Politician who reluctantly came out last year during gay marriage battle on Capitol Hill campaigns on record
BRAINERD, Minn. To understand the challenge facing Sen. Paul Koering, a gay Republican battling to keep his seat against a conservative primary challenger, it helps to listen to Joan Campbell, a retiree and a Republican voter.
“I don’t like what they do with their lives,” Campbell said of gay people. “It’s wrong, according to my Bible.”
Campbell, mind you, supports Koering.
Many Republicans in this socially conservative heart of central Minnesota take an even harder line against homosexuality, and Koering knows he is testing the outer limits of the GOP’s big tent.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of people watching to see if the voters can look at my record and say, “‘He’s doing a good job’” said Koering, who reluctantly came out last year amid a heated fight over gay marriage at the Capitol. “Or, will they look at my personal life and say, “‘I can’t support him because of that.’ If that’s how they’re going to vote, I may be out of a job.”
Kevin Goedker, a Brainerd city councilman who’s challenging Koering in the Sept. 12 primary, insists it isn’t because his opponent is gay. But he’s making an explicit appeal to voters whose values guide them in the voting booth.
“People of high moral values and integrity must rally and support candidates who will work to bring ethics, morals and family values back into government,” Goedker’s brother Gene, his campaign treasurer, wrote in a fundraising solicitation distributed around the district, which includes Brainerd, Little Falls, Crosby and rural portions of Crow Wing and Morrison counties.
This part of Minnesota, heavy on retirees and Catholics, is known for its social conservatism. Anti-abortion billboards are a common sight on area highways, and even most local Democrats oppose legalized abortion.
Koering, 41, a former dairy farmer and lifelong resident of the area, mostly fits this profile, often describing himself as a good Catholic boy. He’s an abortion opponent, a supporter of gun and property rights, and an outspoken supporter of veterans.
But in 2005, Koering was the only Republican in the Senate to join Democrats in opposing an effort to force a floor vote on a constitutional gay marriage ban.
That vote stirred up longstanding rumors at the Capitol about Koering’s own sexuality, and within a few days he revealed to the media that he was gay. Despite entreaties from Democrats, Koering vowed to stay a member of the
But after his revelation, questions arose of whether the feeling was mutual. A GOP county chairman from the area said Koering “committed political suicide” by coming out of the closet.
Patrick Sammon, executive vice president of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP group, said it’s important to the future of the Republican Party that politicians like Koering can find support.
“If the Republicans want to be a lasting majority party in America, they can’t just shut out gays and lesbians,” Sammon said.
The Victory Fund, which raises campaign funds for gay candidates, said there are currently 325 openly gay elected officials in the country, out of about 511,000 elected offices. The group doesn’t break that figure down by party, but “the vast majority of them are Democrats,” spokesman Denis Dison said.
“We are seeing more instances of openly gay Republicans, but there are still going to be significant parts of the country where that’s going to be difficult to pull off,” Dison said.
Like Koering, most prominent gay Republicans came out only after they were in office, including U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona and former U.S. Rep. Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin.
It doesn’t help that a significant portion of the Republican base is dead-set against legal recognition of gay relationships, the leading front in recent years in the battle for gay rights. More than any other issues, those opposed to Koering’s re-election cite his decision to break from the party line on gay marriage.
Indeed, since that 2005 vote, he has changed course, siding with fellow Senate Republicans in more recent efforts to get a statewide vote on the definition of marriage. Koering said it’s what the majority of his constituents want, though he won’t say how he’d cast his own ballot if it ever comes to a statewide vote.
In challenging Koering, Goedker repeatedly cites that initial vote against the gay marriage ban. He said Koering is moderate in other areas, particularly in fiscal and spending matters.
“There’s a lot of people who have looked at his voting record and agree with me that he’s not supporting the Republican Party or this district in his votes,” said Goedker, 34, a real estate agent, former Marine and a native of the Brainerd area.
Koering is not without his supporters among local Republicans, and in April he won the party’s endorsement after seven rounds of balloting. Goedker decided to run in the primary anyway.
The winner will face Democrat Terry Sluss, a county commissioner, in the November election.
Goedker said he wouldn’t vote for Koering in the general election.
“In my opinion I think it’d be tough to be gay and to be somebody I’d vote for based on some of the life choices they make,” Goedker said. “To me it’s a more liberal point of view.”
Koering ran for his Senate seat twice and lost before finally toppling a Democratic incumbent in 2002. He said he has worked too hard to go quietly.
Still, some local Republicans think Koering has an uphill battle. Barb Christenson, who has a Goedker campaign sign in her front yard, said she and many of her friends regret their votes for Koering in 2002, feeling he presented himself as something he’s not.
“I don’t agree with his lifestyle, but that he lied to us was a bigger problem,” Christenson said.
Despite her qualms, Christenson was hesitant to criticize Koering. But she said it’s important to consider questions of morality when deciding who to support.
“I would never support someone who was openly gay, just like I would never support someone who was in an adulterous affair, or someone I knew to be dishonest,” Christenson said.
To win, Koering has to hope enough voters share the sentiments of Milt Halverson, a former warehouse manager who retired to his hometown of Brainerd a few years ago.
“I can love everybody but I don’t have to like what they do,” said Halverson, adding that homosexuality “doesn’t mesh with my faith.”
But Halverson still plans to vote for Koering.
“I just think he’s honest,” Halverson said. “I think he tries to vote his conscience. I don’t vote for the issues, I vote for the man.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, September 8, 2006.