West Hollywood mayor has dreams of Congress

Share this Post:
Sepi Shyne — Courtesy photo
Sepi Shyne — Courtesy photo

On a date during her sophomore year in college, Sepi Shyne had what would turn out to be a fateful brush with oppression.

"It was a very scary experience, and it kind of shifted me into activism," she recalled.

Shyne was sitting with her girlfriend drinking lattes at a coffee shop in San Jose, California, when the manager, accompanied by a police officer, approached their table.

"The next thing I know, they are standing over us, and the police officer looks down and says, 'You two need to get up and leave. The manager doesn't want your kind in this establishment.'"

The manager then blew a kiss and winked as Shyne and her girlfriend beat a hasty retreat.

"We got up and ran out of there in tears," she said. "We were both immigrants and scared of authority figures who were abusing their power."

The incident strengthened the women's resolve to get their law degrees and fight injustice. Two decades later, Shyne is now the mayor of West Hollywood, California, and campaigning for a seat in Congress.

"West Hollywood has and always will be on the right side of history: on the side of human rights, a sanctuary city for the LGBTQ+ community and immigrants," she said. "We are a small city with a big heart, and that's actually what we need to create in Congress — bring the heart back to Congress — and I hope to do that."

Elected to the West Hollywood City Council in 2020, Shyne became the first Lesbian of Iranian descent in the world to hold public office. She was a two-year-old when the Iranian Revolution erupted and transformed the country into an Islamic republic.

"We didn't have a full democracy; we had a monarchy, but we had a lot of freedoms, And then I saw women's rights just be obliterated, and for a little girl it, felt like a blink of an eye," she said.

Three years later, Shyne's family fled Iran with her and arrived in America to start a new life.

Finding a home in WeHo
Shyne's more than 20 years of civil rights work culminated with her election to the West Hollywood City Council, where she rotated into the mayor's seat in January. In the last two years, she said, the council has passed more than 60 items that bring much needed change to what's dubbed "the Creative City."

"I was immediately impressed with her sincere determination, her specific improvement plans for the city, and her progressive values," said Vic Gerami, an activist and documentary filmmaker. "Unlike a lot of elected officials, Sepi is a doer. She does what she says and follows through with her promises."

Gerami, an Armenian-American, said Shyne is a brave fighter for underserved communities. "She is fearless and does not succumb to developers, special interests, and the politics of respectability."

The changes Shyne has ushered in are designed to make West Hollywood more affordable, such as raising the minimum wage to $19.08 an hour — the highest in the country — while giving workers paid time off and sick time.

Shyne also spearheaded improved tenant protections, secured federal funding for a behavioral crisis response unit, and reduced homelessness by 60%. The last item she credits with keeping her eye on the ball during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"When I got into office, I got on the homelessness subcommittee, and we kept monthly meetings during the pandemic," Shyne said. "We felt it was really important to keep an eye on things as stewards and leaders of the city. We got updates from staff, gave direction on what improvements needed to be made, and made sure our social service providers were moving swiftly. And we were able to house more than 60% of our unhoused residents. I attribute that to accountability and doing my job."

Topping her list of current priorities is bringing public restrooms to the city that are accessible 24 hours, seven days a week.

"Being unhoused is not 9-to-5. It is 24 hours, and we have to shift our thinking to be more compassionate," she said, adding that tourists, on whom West Hollywood heavily relies, need somewhere to use the bathroom too.

Out and proud
Shyne came out to her mother in high school, and when the incident at the coffee shop in San Jose happened, she decided to become more vocal and visible in her advocacy efforts.

"I told my ex, 'I'm tired of feeling powerless. We need to go to law school, learn the law, and stop this from happening to others,'" Shyne said.

Shyne's reputation as a civil rights advocate landed her a guest appearance on CNN. It was after that that she realized she could no longer return to Iran.

"LGBTQ people that are out are killed, and I would have been killed," she said.

So she has settled in West Hollywood with her fur babies — two cats and a dog — and is dedicated to keeping the city a sanctuary for those seeking a better life.

"It's incredible to be mayor of one of the best cities in America that's all about human rights, LGBTQ equality, women's rights, and a safe haven for immigrants," she said.

Campaigning for Congress
When US Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced her upcoming retirement earlier this year, it set off a chain reaction in the Democratic ranks. US Rep. Adam Schiff quickly announced his intentions to seek the Senate seat, leaving Congressional District 30, which includes West Hollywood, up for grabs.

So, inspired by the Iranian "Woman, Life, Freedom" movement, Shyne said she felt called to step up and run for the congressional seat being vacated in order to fight for the American dream she represents.

"I am literally a product of the American dream myself," Shyne said. "I was an undocumented immigrant when I fled Iran. I was undocumented until I was 16, and now I'm the mayor of West Hollywood, and I want to make sure our democracy remains, and I'm going to fight for that."