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A Hot Seat for Alameda County Judge

Victoria Kolakowski has turned a normally-obscure election into a high-stakes battle, as she vies to become the first transgendered superior court judge in the nation.

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Hayward attorney Louis Goodman was judicious in choosing words to describe Victoria Kolakowski, his opponent for Alameda County Superior Court judge. "Vicky's gender is interesting," he said. "But I don't think that's what this campaign is about. I don't think that she thinks that's what this campaign is about."

Goodman is wrong about the latter point. At a campaign fund-raiser last week, Kolakowski highlighted gender identity as a hallmark of her political appeal. Approximately one-third of the county's 68 superior court judges are women, she said. None are openly gay. Kolakowski defies all the norms because she's not only an out lesbian — she's also transgendered. If elected on June 8, she would be the first transgendered woman to ever serve in a US superior court.

That historic slant has turned a normally obscure race into a hotly contested election. In Alameda County, it's actually quite rare to have an open election for superior court judge. It's even rarer for such elections to draw any sort of attention from the public. Most of the time, the incumbent goes unchallenged, and never appears on the ballot. And when a vacancy arises, the governor usually appoints someone — typically a tough-on-crime prosecutor. Even Democratic governors, after all, don't want to appear "soft on crime." As a result, voters get few opportunities to elect a superior court judge whose views reflect the progressive politics of the East Bay.

But in this particular case, a superior court judge retired after the filing period, resulting in one of those scarcely seen open seats. Three people decided to vie for it. One, John Creighton, is a county prosecutor. Another, Louis Goodman, is a lawyer in private practice. The third, Kolakowski, is an administrative law judge whose LGBT identity and progressive values are of a piece with her public image.

Judges are supposed to be impartial, so it goes against the grain to run on any kind of political platform. But Kolakowski really had no choice since her gender identity is intrinsically political, whether she talks about it or not. "I think in a post-Prop 8 world, knowing that someone is LGBT makes an important point," said former Oakland City Council hopeful Sean Sullivan, a leader in the East Bay's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. "I don't think Vicky's hiding her transgendered lesbian status, or should hide it."

For Kolakowski, being the first in something is a huge deal. Born to a factory-worker father and bookkeeper mother, she grew up in working-class Queens, New York, and was first in her family to attend college. Kolakowski got her law degree from Louisiana State University. She transitioned on April 1, 1989, during her last year of law school. "I was living a dual life," Kolakowski recalled during a recent interview. "I was living at home as myself, and at school I was being a guy. I decided I couldn't do it anymore. I came home on a Friday and said, 'Starting tomorrow, I'm me from now on.'" That Monday, she showed up to school in a dress. Drama ensued.

Because of Louisiana's primitive attitude toward transgendered people, Kolakowski said that after she came out, nobody would talk to her. At one point, a group of male students approached to ask if she had changed her gender to placate her wife, who had come out as a lesbian. (Kolakowski also identifies as lesbian.) The state denied her bar application on the grounds that she was "not of sound mind." (She appealed to the state supreme court and got a green light within 48 hours.) Strangest of all, the university prohibited her from using either the men's or women's restrooms — instead, she got a special key to the chancellor's private bathroom, which was the only separate facility on the law school campus. "No matter where I was, I had to go to this isolated place on campus," Kolakowski recalled. "I had to plan my bathroom trips very well."

Bathrooms are a kind of bottom line in the debate over civil rights for transgendered people. "That's the big scare thing," Kolakowski said. It's often the main justification for not employing a transgendered person, or for shutting that person out of a venue. And it's a legal battle that transgendered people don't often win, Kolakowski assured. "Where people tend to define lesbian and gay people based on sex acts, their concern about transgendered people is that we go to the bathroom — that they're opening up the bathroom to all sorts of weirdoes."

One would think that fighting for a basic human right would turn Kolakowski into an angrier — or at least more partisan — legal figure. But she took a fairly broad approach to the field. After moving to Berkeley in 1990, she spent roughly a decade in private practice, litigating a variety of cases. "I worked in land use, zoning, environmental issues, corporate law, contract law, bankruptcy, and divorces," she said. From 2003 to 2005 she worked with the state to negotiate $3 billion worth of settlements from large power companies. After three years of extracting refunds from the energy crisis, Kolakowski became an administrative law judge at the state Department of Insurance, and then switched to the California Public Utilities Commission, where she works today.

But the transgendered issue would always linger in her career. In the late 1990s, Kolakowski got involved in a case involving a female-to-male transsexual who allegedly broke into his friend's home, after the friend locked him out. The defendant's lawyer was also male-to-female transsexual, which further complicated their case. "They kept referring to the client as 'she' using female pronouns, and they also referred to my co-counsel as 'he,'" Kolakowski said about the prosecutor and the judge. And then during a break, the defendant went to a men's restroom and a police officer dragged him out, making pejorative remarks. That set the ball rolling for a much bigger battle. Kolakowski and her colleague filed a complaint with the Berkeley Police Review Commission, which ultimately resulted in a four-hour sensitivity training for all police officers in the city.

Kolakowski sees her judicial campaign as a kind of "sensitivity training" in its own right. "Transgendered people frequently interact with the legal system," she explained. "From name changes to family law issues. We are frequently the victims of violence. We're chronically under-employed, so many of us work the streets." Transgendered folks often appear in court as criminal defendants, she continued. Seldom do they sit on the other side of the bench.

Not surprisingly, many of Kolakowski's speeches center on her trans-identity. She talks about Alameda County being the place where Gwen Araujo was murdered eight years ago. She recalls her own experience, being ostracized in law school and excluded from the Louisiana state bar. Last week, she also read part of an editorial from the conservative The Washington Times, which advocated for discrimination against transsexual teachers.

Victoria Kolakowski is a sharply dressed middle-aged woman whose gabby, personable style makes you forget that she's running for office. She's also a political lightning rod. She's taken an issue that's inherently controversial, and turned it into a rallying point. She's also put her opponents in the awkward position of having to address the LGBT issue in a race that seldom has any social dimensions at all.

It remains to be seen whether being the first at something is an apt qualification for superior court. Kolakowski stops short of that assertion. But she won't hesitate to use words like "historic" or "transform" in any of her campaign speeches. She's a master at stirring emotions. "I'm the best candidate based on the merits — I'm not in any way taking away from that," Kolakowski said. "But there's a historic element in this race as well."

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