Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

On Nov. 3, Todd Gloria, Tlingit, was elected mayor of San Diego, the nation’s eighth-largest and California’s second-largest city.

Gloria, 42, is the first openly gay and the first person of color to be elected as San Diego’s mayor, as well as the first Native American and Filipino-American mayor elected in a U.S. city of over 1 million people, according to the Los Angeles Times.

He was born in San Diego. In a 2009 interview he said he’s Native American, Filipino and “a little bit of Dutch and Puerto Rican.” In 2018, representatives of the 30,000 citizens of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, which has headquarters in Juneau, Alaska, adopted a resolution honoring Gloria for his leadership.

His Tlingit ancestors are from Klukwan and Haines, Alaska. His grandfather, Louis J. Gloria of Juneau, Alaska then El Centro, California, served on the board of the Alaska Native corporation for southeast Alaska, Sealaska, from 1979 to 1988, when the for-profit company went from being in the red to having assets in the tens of millions of dollars.

Gloria told reporter Christy Scannell of San Diego Uptown News his background is, “a classic San Diego story in the sense that all four of my grandparents came from different parts of the world because of the Navy and the military – so from Juneau, Alaska; Tulsa, Okla.; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Manila. My grandfathers were in the service. My paternal grandmother came here because her father was in the service. My maternal grandmother came here to work in the factories. And they just all stayed.”

Todd Gloria, a Democrat, said his lifelong career in public service was inspired by his parents, who worked as a maid and gardener in his youth. His father went on to a career in aeronautics.

When asked how his ethnicity shapes him, Gloria said, “I think certainly being part Native American and being very sensitive to issues of sovereignty and things of that nature is probably something that someone else wouldn’t necessarily bring to the table. And a real understanding, because I think unfortunately for Native Americans the understanding of them is fairly superficial and unfortunately cartoonish. The depth of that is far more complex.”

He said he’s helped educate others that some tribes have gaming but also there’s significant poverty. “My tribe does not game and so that presents some fiscal realities for us that are not common with a lot of San Diegans’ experiences.”

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Gloria also has written, voted for, and supported legislation recognizing the right of Native Americans to wear cultural and traditional regalia at graduation ceremonies, and repatriation of artifacts. He served on the state Assembly’s Native American Affairs committee. And he’s brought Native Americans forward for recognition.

In September, the state Assembly adopted a bill by Gloria that would end the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s practice of accessing gas and electric customer utility data to facilitate deportations. He’s also the author of legislation that strengthens protections for victims of domestic violence.

He said he’s also been embraced by the Filipino community.

David Garrick, of the San Diego Herald Tribune, wrote, “Openly gay, he will be the first mayor of color and arguably the city’s most powerful leader.” Garrick said Gloria’s power is due to the city having switched to a strong-mayor style of governance in 2005, and because, unlike most other mayors since then, the majority of city council seats are held by members of his own party, which bodes well for his initiatives.

“Further increasing his power, Gloria will be the first mayor in modern history to simultaneously have strong backing from the business community and organized labor, two groups who are often at odds,”  Garrick noted. Police, firemen’s, and public employee unions endorsed Gloria, reported Chris Jennewein of the San Diego Times, as well as a regional labor council, the county Democratic party, and the regional chamber of commerce, which usually backs Republicans.

According to a speech Gloria made after the election, he’ll use that greater influence to fulfill his vision of making San Diego one of the nation’s greatest cities. Throughout his career, Gloria has worked on housing, racial justice and climate, issues that he’ll continue to work to address. He’s worked to increase access for treatment of AIDS. He’s called for more affordable housing and less use of law enforcement to handle homelessness.

Todd Gloria, Tlingit, was elected mayor of San Diego, California on Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo courtesy of California State Assembly)

Gloria said the city is facing unprecedented challenges: a continued worsening public health crisis, an economic crisis due to the necessary response to the pandemic, and a housing and homelessness crisis, as well as, “A social reckoning rooted in a sense that is in systemic racism that has been long ignored in this country, but has been awakened by the murders of George Floyd, Briana Taylor, Ahmad, Aubrey, and Ray, Milton, and far too many others to list this evening.”

When President Donald Trump came to San Diego, Gloria said “Instead of using this as an opportunity to advance his divisive and racist border wall, I wish that he were coming to our community instead to look at issues that we need addressing, specifically our needs around trade and our region that help grow jobs. And of course our ongoing cross-border pollution problems…”

In another talk he said, “the true emergency facing our state, our nation and our world is climate change. And don't let anyone tell you anything different. Climate change will lead to more heat-related deaths, smaller crop yields, more people in poverty and slowing economic growth. It's the world's most vulnerable communities that will be hit first and worst because of its impacts.” He was urging Congressional action for a “green new deal.”

"...When members of Congress convene in Washington, it will be clear where California stands. We stand on the right side of history. We stand opposed to climate change. We stand up for science and we stand out for making sure that we continue to have a planet that we may live on.”

Gloria was elected to the city council in 2008 and served as council president from 2012 to 2014. He was interim mayor in 2013.

He’s proud of his role in turning around the city’s fiscal crisis, “I served as the city's budget chair for six of eight years that I was at city hall. We were able to take the city from massive budget deficits resulting from the great recession, and turn them into surpluses and reserves that thankfully will help mitigate some of the cuts that will be necessary going forward.”

Gloria was minority whip in the California State Assembly, the state’s legislative body. When he was first elected, he was the Assembly’s only enrolled tribal member and just its second Filipino-American legislator. Reporter Garrick noted Gloria is the first mayor since 1971with experience serving in the state Assembly.

Before that, Gloria was district director for a California U.S. Representative to Congress. He also worked for San Diego County's Health and Human Services Agency. He earned a Bachelor’s in history from University of California.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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This story has been updated to correct the attribution for a news story by Chris Jennewein of the San Diego Times.