Victoria Kolakowski, who is running for Superior Court Judge, has been endorsed by a slew of elected officials, democratic clubs, local organizations, and newspapers. I actually can’t even think of anyone I’ve talked to about this race who has not said that they are voting for her.
Still, I often get the sense that many of the people I talk to are voting for her because they feel like they should, but don’t really care that much about the race or have a particularly strong sense of why this election matters so much. But you should care. Because it is important.
Diversity on the bench
When you read newspaper articles about this race, it’s easy to get the sense (although she is always quoted in them saying otherwise), that the main thing Kolakowski has to offer is that she is transgendered. In their endorsement of her opponent John Creighton, and in a very frustrating article they ran about the race, the Oakland Tribune seemed to imply that her main qualification for office was that there are currently no LGBT judges in Alameda County. Stories tend to emphasize Creighton’s work prosecuting gang, domestic violence, sexual assault, and murder cases, while glossing over Kolakowski’s legal background and focusing on the fact that she would be the first transgendered judge.
And while she does talk about that on her website and at fundraisers, I have never gotten the sense that she believes it is her primary qualification for the job, nor is it what drives her to want to position.
And I can’t hold it against her for bringing it up when asking for money. I mean, obviously she has to address it, because other people certainly will, and also, the fact is that it does help with fundraising, and you need money to win elections, and it is hard to raise money for low profile races. So you use whatever you’ve got.
Mostly as a favor to a friend who was hosting it, I attended a fundraiser for Victoria Kolakowski last May. I was planning on making a very modest donation. And she got up and made her pitch, and she talked about how less than 30% of Alameda County Judges are women, and how there are no transgendered judges in the entire country, and she read out loud from this awful editorial, which had been recently published in the Washington Times all about employers should be allowed to discriminate against “she-male[s]” and “psychologically troubled persons.”
And yeah, I was moved. Call me a bleeding heart or whatever. Identity politics is not how I make decisions about which candidates I am going to support, but I totally get why some people do.
For a long time, I didn’t understand that. I would listen to women my mother’s age get all worked up about supporting female candidates, or talk about how important it is to get more women in public office, and I would just think “This does not matter to me at all.” I hated the idea that anyone could think my breasts were more of a qualification for anything than my mind. Growing up, it never occurred to me that there was a job I wouldn’t be able to have because I was female. As an adult, the only things I ever encountered sentiments like that about were professional cooking and pinball, where I was never locked out, but compliments always came with irritating disclaimers. You know, like “Wow, V. You’re really good at this, for a girl.” And while that is irritating, if it’s the worst thing you have to deal with — well, things aren’t really that bad.
But now, when I look at the passion gay rights advocates put into electing LGBT candidates, I finally understand. I think the reason I never did before was because the women of my parents’ generation did such a good job that I always had role models I could look at who made me think I could do anything I wanted. They were so successful about their own identity politics that I couldn’t even see why it was necessary. (Nice work, ladies!)
And while there has been much progress on that front in recent years, it is still not the case today for gay people, and it is certainly not the case for transgendered people. And although I am not gay, I remember growing up, having close friends who were, and (especially in Texas) that is a very hard thing for a kid to have to deal with. The immense pain of being an outsider, of just wanting to be normal and thinking they never would be, of having to hear all the time that it is okay for people to hate you for who you are — I wanted so badly to be able to say something that would take their pain away, even just a little bit. And I couldn’t.
And it’s great to have public figures people can point to — celebrities or whatever, but I think that only goes so far. Celebrities, are, almost by definition, not normal. And when the world makes you feel like there must be something wrong with you at your very core, all you want is to be normal.
There’s something very different about being elected. I mean, if you are elected to public office, it means that the most people had to actually vote for you. They had to actively make a decision affirming that they are not bothered by your identity, and they don’t think it makes you less qualified to be represent them, and that they are okay with who you are. In that sense, it’s the most normal possible thing. I think that means a great deal for kids, or adults even, struggling with coming to grips with who they are.
And being a judge is very much the same, as Kolakowski explains in this Bay Area Reporter article from when she was sworn into her current job as an Administrative Law Judge:
As transgender people, often we are perceived by people as being…well, honestly, crazy or delusional. So to be the first transgender person in this position is significant…In a society where people question our judgment, to be affirmed as someone capable of making good decisions based upon sound reasoning and application of the law — that’s a big deal.
So, yeah. I totally get it. And so I do think that it matters. And the second I got home, I went to her website, and I donated five times the amount of money I had been planning to.
Diversity of legal experience and interest
But I wouldn’t have given her any money at all if I didn’t already think that it is important we elect Victoria Kolakowski for Superior Court Judge for other reasons.
John Creighton seems like a very good person. And I have no reason to believe that he is not a very good prosecutor. But another judge whose interest lies solely in criminal law is simply not what the Alameda County Superior Court needs.
Most judges are former prosecutors. Part of the reason is that this is a very appealing title on the ballot, and a lot of people make decisions on low profile races based on the job description next to the candidate’s name. Another part of the reason is that usually when there is an open judge seat, it gets appointed by the Governor. And Governors tend to appoint prosecutors.
This creates an imbalance in the courts, where most judges do not have a background in civil law. Many judges also are not particularly interested in civil cases, and end up getting just assigned to them because they lack the seniority to score the types of cases they request. But these types of cases are precisely the reason Victoria Kolakowski wants to be a judge.
A few months ago, I attended another fundraiser for Victoria Kolakowski. This time, it was Oakland City Attorney John Russo who made the pitch. I wish I had written down what he said, or thought to record him with my phone or something, because he put it so much better than I can. But his speech was just as powerful as the one Kolakowski herself had made a few months ago, although focused on a completely different topic.
He talked about the complexity of the civil cases he works on, and how much more difficult the process can be due to the lack of judges with expertise in these areas of law, and how desperately judges with this type of experience are needed on the bench. Kolakowski has worked in many of these more obscure areas, including patents and intellectual property, bankruptcy and divorce, corporate and contract law, land use and zoning, and environmental law. As an Administrative Law Judge, she has to deal with complicated cases involving utility regulation and CEQA. We need judges who are properly equipped to handle these matters.
Access to the courts
Aside from her extensive legal background in areas that differ from that of most judges, the other reason I feel so strongly that it is important to elect Victoria Kolakowski is her passion for increasing access to the courts.
In criminal cases, you are guaranteed a lawyer. But in civil cases, you are not. And anyone who has had to go through that knows firsthand just how unbelievably and prohibitively expensive that can be. The legal system is often, to say the least, obtuse, and without representation, it can prove nearly impossible to navigate.
In the video below, Kolakowski speaks movingly about her ideas for making the process more understandable, and how taking time at the beginning to explain it to people can save immense amounts of time and money, on both sides, in the long run. It’s not a long video. If you are at all undecided in this race, please watch it.
To have someone who wants to make that a priority, who cares specifically about doing this, about making the legal system work for everyone — that’s huge. That will make a tangible difference in people’s lives.
In her endorsement of Kolakowski, Becks wrote about her temperament and compassion, and while I have not worked closely with Vicky like she has, I do think that her even-tempered mindset and commitment to fairness and the law comes through very clearly in the few conversations I have had with her, as well as in this interview for change.org
And that’s why I am voting for Victoria Kolakowski for Superior Court Judge. And why I hope you will too.
You can help elect Victoria Kolakowski for Judge
While Victoria Kolakowski enjoys broad support here in Oakland, and so it might seem like this is a lock, it’s important to remember that we live in a very large County, and John Creighton’s endorsements of police organizations, prosecutors, and local newspapers carry a lot of weight in other parts of it, particularly in a race that gets as little attention as this. So if you believe, as I do, that Kolakowski is the right candidate, and that her experience and priorities are important to the bench, please, call your friends who live in Hayward of Livermore or Fremont or Pleasanton or wherever, and ask them to cast their vote for Victoria Kolakowski for Superior Court Judge on Tuesday. You can make a difference in this race.