will tell you that Republicans have been trying to recruit me for a long time.

EW: I read somewhere that you're an ordained minister, is that accurate?

RO: What?!

EW: Gottcha. (laughs)

RO: Yes, I am an ordained minister and I pastored for a number of years. I was married. I have two children and I have a grandchild.

EW: Where's your family from?

RO: My former wife and kids are from New Orleans.

EW: They must be very proud of you.

RO: They are.

EW: Do you have a partner?

RO: I've been single now three years. You know it's better to be single than to be (long pause) dead. (laughs).

I have a difficult life. When you go out, all of a sudden everyone is talking to you, no one ever says anything to your partner. There are so many demands, and finding someone who understands that life. When I was married, when I was a minister, it was the same way. So everything I've ever done in life has been like that.

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