The gay godfather

As legislator, lobbyist and activist, Dennis Mangers has wielded great power with uncommon wisdom and grace

Dennis Mangers has been passing through the Senator Hotel lobby for 27 years.

Dennis Mangers has been passing through the Senator Hotel lobby for 27 years.

Photo By Anne Stokes

Dennis Mangers and I have been chatting pleasantly next to a window in his fourth-floor Senator Hotel office for about an hour when I bring it up. The window overlooks the Capitol where Mangers has held sway for three decades, first as an assemblyman, then as a lobbyist, earning accolades from legislators and business people alike. In between those stints, in an era when society was less accepting, he painfully came out of the closet. That hardly slowed him down. In fact, it only seems to have enhanced his reputation as a Capitol go-to-guy, a made man who gets things done. So I have to pop the question. There’s no choice, really.

What does Mangers think about being called the Gay Godfather?

Mangers, impeccable in a pressed dress shirt, black sweater vest, black slacks and perfect hair, doesn’t exactly cringe. It’s more like a wince. Seconds pass like centuries. When he finally speaks, his tone remains civil, respectful, if a tick less warm than it has been the previous hour. He measures each word like it’s liquid gold.

“I have really mixed emotions over that introduction,” he says.

It’s true that Mangers opponents aren’t likely to wake up in the morning with a horse’s head in their bed or wind up sleeping with the fishes. But mixed emotions or not, Mangers’ track record speaks for itself. Even now, at age 68, as he prepares to retire as head of the California Cable and Telecommunications Association, the Gay Godfather’s reach is extending, as trusted consigliere to longtime friend and incoming president of the California Senate Darrell Steinberg.

Just when he thought he thought he was out of it, they pulled him right back in.

The Gay Godfather. Certainly the sobriquet he’s earned over the years doesn’t adequately describe the depth and breadth of his life and career. This Hillary Clinton delegate did a stint in the Navy, performed as a professional tenor throughout Los Angeles County, taught inner-city schoolchildren in Long Beach, helmed a Central Valley grade school as one of California’s youngest principals, served two terms as a state assemblyman from Orange County and reigned for 27 years as one of Sacramento’s most powerful lobbyists.

Mangers is among the first California legislators ever to have disclosed his homosexuality, although that admission came after he left office, something that was news to his then-wife and two children. After being hired by CCTA, he made Sacramento his home, earning kudos for volunteer roles ranging from cultural advocate to community peacemaker to human-rights activist—sometimes all three at once. During Steinberg’s decade-long career as a local legislator, he and Mangers have often been joined at the hip, and the demure don relishes the new challenge before him, although it will likely feed that wince-inducing godfather stereotype.

Thanks to Mario Puzo’s novels and Francis Ford Coppola’s films, some will assume the Gay Godfather is a shadowy kingmaker pulling strings to make things (in Don Corleone’s case, bad things) happen. He insists that’s not the case, and as if to support the claim, he forgoes knee-capping me for suggesting it was.

“I’d have to be full of myself to be that type of godfather,” says Mangers, who adds that his guiding philosophy is that of the “servant healer.” He understands some are “flattering” him with the godfather label, using it to recognize his maturity, judgment and, when asked for it, brutally honest advice. But whether he’s offering calm counsel or making public speeches for this or that, he remains ultimately subservient to that cause, not his own status as the dean of the capital dons.

“Hyperbole like that [nickname] injures that sense,” he says.

To understand Dennis Mangers’ pull in Sacramento, you must go back to the start. He was born in Inglewood, Calif., but grew up in “abject poverty” next door in Lawndale. He was a smart kid who developed natural leadership skills and a beautiful tenor singing voice. He was recognized as one of the Long Beach area’s top Young Artists of 1961 and eventually went pro. But he stopped singing for his supper “when I realized that I was not Luciano Pavarotti, and there could be only three tenors at any one time.”

He attended El Camino Community College, where he became student-body president and met his future bride, Linda, the homecoming queen. After the Navy and some nurturing of his vocal talents at the University of Southern California’s School for Performing Arts, the self-professed “Kennedy kid” was encouraged to answer JFK’s call to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Mangers decided to become an inner-city school teacher, pursuing a bachelor’s degree alongside Linda at CSU Long Beach. By 1964, he was teaching in a predominantly African-American school in the Long Beach Unified School District.

“It was tough going,” he recalls. “These were kids right out of poverty. They lived 10 to 12 miles from the beach but had never seen the ocean.”

Teaching instilled in him the notion that education can truly lift people up, an observation he shared with a USC mentor who convinced him to tap into his leadership skills and “run a school by doing it.” Mangers attained a master of science degree in educational administration from USC and started applying for school principal jobs. He says that when Tulare County’s Earlimart School District hired him at age 27 in 1968, he was among California’s youngest principals.

Culturally, the agriculturally based Central Valley represented a sea change from the port city of Long Beach. Most of the 1,200 schoolchildren in Mangers’ charge were the offspring of dirt-poor migrant farmworkers, lorded over by a much smaller number of kids whose parents happened to be middle- to upper-middle-class farm owners. “It was immediately clear to me that there was a caste system at the school,” he says. “The kids of the growers were at the top, and it was their parents who were on the school board.”

At the time, immigrant parents were being enlightened about their rights by United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez, who was labeled a “communist” by farm owners. “As I looked around at what was happening, my heart was with the farmworkers,” Mangers says. He began openly supporting the UFW, something that did not sit well with the school board.

“I ran out of popularity with the growers,” he says without remorse.

Mangers was soon off to principal in the Orange County bedroom community of Fountain Valley. “It was mostly middle-class kids,” he says, “but it made me realize that it doesn’t matter if they come from poverty-stricken areas or from farms or from middle-class homes, kids are kids. They all have the same problems. You can’t just teach them. You have to deal with the whole kid.”

It became clear to Mangers that the big decisions about educating children were not being made in principals’ offices but under the Capitol dome. So he made a decision that seemingly belies his self-proclaimed status as servant healer. He entered the blood sport of politics.

In the 1970s, Fountain Valley fell within California’s 73rd Assembly District, which straddled both sides of the coastal border of Los Angeles and Orange counties. To win the seat in the predominantly Republican district, Mangers would have to bump off five-term Republican Assemblyman Robert Burke, no mean feat.

The prospect of mounting a serious campaign presented near-insurmountable time and financial constraints for a full-time campus administrator raising a young family. But Mangers’ rise in education circles had not gone unnoticed. The president of the American Center for Learning, the model for what is now known as Sylvan Learning Center, had heard Mangers give an education speech. The center’s board made Mangers an offer he couldn’t refuse: Serve as their vice president half-time while running for the Assembly.

Dennis Mangers works the phone in his California Cable and Telecommunications Association office across from the Capitol, where he served as an assemblyman from 1976-80.

Photo By Anne Stokes

He lost his first shootout with Burke in November 1974 by a mere 1,620 votes. Sixteen months before the 1976 election, Mangers announced he would challenge Burke again. The red-baiting incumbent characterized early-childhood education as a “communist subversion,” making Mangers seem sane in comparison. But nothing helped more than the post-Watergate stench in the air. Just before the November 1976 election that would sweep Jimmy Carter into the White House, Democratic registration actually surpassed the GOP’s in stodgy old Orange County for the first time in years. Mangers clipped Burke the second time around, winning 52.4 percent of the vote to Burke’s 47.6 percent in what the local press would dub “an upset win.”

During his first term, the fledgling capo earned a reputation for intelligence, incisiveness and independence from both sides of the aisle. He put his previous life experience to valuable use as chairman or vice chairman on various legislative education committees, subcommittees and task forces. His political acumen impressed the Los Angeles Times editorial board, whose October 15, 1978 endorsement began, “When Dennis Mangers was first elected to the Assembly … we thought he had the potential to become one of the better legislators Orange County has sent to the state Capitol. His performance in his first term only bolsters that belief. And it strongly justifies his re-election.”

He was not a typical lock-step Democrat, and more than one liberal got caught in the triangulated crossfire. A fiscal conservative who would not abandon essential social services, Mangers was a consistent critic of then-Gov. Jerry Brown. Three months before he and Brown would win re-election in 1978, the assemblyman told an Orange County audience, “The gubernatorial race is already over—we’re stuck with Brown for another four years.” The implication: Orange County needed Mangers in Sacramento to thwart Governor Moonbeam.

Reflecting on his legislative days, Mangers lays his independent streak at the feet of the California Democratic Party leadership, which worried that GOP voter registration remained too close for comfort in the 73rd. When Democrats had enough support to swing legislation their way, Mangers was told to “vote his district”—with the Republicans and against his own principles—so those votes could not be used against him come re-election time. Mangers thereby earned the wrath of Orange County liberals, rare as those creatures may be.

What goes around comes around: Mangers lost his seat amid the Ronald Reagan landslide of November 1980, when Carter conceded the race before the polls closed in California, keeping many Democratic voters home. The two-term assemblyman was defeated by Nolan Frizzelle, a little-known optometrist Republicans put on the ballot so Democrats would have to spend something on the race.

“No one was more shocked than Nolan,” Mangers says, “but it worked out well for me.”

Indeed. The change in scenery gave Mangers, 40, the latitude to address a personal issue he’d already been struggling with for several years, his own closeted homosexuality.

The Gay Godfather says he didn’t realize he was gay until his first year in office, with a wife and two children he loved dearly in tow. The realization came about gradually. As an assemblyman, he frequently met with gays who were lobbying the Legislature for various causes, and it occurred to him, for the first time in his life, that not only was it possible to live openly as a homosexual but that he was in fact a gay man.

Remaining closeted tore at him. He was still madly in love with his wife, making it impossible to divulge his secret without breaking her heart. Back then, running as an openly gay man in Orange County was out of the question. Realizing that he could not be an elected official or in any role that involved schoolchildren eventually led to what Mangers calls a “meltdown.” An unexpected phone call from Spencer Kaitz, president of the California Cable and Telecommunications Association, pulled him out of the slump.

“Let’s talk,” Kaitz said.

Having lost his Assembly seat and looking for a challenge that did not involve political office or school administration, Mangers recalls thinking, “This is the kind of work where I can be who I am.” But he knew he would have to broach the subject of his sexuality, something he was struggling to understand himself. “Am I gay? Straight? Bi?” Not even he was certain.

That problem was solved when a “close friend” outed Mangers and word got back to Kaitz. Calling Mangers into his office to confront him about the allegation, Kaitz was concerned it might “embarrass the industry.” Mangers apologized for not having felt comfortable enough to come out, then told Kaitz he would never embarrass the industry. Kaitz was ultimately “very supportive,” which was quite revolutionary in 1980, and Mangers was welcomed into the CCTA fold.

Things didn’t go quite as smoothly in his personal life. Around the same time Kaitz learned Mangers was gay, a “young person” spotted Mangers at a gay-pride event, and word got back to his family. “There was profound pain,” Mangers says softly. After the initial shock wore off, everything eventually worked itself out. He and Linda remain friends, and he is as close as ever to his two children.

His personal transformation was completed when he permanently relocated to Sacramento after being hired by CCTA. “Since I have been with the cable association, I realized that [Sacramento] is a lot better than Orange County to be who I am. I made this my home,” he says.

Mangers’ life partner of 17 years knew as a child he was gay. “I’m not that type,” says Mangers, who swears he was a straight man for the first 40 years of his life. That’s led to a unique perspective on understanding gays and straights. The national media knows this; any time a supposedly straight politician comes out of the closet, they get Denny Mangers on the line.

Looking back at how he dealt as an assemblyman with the gays who lobbied for basic human rights, he now feels their pain and his own shame for having voted his district. “I stopped beating myself up over it,” he says. “We all evolve. I was still not clear on so many things. It’s hard to imagine now as a leader in the gay movement here.”

He clearly welcomes offering his insights into the modern gay experience to anyone who will listen. “I spoke to a group of gay and lesbian young people, and one kid, about 15, asked if I regretted not knowing I was gay when I was young and cute. First of all, my partner thinks I’m cute. Second, I fell in love with a woman, had two kids, grandkids. I am able to discuss how I really am. I live fully.”

No issue is closer to his heart than marriage equality. It’s one of the main reasons he backs Heather Fargo, a same-sex marriage supporter and longtime ally of Sacramento’s gay community, in her mayoral re-election campaign. “I worry about the other candidate,” Mangers says of Kevin Johnson, the former NBA star and, despite the other seven names on the mayoral ballot, Fargo’s main contender. “He has yet to take a stand on these issues. In fact, he has a problem with marriage equality. I also worry about his reticence to answer reporters’ questions.”

Fargo vs. Johnson is Sunday school compared to another controversial local issue Mangers has jumped into: the violently homophobic antics of Sacramento’s Russian community, which is routinely fired up by Christian fundamentalists.

When Mangers hosted a 2006 weekend reconciliation retreat, a Slavic religious leader reportedly told him, “You have to understand, we equate homosexuals with thieves, adulterers and murderers. … You are an abomination.”

Mangers was taken aback, but he scored some success, especially after Sacramento’s police chief, county sheriff and district attorney made it abundantly clear the gay community is valued and will be protected here. “The advice was to back off on the protests,” Mangers said, “and to a degree, they have.”

It boils down to a life mission to keep the GLBTQI community safe. “That’s why there is a gay and lesbian center around the street,” Mangers said pointing over his shoulder. “People are flocking here. We have a burden to find these kids care when they are abandoned and abused. HIV is still a problem. Many turn to drugs. It never really ends.”

CCTA president Kaitz’s faith in Mangers proved to be well-founded. As a two-term legislator, Mangers had learned to recognize effective lobbying techniques. On his very first day as an assemblyman, the first person to contact him was a telephone-company lobbyist who wanted the first-termer to know that if he ever experienced problems with his phone, he should just call and get it fixed that day. The lesson wasn’t lost on Mangers. When he joined the CCTA, he insisted his staff be among the first people at the door to greet, educate and, if necessary, intercede with new legislators on the industry’s behalf.

Darrell Steinberg, incoming leader of the California Senate.

The attention to detail paid off big-time. Capitol insiders, including some cable opponents, agree the CCTA has become one of the most effective lobbying associations in the Golden State during Mangers’ tenure. It is now the nation’s largest state cable association with about 200 systems serving nearly 7 million subscribers.

“Denny could be a madman when it came to attending fund-raisers, sometimes hitting a dozen a night all across town,” said Robert Salladay, who covered state politics for years for the Los Angeles Times. “I know he didn’t go to these awful events because of the food or the company, but because he’s one of the last gentlemen lobbyists in Sacramento. He knows everybody and knows how to make things happen.”

In the cordial atmosphere of the CCTA and its membership, the Gay Godfather found his “family.” He’d go on to become its biggest earner.

“When I took this job, most cable companies were family operations,” Mangers said. Moms would drive pickup trucks carrying dads who would install cable boxes while their kids knocked around in the truck bed. Back in those early days, there were only 12 cable channels served by hundreds of these mom-and-pop operations. However, industry sharks caught the scent of blood in the water and gobbled up the small-time operators in a feeding frenzy exacerbated by Reagan-era deregulation. Since then, all those small systems have merged into four behemoths: Cox, Comcast, Charter and Time Warner.

Few industries have gone through more wrenching economic and technological changes than the cable industry has during Manger’s 27-year tenure at CCTA: Deregulation, satellite launches, the birth of HBO, the rise of different kinds of video providers with hundreds of channels, cable pirates, telecommunication giants horning in on the action. He and Kaitz are credited with helping create the California Channel, the C-Span for state government. Mangers has been bestowed the Vanguard Award, the cable industry’s highest honor.

How effective was Mangers? When CCTA president Kaitz retired five years ago, he proudly handed the reins to his pal Denny Mangers.

Mangers’ career at the association has not been without controversy, especially concerning fund-raising events he’s orchestrated over the years for politicians with cable business before them. A private “celebrity roast” of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Beverly Hills last October raised $800,000 for the governor, who was not running for anything but had just vetoed several bills the cable association opposed. A watchdog group cried foul; Schwarzenegger’s representatives claimed that since the money was used to help retire past campaign debt, there was no connection between the donations and the governor’s recent vetoes. Mangers not only served on the “roast committee,” but he supplied the roast’s host, his newly hired strategist John Burton, the “girly man” ex-lawmaker who is reviled in certain sections of the chambers and certainly most of Schwarzenegger’s office.

Mangers leaves the CCTA amid fierce competition between the telephone, satellite and cable industries for control over how you watch what you watch every night. The word of the day is “bundle,” which gives consumers one bill that covers their telephone, Internet and video services. Over the past several years, Mangers and his association fought telephone and satellite’s attempts to provide video, saying at various points it would be unwieldy, expensive and just plain unfair. But last year, in something of a master stroke, CCTA abruptly took a new tact, one that may be Mangers’ lasting legacy among industry insiders. He argued that it was not competition with the other industries that frustrated his association, but the competitive disadvantage it faced having to negotiate franchise deals with each municipality up and down the state. In exchange for cable dropping its historical objections to telephone- and satellite-supplied video, the state would end local-cable franchising—a monumental development, considering the big four cable companies will only have to negotiate with one state government vs. hundreds of municipalities.

After Schwarzenegger signed the Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act, Mangers figured it was an “ideal moment” to bring in fresh blood to take the CCTA into a new era. At this point in his fictitious life, Don Corleone retired to tend his vineyards and grandchildren. But longtime friend Darrell Steinberg had no intention of letting Mangers slip away to some idyllic retirement. Like Don Corleone’s son Michael, Mangers got pulled right back in.

No one is more effusive with their praise of Mangers than Steinberg. “Dennis is just … you wouldn’t want anyone else by your side,” he says. “He is dedicated, committed and combines that with incredible skill. … He has been a great adviser to me. Not so much specific bills and issues, but more sort of the big picture.”

Although they had known each other for years, Steinberg and Mangers cemented their friendship through their work on the Capital Unity Council. The council is developing the Capital Unity Center on the northeast corner of 16th and N streets. About 100,000 schoolchildren come to Sacramento annually to tour the Capitol, and having a tolerance museum across the street will help drive home the message that all of us, white and black, gay and straight, are in this together.

“We are bonded by that effort,” Steinberg says. “For kids to have their hearts and minds touched by that center would be a great thing. We have made great strides fighting discrimination and prejudice in California, but we know we have a long way to go.”

The project has been criticized because Steinberg reportedly solicited more than $1.5 million from groups with business before the state for the council and another nonprofit cause, Sojourn to the Past, which introduces students to key sites and figures of the 1960s civil-rights movement—which just happens to pay Steinberg’s brother more than $134,000 annually to run it. Mangers was quick to defend Steinberg in the local media, saying the senator’s civic fund-raising is consistent with his being a “champion for human and civil rights his whole life.”

It was on behalf of the Capital Unity Council that Mangers joined local education giant (and Cornel West’s mother) Irene B. West this past October in emceeing the 40th anniversary celebration of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech to Sacramento State. It’s but one example of Mangers locking arms with other marginalized groups who have been ignored, oppressed and vilified. But through such interactions, Mangers acknowledged hearing criticism, particularly from within the African-American community, of his comparing the civil-rights struggles of gays and lesbians with those of people of color. “They say, ‘How can you equate us with the gay community?’ But I really can. I can feel it,” Mangers says pressing his hand over his heart.

Mangers’ influence extends beyond politics. Ted Ross of the Sacramento marketing and media production company Ross-Campbell says his friend has inspired him to constantly strive to do the right thing.

“Dennis is definitely one of those go-to-guys when there is a community wrong that needs to be righted or a civic project that needs to be championed,” Ross says. “Many people describe Dennis as a wise elder of our community. Well, that certainly is true, but his wisdom was not simply acquired over time. This is a guy who, from a very young age, was a brilliant thinker, a master strategist and a roll-up-your-sleeves and get-the-job-done kind of guy.”

Ross recalls first meeting Mangers 25 years ago in the living room of then-Assemblyman Art Agnos’ Sacramento home. “When Denny spoke, I was in awe,” Ross remembers. “I knew right then that this was a guy who would be a continual source of inspiration in my life for many years to come.”

The former professional tenor has never lost his love for the arts, and he’s been one of the Sacramento community’s biggest art boosters for years. Mangers chaired the Capitol City Ballet around the time Ron Cunningham was hired to take the company professional. He’s served on the advisory board for Best of Broadway, the nonprofit that strives to keep live musical theater vibrant in the region. In 1992, Mangers led an unsuccessful effort against local Measure H, which restored Memorial Auditorium to its original glory as an arena-style venue. Mangers and his cohorts wanted Memorial to operate exclusively as a theater. Measure H won by a razor-thin margin.

Occasionally, Mangers has dusted off the old vocal chords for various functions, from a John Kerry presidential-campaign stop to a show-stealing Elvis Presley impersonation at Mercy Perinatal Recovery Network fund-raiser to his April 28 retirement dinner, where his rendition of “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” from Oklahoma! brought tears to many eyes, including Steinberg’s.

Steinberg officially becomes Senate leader next year, but he’s yet to come up with an official title for his mentor. “There are so many different roles Dennis can play, and we are going to figure it out,” Steinberg said. “He’ll do some things inside, some outside, some in the community. I just want to be able to have his ear.”

Contemplating his retirement, Mangers says it just hit him that he’s been walking through the same Senator Hotel doorway for 27 years. “This has been a great ride,” he says. Looking at a table in his office cluttered with glass awards from every organization you can think of, Mangers pointed to one with a blue hue that he is most proud of. It was from a Jewish rights organization whose leader taught Mangers an important lesson. “You can’t change the world, like I thought I could when I went to the Assembly. But you can make your community a better place, and if everyone does that in their own community, that will make a better world.”

He vows to keep striving to make Sacramento a better community, even if he has to put up with being called the Gay Godfather. “As you grow older, people give you a little title. I guess it could be worse. If I get a lot older, it could be Methuselah or Moses, coming down from the mountain.”

But there’s another definition of godfather Mangers may not have considered: the surrogate parent who keeps his godchildren safe and faithful. As a moderating voice in times of profound pain, divisiveness and even violence, the Gay Godfather lives up to that billing and then some.

“I’m grateful to have had the opportunity,” he says. “What a great city. What a great state. I am grateful to the cable industry for this run, but at the same time, right now I taste freedom. I’m happy.”