San Diego’s Tlingit Mayor Embraces His ‘Firsts’

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San Diego’s new mayor, Todd Gloria, is Tlingit, Filipino and has Dutch and Puerto Rican roots. He often describes himself as the proud son of a hotel maid and a gardener.

Gloria is San Diego’s first non-white mayor, and also its first LGBTQ mayor.  

“I’ve been the first of many things in my career,” Gloria said. “The goal is always not to be the last one. 

Gloria started volunteering on political campaigns as a high school student. He received Sealaska and Goldbelt scholarships to help get him through his undergraduate dual major in history and political science from the University of San Diego, and went to work for former California Congresswoman Susan Davis as her district director in his early 20s. In 2008, he was elected to San Diego’s City Council, and served on the council until his successful candidacy for California State Assembly in 2016. Earlier this year, he became mayor of San Diego.  

Although Gloria’s political destiny may have seemed preordained from early childhood, when he was a finalist in his city’s “Mayor for a Day” essay contest, as a gay man it was anything but. “I didn’t even think people like me could be in politics,” he said. 

“I had a teacher tell me ‘You can’t run for office if you’re gay, but honestly, he didn’t have to say that because I already believed it,” Gloria said. “That was a time when someone actually said it out loud, but there are a lot of unspoken things children believe about themselves without anyone having to say it to them. I want to be a voice for saying, ‘You can. If you have the talent and work hard, you can do it.’” 

Gloria started to believe in his political future after volunteering on the campaign of a woman named Christine Kehoe, who first ran for San Diego City Council in 1993.  

“She was our Harvey Milk here in San Diego,” Gloria explained, referring to California’s first openly gay politician, who was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978.  

“There wasn’t an article written about her that didn’t describe her as ‘lesbian Christine Kehoe,’” Gloria said. “Chris was elected in 1993. I remember it vividly. Throughout the better part of the ‘90s people were still saying, ‘You don’t get to do this stuff,’ and I have to be candid, I believed them. But I had this living example that said that’s not true, or that’s not 100% true. By the time I was ready to take that leap it wasn’t ‘gay Todd Gloria.’ That happened occasionally but that is not what my candidacies have been about.” 

Gloria is known in his hometown more for advocacy on behalf of San Diego’s homeless population and his dogged determination to take care of everyday frustrations like potholed streets. He is outspoken about his multidimensional identity because he believes it’s important for young people to be able to visualize opportunities for themselves through the examples set by others.  

Being biracial seemed a lot more unusual back then because not as many biracial people were in positions of power, whether in politics, sports or popular culture, Gloria said. It was Tiger Woods, Mariah Carey and me.  

Gloria is a third-generation resident of San Diego, but traces his ties to Alaska through his paternal grandfather, Louis Gloria, who was born in Juneau and served on the Sealaska Board of Directors from 1979-1988. All four of his grandparents came to San Diego because of ties to the military. Gloria described his grandfather as a powerful conduit to his cultural identity. 

“He was strong about it – insistent about it,” Gloria said. “My father, my brother and I, we’ve all held on to it and it’s important to our self-actualization.” 

His childhood memories of his grandfather are of a man who always wore a suit – even to mow the lawn. At the time, Gloria said, he didn’t understand it. But as an adult, he learned more about the discrimination his grandfather faced throughout his life: as a door-to-door salesman in 1950s San Diego; being forced to cross state lines to marry his Puerto Rican wife because interracial marriage was illegal in California; facing discriminatory lending practices to buy the family’s home in the Clairemont neighborhood. 

(The suit) was how he communicated he was a man worthy of respect,” Gloria said. “That’s part of why I’m very explicit about who I am and where my family comes from, because I recognize the extreme price my ancestors paid. 

“One of my fondest memories of him was when he came to visit me at City Hall when I was on the City Council, thinking of what that must have meant to see his grandson sitting there,” Gloria said. “He wasn’t one to offer a lot of generous comments, but that was a very proud day for him. That’s a moment I cherish because he was a tough man to know.” 

As a lawmaker, Gloria has advanced legislation on repatriation of artifacts, recognizing the rights of Native Americans to wear their regalia at graduation ceremonies, and to help undocumented immigrants fighting deportation. He has been embraced by the Filipino community as well as by Native Americans.  

“The phrase ‘representation matters’ isn’t just about mentoring Native youth, or LGBTQ youth,” he said. “There are so many people who haven’t had a seat at the table. It’s about allyship and the interconnected nature of what we must do. Natives will rarely be the majority in any room so you have to seek allies. That’s how you get progress.” 

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