GLBT leaders hope perceived tide against mainstream conservative politicians will offer opportunity for more advancement this year
When he became the first out gay candidate to win a seat in the Washington Legislature, the late Cal Anderson couldn’t count on a phalanx of experienced consultants, high-priced polling data or slick PR campaigns to help pave the way.
“There were no resources,” said state Rep. Ed Murray, who worked on that campaign and eventually followed his mentor to the Capitol. “He had to break ground all on his own.”
If he were running that same campaign today, Murray could call on a lengthy roster of seasoned operatives and national advisers to help him navigate the particular political waters faced by an openly gay candidate.
Observers across the country say the proliferation of those efforts, from leading organizations such as the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and the Human Rights Campaign, is a sign of the gay political movement’s growing maturity and savvy.
At the same time, the intensity of efforts to recruit gay candidates and get elected ones to come out publicly also points to how difficult it remains to be “out” in some areas of American politics.
“It’s not a minor thing,” said Murray, a Seattle Democrat now running for Anderson’s former Senate seat. “I still think it’s not an easy thing to be gay or lesbian and run for elected office in the best of circumstances, even in the best of districts.”
A more pronounced pitch
As they campaign around the country this year, leading gay political groups hope a sense of aggressiveness will help to capitalize on a perceived tide against the nation’s mainstream conservative party.
“We’re at a place and time where voters are very receptive to openly gay candidates,” said Robin Brand, the Victory Fund’s vice president for politics and strategy.
For their opponents, the growing influence of groups like the Victory Fund is evidence that gay politicians and the social issues they support are no longer immediate underdogs in any given campaign.
“It’s getting hard for them to portray themselves as hapless victims when their war chest is full and they’re exerting their influence from coast to coast,” said Robert Knight, director of Concerned Women for America’s Culture and Family Institute.
“I’d like to think that the influence of these groups has peaked, but that may not be the case,” he added.
The Washington-based Victory Fund has been advising gay candidates and officials for years about how best to run as openly gay or publicly announce their sexuality. But while their training sessions are well known in gay political circles, the group has started making a more pronounced mainstream pitch for its services.
This year, the organization is advertising a new “Coming Out Toolkit,” a collection of supportive polling data, talking points and contacts packaged with a slickly produced DVD that features advice and anecdotes from prominent gay and lesbian officeholders around the country.
The package even highlights some scenarios used to come out publicly: by way of promoting an issue, through a carefully placed news leak, or as a frank “I’m-gay-but-it’s-the-issues-that-matter” proclamation.
By Brand’s count, the number of “out” elected officials in all levels of American government has increased 500 percent in the past 15 years. But she still sees nagging dark spots in nine states without a publicly gay officeholder.
“We’re hopeful that by having a more formalized program, we’ll be able to encourage more people, particularly in those states, to come out,” she said.
Those efforts mirror the services long performed by party organizations and ideological groups across the political spectrum, noted Kenneth Sherrill, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York who studies gay issues.
“If you look at the successful way in which religious conservatives have come to dominate much of the Republican Party, it had its beginnings at the local level,” Sherrill said.
On the offensive
Along with growing political savvy, some national gay groups are notably going on the offensive. The Victory Fund says it is endorsing more candidates this year than any other, and it expects to spend a record $2.5 million on candidates in this election cycle.
“What’s new now is that the money is available for the entry-level positions,” said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the longest serving gay member of Congress. “That’s an enormous improvement. And in American politics, you really need people getting into the entry level positions to move on.”
Another example: the Human Rights Campaign is pushing its membership to help with individual campaigns and has doubled its field staff, which plans to be on the trail for up to 100 days before elections, national field director Marty Rouse said.
“We’ve been on the defensive so long, and attacked so much and so long. Finally now, at the local and national levels, the GLBT community is really flexing its political muscle,” said Rouse.
“We cannot rely upon political parties solely anymore to win GLBT rights. We have to win them ourselves,” he added.
But even as greater numbers of “out” politicians make the path ahead for others easier, geography and party affiliation can remain significant hurdles.
With the looming retirement of Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., Congress is poised to have only two openly gay members neither of them from the party of Lincoln, notes Patrick Guerriero, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay Republican group.
“It’s an extra layer of challenge for individuals about how and when to come out,” Guerriero said. “Particularly when we’re talking about a more conservative base in America. It’s a great challenge right now.”
Along with candidate politics, gay political activists also continue to focus on state ballot measures. This year, at least seven states are considering constitutional measures aimed at barring gay marriage; one was just approved in Alabama.
On the national stage, conservatives successfully brought a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage up in the U.S. Senate, although it fell short despite public urging from President Bush.
“Times have changed, but they haven’t changed that dramatically,” Sherrill said.
This articleappeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, June 16, 2006.