Lisa Middleton has been having a week, so you wouldn’t blame her if she was late. Except, being Lisa Middleton, she’s not late.
She arrives at our meeting point precisely at 1 PM in a basic black sedan. Is it a Ford? A Toyota? It’s hard to tell because it’s so unassuming. One thing that does stand out is that it’s a hybrid — standard issue for any aspiring California politician.
Clad in basic black slacks, a free-flowing turquoise blouse, and flats, I worry that she may not be prepared for the task we’re about to undertake. She’s invited me to hike out to a construction site for a cell phone tower. Those are on top of mountains, right? Thinking so, I’m wearing boots and I’ve had some protein.
“You ready?” asks Jaime Barker, a construction superintendent for Near-Cal Corp., the company tasked with building the tower, as he motions for me to climb into his truck for the drive to what I assume is a trailhead. Approximately 45 seconds later, we’re at the actual construction site, having navigated not a mountain trail but the cart path along the 14th hole of the South Course at Indian Canyons Golf Resort.
Middleton exits an SUV driven by Julio Figueroa, director of External and Legislative Affairs for AT&T in Riverside County. She gives the site a once-over, then begins the questioning.
“How soon till you pour concrete?” “Battery backup or generator?” “How tall?” “Anyone other than AT&T asking to mount equipment?” “How has it been dealing with the city?”
Between each question, she pauses, listening intently to the answers Barker and Figueroa are happy to supply. Both men credit the city and the owners of the golf course — the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians — for helping speed the project along. Middleton is pleased to hear that, and her eyes seem to light up as she talks about rebar and signal strength. I’m frantically searching for my pen, which seems to have fallen out of a shirt pocket somewhere near a small bulldozer.
“This is about as good of a location for that tower as we can get,” remarks Middleton. “There’s just no other place in this area that these homes can get help.”
That help will come in the form of a stronger cell signal once the 56-foot tower is completed and placed into service. Barker and Figueroa hope to begin “lighting it up” in early December. The homes are hundreds in Andreas Hills that were left isolated after the heaviest rainfall in city history washed out roads in their neighborhood and elsewhere in the Coachella Valley on Valentine’s Day 2019.
Middleton has represented the people in those homes on the Palm Springs City Council for four years. Back at our vehicles after the tour, we speak for a half-hour on topics both professional and personal, wandering on and off the record. She is both thoughtful and empathetic. I fear I’m going to write what amounts to a political puff piece, but so be it.
On the record, Middleton speaks of the years that have passed since the Valentine’s Day storm. She recalls her District 5 constituents who approached her multiple times to mention that they were left not only without ingress and egress to their neighborhood, but also without a vital lifeline to reach emergency services.
Cell service is notoriously weak in South Palm Springs, especially in neighborhoods boxed in by Murray Hill and the eastern base of Mt. San Jacinto. Middleton vowed to tackle the issue, and worked tirelessly to help bring what will amount to a signal boost for a two-mile radius surrounding the golf course.
“The flood really crystalized what the need was,” says Middleton. “We went five hours without access to the homes in Andreas Hills. They were really isolated and had no way in or out. And what made them more isolated was having poor to no cell reception.
“We’ve reached a point in how we use technology that being without cell service is a sense of being out of touch.”
Middleton is proud of what she’s delivering for the neighborhood. She often mentions its progress during City Council meetings. The topic produces nods from fellow councilmembers, but then it’s on to issues that make better headlines.
The cell tower is boring by design. There have been no protests, court cases, or yard signs planted by opponents. Middleton hasn’t had to defend her efforts in all-night social media sessions. It’s the type of work elected officials do in the background while being taken to task in public for all the ills that befall their cities. The tower will soon blend into the background, disguised as a palm tree in the center of a trio of real palm trees.
Middleton, who at 68 is next in line for Palm Springs’ primarily ceremonial role of mayor, has no plans to fade away. She announced her campaign for state senator representing District 28 three days before traipsing out to the construction site. A day after the site visit, she capped her week with an emotional, unifying speech during a ceremony honoring a pair of fallen Palm Springs police officers.
Current Palm Springs Mayor Christy Holstege also announced a campaign for higher office. She hopes to serve in the State Assembly. If either or both win, they will leave the City Council mid-term, leading to colleagues appointing their replacements or setting up a special election.
It’s a calculated risk with little to lose. But unless redistricting somehow paints the 28th District solidly blue — it has supported GOP candidates since 2014, despite slightly more registered Democrats — Middleton will have a tough time in Riverside County communities more used to seeing Trump Trains than history-making transgender policymakers.
“I’m hoping it will be a purple district,” she says. “And I have every reason to believe it will be.”
“You win elections by energizing your natural base of supporters and attracting people who haven’t made up their minds that you’re the better option than your opponent,” Middleton adds. “Some voters I won’t be able to reach. But some, I’m hoping will jump on board.”
Yes, Middleton became the first transgender person to be elected in California for a non-judicial position when she won a seat on the City Council in 2017 (she ran unopposed in 2020). She has been honored for her work advancing the visibility of the LGBTQ community and stands to receive even more accolades later this month. But it’s the boring stuff — a master’s degree in public policy, 36 years of service with the State Compensation Insurance Fund, and stints on multiple boards and commissions in Riverside County — that she thinks would serve her best in Sacramento.
The cell tower is an example of a public-private partnership that took collaboration, patience, and determination to make a reality. It’s a little thing that will make a big difference. But it’s also an example of how Middleton might go about navigating the State Capitol.
“There are some things only government can do,” Middleton says. “Then there are things a government entity can only do. Then there are things the private market can do much better. If you get good at recognizing that, that builds credibility for the difficult things you have to do when there are fundamental disagreements about which direction government should go.”
Which direction she thinks the state should go can be seen in a city that proudly waves multiple Pride flags, and that Middleton has called home with her wife Cheryl since 2013.
“Palm Springs clearly has an identity,” she offers. “We are proud of it. It’s who we are. It’s our brand. It’s small, but there is an incredible amount of talent here.
“Those talented people came to Palm Springs because they knew that who they are as human beings is going to be affirmed in this community. And look — the transit occupancy taxes are increasing here. The property values are increasing here. The sales tax revenue is increasing here. That’s an economic success. That diversity is what made that economic success possible.”