Nurse and activist Jennifer Esteen is running for Assembly in the East Bay.
Nurse and activist Jennifer Esteen is running for Assembly in the East Bay.

Jennifer Esteen, nurse and Assembly candidate, wants to break barriers and fix what’s broken

As a nurse in San Francisco General Hospital’s psychiatric emergency room, Jennifer Esteen’s typical first task was to, as she put it, “take people out of handcuffs.”

Twelve years of treating mentally ill patients brought to the ER by law enforcement taught Esteen that the health care system, especially regarding mental health, was broken.

She decided to do something about it. Esteen became a nurse-activist, successfully lobbying San Francisco City Hall and the state Legislature in Sacramento in 2018 to pass legislation to ease homelessness and to secure more hospital beds for behavioral health patients.

After that taste of politics, she’s upping her game. Esteen is running for the state Assembly in the 20th district, a sprawling East Bay expanse that includes San Leandro, Union City, Castro Valley and a sliver of Dublin/Pleasanton. With incumbent Assemblymember Bill Quirk retiring, it’s an open seat, but she will have to win a June primary.

She’s garnered a slew of high-profile endorsements, including the former Assemblymember for her district, Johan Klehs, former state Sen. Mark Leno, S.F. District Attorney Chesa Boudin and six members of the S.F. Board of Supervisors. If she wins the primary, she’s a shoe-in, as AD 20 is a reliably safe Democratic seat.

A victory would make Esteen the Assembly’s first Black Jewish lesbian member, the first person of color to represent AD 20.

“It feels like breaking down barriers,” says Esteen, 41, who lives in Ashland, an unincorporated municipality of 24,000 people north of Hayward. “Even my candidacy is breaking barriers. It’s 2022, and we still have a lot of room for firsts. It gives me a sense of determination. The face of our nation is not what it once was.”

Esteen’s top priorities include affordable housing, living-wage jobs, climate justice, protection of immigrants and preserving reproductive freedom. Expanding and improving the state’s mental health system is a major goal, as well.

She readily credits the Jewish values she grew up with as a prime engine for her  community-centered worldview. “It’s just a part of me,” Esteen said. “I am a Jew. It felt the right way to be, and helping my kids understand Jewish values and traditions was important.”

As a kid herself, growing up in New Orleans with a Black mother and an Ashkenazi father, Esteen experienced a complicated world of being of mixed race while identifying as Jewish. At her Reform synagogue in New Orleans’ tony Garden District, she remembers, “We were welcomed, and I always felt weird. There was an overlap of class and race. There was a distinction I felt.”

Moving to Northern California in 2003, Esteen worked in real estate, but she soon found herself a divorced single mother of two young boys. The 2007 economic crash hit the family hard, and Esteen had to file for bankruptcy. She lost her home, a searing experience that cemented her empathy for a struggling working class.

No matter how much advocating you do, the people who ultimately make decisions are in elected office.

Then she turned her life around.

Esteen came out as a lesbian and changed careers, becoming a certified psychiatric nurse. She also raised her sons, Barry and Jalen, in a Jewish home. Barry, now 20, had his bar mitzvah at Oakland’s Temple Sinai, Jaylen, 17, went to Camp Tawonga, and the whole family attended Be’chol Lashon family camp. Her sons also enrolled in programs sponsored by Jewish Youth for Community Action, a progressive youth organization that embraces Jews of color. Esteen served on the JYCA board for four years.

She married last year, welcoming a new wife and stepdaughter into the family. Her wife, a marriage and family therapist, prefers to remain anonymous for now, in deference to her patients’ privacy.

Over her dozen years on the job as an ER nurse, Esteen perceived endemic problems connecting mental illness, drug abuse, crime, homelessness and a society that didn’t seem to care. She worked with the mayor’s office and Board of Supervisors to save dozens of hospital beds earmarked for behavioral health patients, and to help pass Prop C, a measure that imposed a surtax on San Francisco’s wealthiest CEOs to fund homelessness amelioration.

In 2019 her efforts attracted the attention of her union, SEIU, which recruited her to become vice president of organizing for local 1021, a post she still holds. Esteen also joined multiple county commissions, including the Housing Conservatorship Working Group in San Francisco, and she served as the chair of the finance committee of the Alameda Health System, which manages multiple hospitals with a billion-dollar annual budget.

“It was high-speed learning about creating legislation,” she recalled. “Through the process what I’ve learned is, no matter how much advocating you do, the people who ultimately make decisions are in elected office.”

That’s when the lightbulb went on, and she decided to run for the Assembly.

The Covid crisis has added urgency to her issues. She noted that in her town of Ashland, “We have the highest rate of death among people of color in the district,” she said, quoting stats from the Alameda County Department of Public Health. “We have the worst access to representation. You have to do something different and bigger, and the only way is to make change on a state level.”

Should she win in November, Esteen hopes to join California’s Legislative Jewish Caucus, Black Caucus, Women’s Caucus and LGBTQ Caucus. As a Jew, she cares deeply about the alarming uptick in antisemitic speech, vandalism and violence in recent years.

“I think antisemitism, white supremacy and racism go hand in hand,” she said. “When people are emboldened to express hate, it’s problematic. I try to lead with love. I think a victory [in November] would help to set a tone of bringing groups together.”

As for her views on Israel, “I believe in self-determination for all, and I also believe in peace,” she said. “I would love to see peace in Israel/Palestine.”

Closer to home, Esteen hopes a seat in the Assembly will open the door to collaborations with Bay Area Jewish institutions, such as the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, Jewish Family and Children’s Services and Jewish Vocational Service. “I would love to deepen those connections,” she noted, “and to see some partnering, especially targeting youth and families in behavioral health care.”

Meanwhile, she has a race to win first, and that means meeting with voters across her district, a task she’s eager to do. Recalling how as a mixed-race child in the South, she got the message it was best not to be seen, Esteen said, “I’m 6-foot-1. It’s easy to see me.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.