Alysa Cisneros

alysa cisneros sunnyvale

When Alysa Cisneros won election to the Sunnyvale City Council in November 2020, at age 33, she became the first openly queer woman to serve on a city council in Santa Clara County since Jamie McLeod sat on the City of Santa Clara council from 2004 -2012. When her council colleagues voted for her as vice-mayor in 2022, she became the first queer woman in the county to ever hold that title.

Besides creating a career in politics, Cisneros is a role model for the LGBTQ+ community and students at her alma mater, De Anza College. She credits the school with instilling her with the confidence to pursue her passion.

Things might have gone differently. Cisneros had a baby girl at age 19, and is a prior recipient of food stamps, but her determination and resiliency led to her success.

Cisneros was raised in Sunnyvale. Her mother was a medical assistant at O’Connor Hospital and her father worked as a janitor and machine shop worker at Hewlett Packard. Her father rose through the ranks during his 30 years with the company, eventually becoming a global manager. With her parent’s combined incomes, Cisneros’ family was able to rent a home in the Bay Area, something that feels out of reach for many today.

Cisneros said affordable housing is desperately needed as people are commuting 2 1/2 hours a day, each way from areas like the Central Valley where they can own a home. In addition to creating affordable housing, her policy goals include completing the redevelopment of downtown Sunnyvale, improving public transportation, and supporting small businesses.

A reckoning

In 2006, Cisneros’ life changed with the birth of her daughter and the realization that working class people have the odds stacked against them. Reading “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” by Barbara Ehrenreich brought home to her how difficult the lives are of working-class people, who even while holding several minimum wage jobs, struggle to get ahead. This revelation galvanized her to reassess the challenges she faced and work to make a difference for others.

“It occurred to me that the reasons why my life was hard was not because of me, or anything that I’m doing wrong,” she said, “but because of how society is structured to benefit some people. It’s a lot easier to achieve the same things based on privilege.”

Experiencing severe ADHD lends her a unique lens and makes her extremely focused on certain issues. She’s learned to appreciate it, turning a difficulty into an asset. Being a young, bisexual city councilmember also sets her apart.

Cisneros believes diverse representation across demographics is essential for ensuring policies are insightful and effective. For example, being a renter brings a deeper understanding of the value of rent control.

“Ideally, you’d want to have all of those voices coming from those different experiences,” she said. “The council’s the most diverse it’s ever been, and it enriches us because we have different career backgrounds, different ages, and different life experiences.”

But it wasn’t always this way. When Cisneros joined the Sunnyvale City Council, she was the only woman of color and the only queer person until Richard Mehlinger, a bisexual man, joined the council in 2023.

Cisneros made it her personal mission to make access, equity, and inclusion part of city policy but was met with resistance from other councilmembers, she said.

In addition, she championed a human relations commission, made up of residents, which addresses equity.

“It was a big ask to get it,” she said, adding she won the other councilmembers over by repeatedly speaking about its importance and gaining their empathy.

While campaigning for office, Cisneros faced disagreement with one of her consultants about revealing she’s bisexual. He told her lesbians who didn’t consider it a thing would be intolerant and advised her not to mention it.

“I was not expecting it,” she said, “I just hadn’t come across any pushback on my identity. That was not an acceptable answer to me.”

Otherwise, her sexuality came up in positive ways, she said, with people saying she’d increase that representation as an openly queer person serving on the city council.

“That was not always a safe thing to do,” she said. “I feel very lucky to live in a time where it was.”

In fact, running against two opponents, Cisneros captured almost 54% of the votes. She said the city moving to district elections encouraged her to run, as citywide elections can cost $60,000 to $100,000.

School years

Although Cisneros struggled academically in high school because of not being diagnosed with ADHD, she resolved to attend college and pursue a career in politics. She worked in politics following high school, advocating for tenants’ rights and increasing the minimum wage. Without a college degree and a baby, she felt limited and decided to enroll at De Anza College, following in her father’s footsteps. It helped that professors and staff were supportive. Empowered by
knowledge and opportunities, she excelled in political science and government.

Cisneros credits a De Anza professor with encouraging her to pursue graduate school. The professor wrote in one of her papers, “Have you considered going to grad school? I think that you’d do really well.” Cisneros hadn’t even considered the possibility until that moment. As a person of color, she also knew she needed twice as much credibility to be hired for a job as someone who was white or male, she said.

“So, I went for it,” she said. “I might not have if my professor hadn’t done that. De Anza offers those experiences and accessibility to college to people who would not have it otherwise.”

Cisneros transferred to Mills College, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree in political, legal, and economic analysis and received a master’s degree in public policy. Following college, she worked as a community organizer and public policy analyst. She is proud of helping to pass state legislation that allowed foster youth and homeless students to access financial aid until they were 26 years old.

De Anza reached out to Cisneros following college to offer her a job teaching American Government and Grassroots Democracy. She was also invited to be the keynote speaker at the school’s Lavender Graduation ceremony honoring the resilience and the accomplishments of its LGBTQ+ graduates.

“It’s been an incredible opportunity to give some of what I received to students,” she said, “and hopefully propel them forward.”

JR Fruen

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Cupertino elected its first LGBTQ+ councilmember in 2022, but it wasn’t easy. Winning took a lot of thick skin to withstand the high level of homophobia prevalent in the campaign.

 J.R. Fruen, 43, an attorney, and third generation Cupertino resident, ran for a seat on the city council to evoke policy change in the city he loves and pave the way for future LGBTQ+ candidates.

“It’s always difficult to be the first,” he said. “The campaign was fundamentally about progress.”

Fruen said it would’ve been even harder to be elected if State Assemblymember Evan Low or prior Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager hadn’t been. He is proud of the Cupertino City Council passing a resolution supporting Low’s amendment to repeal Proposition 8, which added language to the state’s Constitution stating that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

“We managed to pass it unanimously,” he said, “which I don’t think would’ve been so easily achieved if I hadn’t been there.”

Fruen also ran for city council in 2020, despite his concern Cupertino wasn’t ready for an openly gay councilmember.

“We never really had an open and honest conversation about same-sex couples in the community,” he said. “There are a lot of people who exhibit significant hostility toward the gay community. Even if they don’t say it openly, it’s under the surface. You see it in a number of positions that they take on other social issues.”

Fruen started his involvement in politics in 2016, with a campaign to defeat Measure C, Cupertino Citizens’ Sensible Growth Initiative. The measure aimed to amend Cupertino’s General Plan to limit redevelopment of the Vallco Shopping District and restrict lots for large projects.

“Measure C threatened Cupertino’s housing element and would have required a public vote anytime there was a General Plan amendment,” Fruen said, “which seemed a recipe for never updating it.”

Working successfully against the measure, Fruen found he was an effective advocate. In 2019, he formed Cupertino for All, a nonprofit policy advocacy supporting housing for all income levels and racially integrated communities. It also advocated in support of the LGBTQ+ community, resulting in the city council approving a rainbow crosswalk.

Unfortunately, while campaigning and in office, Fruen faced challenges regarding his sexual orientation along with his position on policy issues.

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Clifton “Kal” Der Bing and JR Fruen

He was disheartened to be told not to prominently display intimacy with his husband, Clifton “Kal” Der Bing, in a promo ad for his 2020 campaign in which Der Bing kissed him goodbye on the forehead.

During the 2020 Cupertino City Council race, Mayor Steven Scharf, who was running for re-election, made a rainbow-colored lawn sign for his campaign. Fruen felt Scharf did that in response to Fruen helping high school students install an affirming rainbow crosswalk near Cupertino High School across Stevens Creek Boulevard.

“I think Scharf perceived my involvement in trying to make that happen as a purely political stunt in support of a run for council, and not a genuine attempt to try to make something better for the kids and the rest of the community,” Fruen said.  

When Fruen ran in 2022, he was attacked on social media for having students distribute campaign literature, implying he was a pedophile. City Councilmember Kitty Moore said he shouldn’t contribute to conversations on school closures as he didn’t have children. Fruen said this jab was painful as he would like to have children and having grown up going to Cupertino schools, they matter deeply to him.

“It made me like feel my concerns in 2020 were correct,” he said. “That maybe the city wasn’t ready for a gay councilmember and that people really aren’t as open as they think or claim to be.”

Then, the weekend before the 2022 election, the Pride flag and American flag at St. Jude’s Episcopal church were pulled down and buried with sticks and stones. Nearby, Fruen’s campaign signs were uprooted and thrown askew.

“I have a really hard time believing that those two things were unrelated,” he said, “because it was only my signs that were being tossed.”

The vandalism hit home especially hard for both Fruen and Der Bing—who have been together since 2011—since they attend St. Jude’s. It is also where they had their wedding ceremony in 2021.

But despite these challenges, Fruen persevered. In the November 2022 election, Cupertino, where council candidates run citywide, had three seats on the ballot. Eight candidates ran. Fruen received the third most votes, securing his victory.

“It takes a certain degree of fire inside to be willing to put up with it,” he said, reflecting on his hard-fought campaign. “It has to really matter to you.”

Housing policy was a major focus of his campaign. Fruen is in favor of densifying more transit-oriented parts of town, making them more bikeable and walkable, with retail close to where people live. He is proud of stabilizing the relationship between staff and council, which he said has been toxic for years.

His future goals include ambitious housing elements and updating the city’s General Plan to make Cupertino an affordable and enjoyable place to live.

“If we plan well, we can get interesting spaces that make us like where we live even more,” he said, “That makes us feel more connected to them and to each other.”

Fruen plans to run for re-election after his term ends in December 2026. He is fulfilled with his work on the city council, making policy decisions that impact the city and aid in providing services to its residents. In addition, he is proud of the strides he’s made for the LGBTQ+ community.

“It certainly makes it easier for the people who come after me,” he said. “It says you can do it, too. Representation matters.”

As to where the initials J.R. come from, his given name is Joseph Ryan. As he tells it, there are two parts to the story. When he was going up, his family—like most of America—watched the television show Dallas. A family friend adored it and started calling him J.R., after the chief protagonist, J.R. Ewing. It used to drive Fruen “bonkers.” When he heard the theme song at 8 pm, he knew it was time to go to bed.

Years later when he was working in a law office there were three attorneys all named Joseph. Clients would call asking for “Joseph,” and they had to go around asking each one if the call was for them. Resigned, Fruen said, “ok, that’s it. I’m fine. I’m J.R. from now on.”

As to including periods, Fruen prefers them, lest people think the letters are short for “Junior.”

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Der Bing, Fruen, Neil Park-McClintick, and California State Assemblymember Evan Low in celebration of Fruen’s 2022 electoral victory

Richard Mehlinger

richard mehlinger profile

Only a handful of cities in the Bay Area have managed to elect one LGBTQ+ representative to their city councils. Even fewer cities have elected two. Sunnyvale joined the first group in 2019 when openly bisexual Alysa Cisneros won election. But it reached the second group when openly bisexual Richard Mehlinger won his race in 2022, thereby giving the seven-member council two queer councilmembers.

Richard moved to Sunnyvale in 2011 for a software engineering job. Born in Long Beach, he did his undergraduate studies at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA, double majoring in computer science and history. For his graduate work, he received his Master’s in European History at U.C. Riverside. “History has always been a passion of mine. It really informs the way I think about the world,” he said.

His first interaction with the local government occurred in 2014. A bridge he drove over each day on his commute to Moffett Park ran along a hillside that was riddled with trash. Wanting to get the debris removed, he emailed Sunnyvale Councilmember Jim Griffith, who then coordinated with Caltrans to get the area cleaned up. Seeing the city take action first-hand inspired him. “I just emailed my council member, and he actually answered my question and made a meaningful effort to fix the problem.”

But he wasn’t yet inspired to get involved with city government.

Fast forward to election night 2016, which he describes as one of the worst nights of his life. Following Hilary Clinton’s defeat and Donald Trump’s victory, Richard took a few sick days off from work to contemplate what role he could play in making a difference. He knew sitting around and watching was no longer an option for him. “I thought, there is nothing meaningful I can do at the federal or state level,” he surmised. “But I could actually get some things done at the local level.”

He aimed to tackle Silicon Valley’s top hot-button issue: the cost of living. He realized Trump’s election meant large numbers of queer individuals and people of color would be moving to California seeking a safer place to live. “We’ve got all these great civil rights protections, but who can afford to live here? Civil rights protections shouldn’t be a luxury.”

He noted the city’s empty promises of inclusion in an online op-ed he wrote. “You see signs like ‘Immigrants welcome here,’ ‘Love is love,’ ‘Black Lives Matter,’ etc. Yes, everyone is welcome if they have enough money. But if we’re actually serious about inclusion and civil rights, then we have to build enough affordable housing for working people to be able to live here.”

Then, a bicycle accident in May 2017 further prompted him to get involved with the city. On his commute home from work, he hit a crack in the pavement and was launched over the handlebars, breaking his arm in the fall. It got him thinking about how the smallest details, like safe biking infrastructure, make an enormous difference.

That year, Richard joined Livable Sunnyvale, a spinoff of the Sunnyvale Democratic Club. The group advocates for housing, green transportation, and sustainability. He was elected to the board in 2018. At that same time, he also joined the Charter Review Commission. In 2019, he decided to apply to Sunnyvale’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission. “Commissions are the training wheels and the pipeline for city council candidates,” he said. “It’s a way for people to get experience in city government.”

In late 2019, he met Alysa Cisneros at a BAYMEC brunch, and they became friends. Alysa run for and won a seat on the Sunnyvale City Council in 2020, giving Richard the opportunity to gain campaign experience as her assistant campaign manager. Then and only then did he decide he was ready for a campaign of his own. By that time, Sunnyvale had switched over to district elections, making the campaign more manageable.

Richard spent all of 2021 preparing to run for council by talking to the neighborhood leaders and current and former elected officials. But the conversation that impacted him most was the one he had with his 97-year-old grandmother shortly before she died. “One of the last conversations I had with her will remain with me forever. She told me to ‘keep on politickin’.’ That was really meaningful. She was a remarkable woman.”

By the time he launched his campaign on his 35th birthday in 2022, he had an endorsement list “as long as his arm.” The five years he spent building relationships, learning how the city works, and understanding the issues in his district had paid off. It also turned out that he was a prolific fundraiser. He raised a total of $40,000, all without accepting any corporate or developer contributions. From family and friends alone, he raised $25,000 Organized labor came through in a big way, contributing around $12,000.

In his campaign, Richard focused on addressing the needs of the residents in his district, running on pro-housing and traffic safety, which he calls “basic quality of life issues.”

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“Richard for Sunnyvale” Campaign Mailer

Richard’s identity as a proud bisexual man was a “non-issue” in his campaign. He received support from organizations like BAYMEC and The Victory Fund that work to elect queer people to office. Though it seemed irrelevant to the issues he ran on, he made a point of speaking about being bisexual for the sake of visibility. “There’s erasure, especially for men. Hell, The New York Times ran an article about ten years ago, asking ‘Do bi men exist?’ I was just like, ‘Well, I’m right here!’”

There was only one other candidate in the race, who turned out not to run much of a campaign. Richard won handily, with 71% of the vote.

In his swearing-in speech, Richard noted the historic nature of his victory: “Tonight I stand here as the second openly queer Sunnyvale City Councilmember ever, part of the most diverse council in terms of background, geography, ethnicity, religion, in our city’s history. That diversity is a strength because it allows us to see and address issues from many different angles. The switch to districts, drawn with extensive community input and confirmed overwhelmingly by the voters, made this possible.”

“Serving on the city council is a tremendous honor, and it’s actually fun,” he said. “I am having the time of my life. We have an excellent council. I have great colleagues. We have a great city staff. And even when we disagree, it’s respectful. I think we’re doing some really cool stuff.”

Richard wants to encourage other people to run for local office. “It can be a tremendously rewarding experience. It gives you the opportunity to help shape your community for the better, which is a wonderful thing. I’m really grateful to be here,” he concluded.

Richard Mehlinger’s speech at 2023 Sunnyvale Pride


Jaria Jaug

jaria jaug profile

At 23, San Jose State University alumna Jaria (rhymes with Mariah) Jaug (pronounced “Haug”) is the youngest person on the Berryessa school board. She is also the first openly bisexual board member.

For the newly elected official, things still feel “surreal.” “I never thought I’d do politics this early in my life.”

With her election, she became only the fifth out LGBTQ person currently serving on a K – 8 or K – 12 school board in Santa Clara County.

The daughter of Filipino immigrants, Jaria grew up going to schools in the district she now represents. Equity is her top priority. 

Jaria aims to ensure student success across all income levels with after-school programs and additional resources. She is also looking to expand mental health services, an issue that is close to her heart.

As a child in the Berryessa school district, Jaria relied on resources like on-campus social workers for support for her anxiety. “My parents grew up in the Phillippines and mental health wasn’t a thing,” she explained. “I know other children of immigrants might have similar experiences.”

After coming out as bisexual at age 15, Jaria got her start in community by involvement volunteering for the Billy DeFrank LGBTQ Community Center. “My identity led me to this work and showed me that queer people can do great things for the community.”

At SJSU, Jaria majored in business with the intent to go into marketing, but her first marketing class changed her mind. “I knew I wanted to help my community, not market products for the rest of my life.”

It was Dr. Ken Yeager’s local government class that first sparked her interest in politics. “[His] class changed my world and opened so many doors,” she said. “I realized politics was the way I could create the most change.”

Friends, family, and colleagues encouraged Jaria to run for the school board. “It was my sister that really put the nail in the coffin,” she said. “She convinced me. She said ‘If you want to run you should, because all of these people think you would do a good job.’”

Three of the five seats on the Berryessa board were up for election in November. Incumbents were running for two of those seats. The third seat was vacant due to one of the trustees resigning earlier. This presented a great opportunity for Jaria to be one of the three top vote-getters.

When she did decide to file, it was a bit last minute, but as soon as she did, Jaria was met with overwhelming support from the Filipino community and candidates in other local elections. 

Fortunately, campaigning was nothing new for her. Before she was elected to the board, Jaria worked as a field representative for Assembly District 25 and campaign coordinator for Alex Lee’s re-election campaign.

She raised a total of $10,000 for her campaign through events, call time, and joint walks with political clubs and other candidates. The funds allowed her to print lawn signs, publish a website, and pay the exorbitant candidate statement fee. Her weekends were spent door-knocking with members of the Young Democrats and other candidates, such as Aisha Wahab who was running for state senate and whose district overlapped with Jaria’s.

As an openly queer board member, Jaria has been dedicated to centering the needs of the LGBTQ+ community since day one. She has done this by bringing questions to the superintendent such as, “How are we teaching kids about what’s going on in the LGBTQ+ community?” “How are we supporting trans children?” and “How are we creating inclusive classrooms?”

She has been warmly received by her board colleagues, especially Thelma Boac, who is Filipina as well.

In addition to serving on the school board, Jaria is the policy/legislative director for San Jose City Council member David Cohen.

Jaria hopes her presence on the school board encourages other young, queer people of color to run. “I know young people might not think they look like a typical board member, but they’re part of the community, so why not?”

On June 14, Juria proposed a resolution to the Berryessa Union School Board to have all the district’s 10 elementary and three middle schools raise the Progress Pride flag during the first week of June to celebrate Pride month. It also stated that all schools will include LGBTQ+ literature in their libraries and will have at least one all-gender bathroom for students. Her resolution passed on a 4-0 with one abstention.


Judge Jonathan Karesh

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In January 2019, Jonathan Karesh became the second LGBTQ judge ever elected to be the presiding judge of the San Mateo County Superior Court. At the time, he was the only out LGBTQ presiding judge of a county Superior Court in California.

He is one of three LGBTQ judges on the San Mateo County bench, having been appointed by Governor Gray Davis in 2001.

It would seem that Karesh’s career as a judge was decided long before he started law school at Berkeley. After all, his father Joseph Karesh was elected a San Francisco Superior Court judge the year he was born, and his earliest memories are of father-son bonding time spent going to watch his father’s trials. “We would also go to the courthouse on the weekends and then go to lunch after and just have a really nice time,” he recalled.

When Karesh was just 10 years old, he volunteered for his father’s friends’ campaigns for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. At that time, he thought he might want to be a congressman.

It was a mock trial he was a part of in an eighth-grade social studies class that steered him towards a law career. Karesh loved playing the role of an attorney. That same year, he placed second in a speech competition, which further cemented his confidence. “I was terrible at sports, but I could speak and speak persuasively.”

After law school, Karesh spent his twenties and thirties as a deputy district attorney. At the time, he was heavily involved in the Democratic Central Committee and Democratic candidate campaigns. Those connections served him well when he applied to be a judge at age 38 and was able to have prominent community leaders write letters of recommendation to Governor Davis.

Now that Karesh has served as a judge since 2001, he has no desire to run for office. “I love my job too much, and besides, politicians have to fundraise and campaign, which I don’t want to do.”

These days, Karesh presides over criminal trials. He tries serious felony cases, which include trials for attempted murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault.

For the last ten years, Karesh has also mentored LGBTQ law students through the Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom (BALIF). His most recent mentee was a young man who recovered from substance abuse to go on to work with criminal defendants with similar histories. In 2018, he received BALIF’s Mentor of the Year award. That same year, the San Mateo
County Trial Lawyers Association presented him with their Judge of the Year award.

In 2011, Karesh filmed an It Gets Better video with the BALIF team. “It’s important for young people to know you can be in this profession and being gay is not a hindrance at all.”

Karesh came out at work in 2006 because he did not want to put up a wall between his personal and work life. He did so thanks to some advice from California’s first out lesbian judge, Rosemary Pfeiffer, who was outed by the press in the early 90s after attending a gay rights event.

“It was exhausting to maintain that wall, to keep things from my friends on the bench,” he explained. “I think it’s very important to be out at work.”

Karesh has never had an issue as a gay man at work. In fact, the day he came out by sending an email to a dozen people connected with court system, colleagues flooded his inbox with congratulatory emails.

Rich Gordon was serving on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors at the time. The Board Chambers and the Court Rooms were in the same building, and Gordon remembers there was an immediate buzz in the hallways and the elevators when Karesh made his announcement. “The buzz was positive and supportive,” said Gordon. “I had known Jon prior to his appointment as a judge due to his political work in our county. His coming out filled me with pride.”

“Jon is an outstanding human being and an outstanding judge,” reflected Gordon. “His integrity, his dedication, and his commitment to the rule of law make him an outstanding role model for those LGBTQ attorneys who stand on his shoulders.”

Around five years ago Karesh had a full-circle moment of getting then giving advice when a young district attorney came to him with questions about coming out.

Karesh himself did not come out until later in life. With a lesbian older sister, who came out in 1977, he felt pressure to be straight. He spent years in denial, only starting to date men in his early thirties and coming out to himself fully in his late thirties. Karesh came out to his mother shortly thereafter, at age 41. He never got the chance to come out to his father Joseph, who passed in 1996.

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Judge Karesh officiating the marriage of his sister Barbara Karesh (right) and sister-in-law Joy Accosta (left).

In 2008, his personal and work lives collided when Karesh had the immense privilege of officiating his sister Barbara’s wedding. “It was the most moving experience of my life.”

Barbara’s real wedding took place many years before on a beach in Pacifica with a Unitarian minister when she and her partner first got together in 1979. It was the small 2008 ceremony that married the two in the eyes of the law.

As for his own love life, Karesh got engaged back in September while on a cruise to Canada. His partner Steven is retired from the semiconductor industry, and in two and a half years, Jon will be eligible to join him in retirement so that the two can spend the rest of their lives together.
Jon, Barbara, his sister-in-law, and his fiance are all very close friends

Karesh is “pretty sure” he will retire in 2025, but if he’s anything like his father, he’ll change his mind. Joseph Karesh worked until he was eighty-seven years old, becoming the oldest working judge in the state at the time.

Outside the courtroom, Karesh has two passions when it comes to musical groups. He loves folk music, particularly the Kingston Trio. For the past 16 summers, he has gone to Scottsdale, Arizona, to attend the Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp, where twice he won the Camper of the Year award. He plays music with his colleagues in a band called The Folking Judges.

His other favorite band is Phish, whom he has seen perform 57 times in nine different states. He flew to New York this past New Year to see them play at Madison Square Garden.

Karesh is also active in his Episcopal church, which has welcomed him and Steven with open arms.