John Duran: Activist Pol

November 30, -0001 has been profiling an influential West Hollywood resident to provide the community with a better idea of who is helping to guide it along. Our next guest on these pages is one whose profile was first printed in December of 2004, in the middle of his term as mayor. On April 18, 2005, outgoing West Hollywood Mayor John Duran became council member Duran when he hands the city’s reins to Mayor Pro-tem Abbe Land.

Mr. Duran standing in front of his winning vote total on election night. By Ryan Gierach.

Only first elected to the City Council in March of 2001, Mr. Duran came to office having already made an indelible mark on his adopted city. He grew up in Los Angeles and attended school in Southern California, taking a doctor of law degree from Western State University in Orange County. A founding member of one of the first major Southern California all-gay law firms focusing on civil rights – Duran, Loquvam, Lehman & Robertson located in West Hollywood – he continues the practice of civil rights law in partnership with attorney Jeff Thomas.

Mr. Duran’s activist work has long focused on protecting community’s most vulnerable. In public policy law, Mr. Duran helped write California’s regulations for clinical drug trials of AIDS treatments and opposed the infamous Dolittle Bills bent on impeding gay and lesbian rights. He also helped to create AIDS prevention programs for women and ensured the inclusion of AIDS as a disability under state law.

He has served on the California Commission on Hate Crimes and has founded and/or served on the board of directors of numerous community-based organizations including ANGLE, an organization for the gay and lesbian political and policy leadership of Southern California and Equality California, the statewide marriage equality group (formerly CAPE) for which he will serve as chairman in 2005.

Mr. Duran holds or has held seats on the boards of the Southern California ACLU, the Elections Committee of the County of Orange, Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Club, and Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. In city government, Mayor Duran initiated West Hollywood’s anti de-clawing ordinance formally banning the amputation of cats’ extremities, a law that has other municipalities considering following suit.

Other city projects spearheaded by Mr. Duran were the expansion of public meeting cable broadcasts from council meetings alone to include city commission and advisory board meetings and facilitating the Pop Luck Club’s building a memorial for West Hollywood’s victims of 9/11 – Daniel Brandhorst, Ronald Gamboa and their only child David Reed Gamboa-Brandhorst, age 4. The memorial stands overlooking the playground at West Hollywood Park.

Mayor Duran takes a personal and deep interest in public health and safety issues affecting the community, especially residents’ needs stemming from aging and fatal or chronic diseases such as HIV and alcohol and drug abuse. He recently moderated a town hall discussion in the city about crystal meth and its connection to the spread of HIV in the gay community. He also has a strong interest in the fine arts. Mr. Duran co-founded the West Hollywood Chorale in 1998 and sings with (in an unabashed tenor) the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. He has also performed in the AIDS docudrama: “Lives on the Live” at the West Hollywood Celebration Theater. Mayor Duran’s vision for the West Hollywood includes the adoption of a community-based theater to support fine arts programming.

The mayor fought a bruising re-election campaign this year in which charges of corruption and perfidy were tossed about. He weathered the storm and the accusations, taking in well over 50 percent of the vote in the six-man race held March 8, 2005.

Mr. Duran at a city council meeting. By Ryan Gierach. caught Mayor Duran frantically preparing to depart on a trip amid the demands of a busy law firm, his grass roots activism and the running of a medium-sized urban city. He spoke to us from a car, his foyer, a dressing room and again from a car while he raced between appointments, dry cleaners and his dentist’s office on his way out of town… How has West Hollywood changed over the time you’ve lived and worked in the city?

Mayor Duran: “We’ve gone from adolescence into young adulthood, is the best way for me to say it. When I came here in 1990 the city was just 6 years old and not only battling with the Sheriff over sexual orientation issues, the House of Blues was establishing a corporate beach head on the Sunset Strip.” We had a new culture and language filtering into town and hadn’t begun yet to absorb it, and we were dealing with the continuing trauma of HIV/AIDS. We hadn’t found time to get around to addressing some of the rights and quality of life issues that have become the city’s hallmark.”

Since then, of course, we’ve developed one of the best contract relationships with law enforcement any community enjoys – the Sheriff ‘gets’ the city’s peculiar law enforcement desires and needs better than any other.”And in that time West Hollywood, with 37,000 people, has become the epicenter of West Coast gay culture, both socially and politically.”

The Strip has evolved from neglected and seedy business strip to world-class tourist and entertainment destination, and such a successful business economy that there’s a possibility of attracting a four star hotel. And, we have slowly integrated the Russian culture into the city’s mix; the Russian Advisory Board was just a first step. We already see Russian-speakers on mainstream Commissions and Boards, and it’s just a matter of time until we see our first Russian-speaker sitting on City Council.”

Finally, the City needed to professionalize itself and has. We realized that we could no longer be a sleepy little town content to remain in the shadow of the Los Angeles and Beverly Hills and we’ve taken great strides in hiring the best and most professional of City Managers and Staff to present a world-class face to those we do business with. Between all the funds at our disposal we control over $100 million a year, which is a lot of money for 37,000 people. It’s a big responsibility and we have to shepherd those funds to do the most community good. We intend to do it as maturely and professionally as possible.”

· You practice civil rights law while running a medium-sized city – how does your life experience inform your practice and governance? What makes you tick?

Mayor Duran: “Anger. My good friend Scott Fleener died of AIDS in 1985. My anger over his death propelled me into the politics of AIDS with ACT UP, led to concern and action in the LGBT rights field. Then I jumped into discrimination issues in general, like racial and gender discrimination causes, housing, and the other ‘social justice’ causes. I battle for the vulnerable.”

· What are your other West Hollywood-area business interests?

Mayor Duran: “Besides my law firm, Duran & Thomas, I recently took a minor ownership position in Frontiers Publishing Co.”

· What are your recreational activities?

Mayor Duran: “I sing in the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and enjoy spinning class when I’m not breaking a leg. Beyond that I really enjoy activism. I sit on several boards, like the ACLU of Southern California and Equality California. I really enjoy my time spent on Latino causes, too.”

The Gay Men’s Chorus. A reward to anyone finding John Duran in this photo. Courtesy Tell us about your husband.

Mayor Duran: “I have a boyfriend. I won’t say I’m married. I take that term very seriously and hope one day to marry my boyfriend – in a church. We all have the right to marriage, but [gays] are denied it. I date and live with a man named Mark Morris, who before meeting me had an unusual career. Most people find it interesting that he was once in the adult film industry and known as ‘Kurt Young.’ He hung up his [film] spurs when he met me. Since then he’s been an office manager; right now he’s between jobs and looking.”

· How about pets?

Mayor Duran: “We have three love birds in two cages. Boris and Natasha live together and John Paul lives as a bachelor. Jon Paul Stiller is named for a roomy of mine who died 14 years ago from AIDS. He’s 8 or 9 now and will live beyond 20.”

· You’re passionate about pets’ relationship to their human guardians – what’s behind that position?

Mayor Duran: “You’re talking about the Anti De-clawing Ordinance. Yes, I am passionate about protecting animals – we are introducing another ordinance that will ban ‘cropping’ within the city limits. We want to protect dogs from ear and tail mutilation. I see this as an extension of what the city stands for – protection of the vulnerable. We want to live humanely side-by-side with all our neighbors – people and pet alike.

· What’s most fun about being Mayor of West Hollywood?

Mayor Duran: “The expression on peoples’ faces across the country when I introduce myself as being Mayor of West Hollywood. They look at me as though they are approaching the Wizard of OZ – with a mix of awe and delight.” …unless they’re Republican.

Mayor Duran: [Laughter] “I suppose to many Republicans I represent everything they despise. I am gay, HIV+, in recovery, a civil rights lawyer, ‘of color’ and in a relationship with an ex-porn star. But I think that much of rest of the world sees West Hollywood as I do – as the Emerald City. I know from ‘out there’ where it seems that no one else is gay it looks like everyone here is gay, and that’s encouraging to people. It also looks very much like a place where everyone, no matter who they are or how much their former neighbors despised them, can come to feel safe and welcome. That makes being Mayor of this city a real honor and a lot of fun.”

· You speak Spanish.

Mayor Duran: “Yes.”

· Are you learning Russian?

Mayor Duran: “I’m conversational in Russian, da.”

· How have West Hollywood residents’ needs changed with the influx of Russian-speaking immigrants?

Mayor Duran: “The community here has always been accepting of new people, but the influx of immigrants and their culture from the former Soviet Union, who are here mostly due to religious or political oppression, has caused a few minor community difficulties stemming from cultural differences. These immigrants are also often seniors, which raises a set of language and cultural problems related to health, safety and social services, all of which also cost more to provide. To perform those services better we’ve entered into novel partnerships with a variety of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to help Russian-speakers maneuver through the American system.”

· In this 20th Anniversary Year, what can you say about how people’s lives have been changed by city hood?

Mayor Duran: “The first to come to mind is the effect on the LGBT community. In large part because of city hood West Hollywood is now considered “ground zero” for anything gay. San Vicente and Santa Monica Boulevards are now known throughout the world as the ‘rallying spot’ anytime something big happens to the gay community, whether it be in outrage as happened with Trev Broudy’s beating, silent grieving as after Matthew Shepard’s slaying or in celebration like when the sodomy laws were struck down. To the mainstream world this once rundown area is the new urban Bohemia; we’re now chic, a breath of fresh air, anti-traditional and boldly Utopian. The city has done all the things that make liberals feel good to be progressive. In immigration policy, marriage equality, gun control, smart urban development, creative and diversified economic growth, human rights, animal rights, women’s rights; we stand as an example of how a modern day Utopia can be built in the middle of urban dysfunction and sprawl.”

· Conversely, then, how are residents changing the city?

Mayor Duran: “When we attend conferences like those with the National League of Cities, our success is the envy of most moderate size communities seeking to manage growth, improve or diversify their tax base and provide a high quality of life to their residents. Most cities seek a ‘silver bullet’ from outside to guarantee their economic survivals – things like big box stores or mall. We in West Hollywood rely on ourselves to take a formerly-neglected or -seedy piece of mostly-industrial unincorporated Los Angeles County land and convert it into a world-class tourist destination/design center with a thriving economy that pays for its own progressive set of social programs.”

You can contact Mayor Duran at West Hollywood City Hall through his Deputy, Hernan Molina, at (323) 848-6460. Mayor Duran holds regular Monday afternoon office hours at City Hall.