Amazing Grace: Garner poised to make history as first Latina mayor of Palm Springs

Her willingness to stand up and stick out – even if she doesn’t ultimately win – comes as no surprise to those who know Grace Garner, who will be appointed mayor this evening.
Grace Garner stands outside City Council Chambers Wednesday. She will be sworn in there as the city’s newest mayor this evening.

Juanita Garner can tell you many stories about her daughter’s childhood that hint at what was to come. But she singles out one that’s particularly meaningful this time of year.

“Every Christmas we would go to the ‘giving tree’ at the mall and pick a name of a family that needed help during the holidays,” she recalls. “Grace was about six years old when she told me it wasn’t fair that some people had too much, and some people didn’t have enough, and she wanted to fix it. She wanted to make a law so all people could have what they needed.”

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Thirty years later, Juanita and James Garner’s daughter, Grace Garner, will become the leader of the governmental body that shapes the laws impacting both young and old in Palm Springs. After winning re-election to the City Council, she will be sworn in as the city’s 23rd mayor tonight, becoming the first Latina to ever hold the office.

“I told her making laws was not so easy,” her mother says. “She asked what she needed to do to be able to make laws. I told her she should probably learn about existing laws first and going to law school would be a good start. She told me that was what she was going to do, because she wanted to help people.”

The child who felt so passionately about helping others did go to law school, graduating in 2013. Afterward, she went off to practice in Washington, D.C., but returned to her hometown five years later, feeling the pull of ties from a family with humble roots.

“I always knew Grace was destined to do great things and have an impact on her community, so a part of me is not surprised to see her become mayor.”

— Lauren Bruggemans

“My parents didn’t go to school past the third grade,” explained her mother, a bilingual paraprofessional in the Palm Springs Unified School District and member of the city’s Library Board. “They grew up with so much discrimination. They taught us not to draw attention to ourselves, to work hard, and to mind your own business.

“I made sure my children were involved in many social justice issues, and we attended marches and protests regularly.”

Grace Garner is still a regular presence at any place crowds are gathering to protest injustice. Sometimes she’s speaking in an official capacity as the City Council representative from District 1. But more often you can find her in the back of the crowd, along with her mother, listening intently.

Garner has done a lot of listening during her first City Council term, choosing her words and causes wisely. She speaks up, however, whenever she senses her fellow councilmembers may need a bit of a history lesson about the city or treatment of members of minority communities both locally and nationally.

District 1 was specifically drawn to be a “minority majority” district, and it contains neighborhoods where most of the city’s Black and brown population resides. That fact is always top of mind when Garner casts votes, even when she may be on the losing end.

She was the lone no vote on the location – but not the idea – for a homeless services center her constituents fought against building in her district. She was one of two no votes – along with Councilmember Christy Holstege – against canceling the city’s annual fireworks show, one of the few events put on by the city each year that’s free of charge for residents.

Her willingness to stand up and stick out – even if she doesn’t ultimately win – comes as no surprise to those who know her.

The parents of Grace Garner — James (left) and Juanita (right) — pose at City Council Chambers after she was sworn in as the District 1 representative in 2019.

“At about eight years old she organized a protest when the city decided to remove a favorite climbing structure from Victoria Park,” Garner’s mother said. “The structure was removed, but she was so happy that she tried. The next year she became student body president at her elementary school and was involved in student government from then on.”

“Grace is one of the bravest people I know,” said Lauren Bruggemans, who first met Garner in a Palm Springs High School geometry class in 1999. “Even when we were young, she always stood up for what was right, spoke her mind, and spoke up when she saw someone being bullied.

“Her bravery and drive have propelled her through an impressive career and continued to develop throughout her tenure on City Council as she amplified the voices of the underserved communities of District 1. She was and continues to be a thoughtful, kind, fiercely intelligent and loyal friend.”

Did Bruggemans envision her high school classmate would some day be mayor of their city?

“I always knew Grace was destined to do great things and have an impact on her community, so a part of me is not surprised to see her become mayor,” Bruggemans said. “Running for public office and being on City Council is an exceedingly difficult job, so I am so very, very proud of her and truly looking forward to her history-making tenure as mayor of Palm Springs.

“I’ve loved and believed in Grace Garner for 23 years and I always will.”

Voters in District 1 showed they still believe in Garner by re-electing her. Whether the entire city is now willing to believe in her we may know soon. She takes the gavel from outgoing Mayor Lisa Middleton shortly after 5:30 p.m. tonight.

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