The story of how West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon became an integral part of a presidential campaign announcement rally last week for Pete Buttigieg, the Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and an openly gay man, says something profound about social progress in America against all odds.
Long before arriving at this seminal moment on April 14, when Cabaldon spoke movingly on a South Bend stage about how Buttigieg’s candidacy for the highest office in the land was historically significant, Cabaldon was a kid growing up in a 1970s household where the men in his family would joke that if they found out their sons were gay, they would shoot them.
When Cabaldon, 53, first ran for West Sacramento City Council in 1994, during a meeting with a local Firefighters union PAC, one of the men whose support Cabaldon sought suddenly asked to see his wallet.
“I thought it was strange because I was asking them for money,” Cabaldon said last week over coffee in West Sac. “One of the firefighters looked at my wallet and said, ‘It’s cool guys. No Sierra Club card and no gay card.’”
In 2005, Cabaldon took his father, his father’s wife and his sister to Europe for the holidays. On Christmas Eve, during dinner in Strasbourg, France, someone made a gay joke at the table as the family ate.
“Well,” Cabaldon said. “You know, I’m gay.”
His announcement was met with, at first, silence. Then, his father spoke. “Well, we don’t agree with that, but you’re our son and we love you,” Cabaldon recalled him saying. “And then it was, ‘pass the salt,’ and we didn’t really talk about it again.”
In 2006, Cabaldon came out to the broader Sacramento region in a story in The Bee. He was 40 at the time. He was elected mayor of West Sacramento in 2004, the first time that voters directly elected a mayor in the city.
He was running for re-election in 2006 with no idea of how his announcement would play professionally.
“A handful of people said, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ A bunch of other people said, ‘I really don’t care. I don’t want to hear about that.’ Or people said, ‘I don’t like that but you do a good job so I’ll put up with it.’ That was probably the largest group.”
Cabaldon said: “West Sacramento wasn’t ready for me. But it was only by (coming out) that the city changed. It just didn’t change with the snap of a finger.”
Cabaldon was re-elected by a wide margin in 2006. He won big again in 2008 but many of those same Cabaldon supporters in ’08 also voted to approve approve Proposition 8, which made same sex marriage illegal for a time in California.
In retrospect, what does it say about our community that many would treat Cabaldon and other gay neighbors and friends this way?
They voted for him because he did a good job. But they also voted to deny him and other gay people the right to love and happiness protected by law that straight people take for granted.
The more time elapses from such fraught decisions, the more those who voted this way look small and bigoted. But Cabaldon sees a broader view, a longer-term play.
“It’s a process,” he said. “You have to understand that and help people along. You have to help people go from step one to step three (of acceptance).”
And if Cabaldon felt recrimination as he said the words, he masked it beautifully.
West Sacramento voters have kept Cabaldon as their mayor for more than 14 years now. He’s been re-elected seven times. He is a regional leader of great consequence. He has led a smart-growth movement that has redefined a community once known solely for industrial port and seedy hotels to one of new energy and investment.
In the time that Cabaldon has served the voters of West Sacramento, Raley Field has become a regional jewel. New housing has sprung up, the waterfront looks better than Sacramento’s, international business are relocating to West Sac, it has a new library, retail and locally owned businesses.
Consider that this all happened despite Cabaldon keeping his secret until he was middle-aged. One wonders how many homophobic jokes and slurs Cabaldon absorbed while doing the work of his city?
He has been known as one of the smartest mayors in the U.S. Council of Mayors for years and one wonders – or at least I do – how far Cabaldon’s intellect might have taken him had he not lived much of his adult life in secret, or had it not been legal – or remained legal – to discriminate against him and other gay people as is the case in many states to this day.
As a matter of fact, most states – including Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, almost all the southeastern states and a large swath of the Midwest – offer little more than marriage licenses to gay people, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Many of these states do not offer statewide anti-discrimination protections to LGBTQ people for housing, employment, public accommodations, gender-marking on identification documents or legislation that protects gay kids from conversion therapy, the now-discredited practice of trying to change a person’s orientation through a process that is anything but “therapy.”
Into this world enters Buttigieg, the openly gay presidential candidate from Indiana, which does not prohibit housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. It does not prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. And it does not offer protections, such as anti-bullying measures for schools, for gay people in education or public accommodations.
Cabadlon said he first met Buttigieg about four years, after he came out while running for re-election in South Bend.
“The annual meeting for mayors in the country was coming up and I thought, ‘I gotta find this guy,’” Cabaldon said.
They clicked immediately. They were both “wonky” mayors who viewed problems as challenges to solve. “What did the data say?” said Cabaldon of his mantra and Buttigieg’s
Most of the LBGT mayors in America were women. Cabaldon identified with the 37-year-old Buttigieg though, not completely. Cabaldon is 16 years older than Buttigieg and, in him, he saw a younger and freer version of himself. Cabaldon was so closeted at 40, he virtually wasn’t dating anyone.
But in short order, Cabaldon met Buttigieg’s then-boyfriend, now-husband Chasten and would come to view both of them as friends.
Cabaldon attended their wedding last year.
“I was expecting an enormous production by the Barack Obama campaign in a stadium,” Cabaldon said. “It was an important moment and for a regular politician, a wedding like that is a chance to forge some superficial bonds with people.
“But I get there and its this tiny church wedding that is super traditional,” he said. “There was no affect about it at all.”
By this point, Cabaldon’s feelings about Buttigieg began to change as he recognized what he saw before him.
“I had come to be very good friends with him and very intimidated by him,” Cabaldon said. “My brand among U.S. mayors was that I was one of the smart mayors. But then he comes along and I’m not even his league.”
Buttigieg graduated from Harvard College, was a Rhodes Scholar. He was a naval intelligence officer who served a tour in Afghanistan.
“Every part of his story is a better version of my life if I was a better person and had been born 16 years later,” Cabaldon said.
Buttigieg didn’t just come out to voters as Cabaldon did. He also married the love of his life and has lived that love openly and freely. He remained embraced by his Episcopalian faith.
Cabaldon was raised Catholic but has fallen away from the church and it is here, once again, where the Catholic church – my church – has failed so miserably and caused so many good people to leave by not being open and not being welcoming and by making people feel marginalized.
But to his everlasting credit, Cabaldon sees hope and joy in Buttigieg.
When the mayor of South Bend called to ask if Cabaldon could see fit to speak at his presidential campaign announcement, he gave Cabaldon an out. He knew Cabaldon would be getting some pressure to endorse Kamala Harris, his home state U.S. senator running for president.
Cabaldon interrupted Buttigieg at mid sentence. “I said I’m 100 percent in.”
“Because this is a historic moment changing the social fabric of America in real time,” Cabaldon said.
“Pete is (doing well in polls) where you can be legally fired or evicted for being gay.,” he said. “The contrast of that is something that I don’t think we’ve ever seen in this country. We have a candidate of that tier who is also subject to that level of legalized discrimination. Statutory discrimination. That (Buttigieg) seems so confident doesn’t wipe away the history he is grappling with.”
Cabaldon gave his speech and fired up the crowd before Buttigieg was introduced, even though Cabaldon said he had been paralyzed by fear in the days leading up to it. He had reflected on his time as a young man, where he was driven to excel and achieve again and again in his attempt to “wipe away” the fact that he was gay.
Now here was Buttigieg, a new generation, taking the baton and reaching higher than Cabaldon ever could have imagined.
“Perhaps the people of our country are even surprising themselves as they’re saying across the land: Pete Buttigieg is the Maltese-American, left-handed, Episcopalian, gay, millennial war veteran that America didn’t know we needed,” Cabaldon said from the stage, a speech carried on national television.
“This is a historic moment that reveals how far our nation has to go, to be sure, but also that America never runs out of surprises, of leaps of faith, or better angels,” he said. “Fifteen-year-old me could only think about not being beaten up or shunned or killed.
“Heck, even as chair of America’s LGBT mayors, I couldn’t have dreamed of this day just four months ago. And now, I’m as moved and inspired by my country’s decisive embrace of Pete Buttigieg as I was when my family and friends hugged me even closer when I came out.”
Cabaldon had feared he would blow his moment. He watched it later on video, saw himself swagger across the stage. It was Buttigieg’s moment, but it was his also.
In his own way, in West Sacramento, Cabaldon had blazed a path that Buttigieg now followed.
Who knows what the campaign will bring. There was great joy for both the mayors of South Bend and of West Sacramento – for all the pain that had been overcome and all the hope that lay ahead in the future.