Gay Candidates Get Support That Causes May Not

RainbowZine, news for the LGBT communitySome political scientists say the rise in openly gay candidates’ winning public office is a better barometer of societal attitudes than are the high-profile fights over same-sex marriage.

“Gay marriage ballot measures are not the best measure,” said Patrick J. Egan. “They happen to be about the one issue the public is most uncomfortable with. In a sense, they don’t give us a real good picture of the opinion trend over the last 30 years.”

 

 

When an openly gay woman won the mayor’s race here this month, it was the latest in a string of victories by gay candidates across the country, a trend that seems to contradict the bans on same-sex marriage; the voters passed the referendum by a ratio of three to one.

Yet in the last decade, an openly gay woman has twice won election as the sheriff in Dallas County, and another openly gay woman was elected district attorney in Travis County, which includes the city of Austin. Gay candidates have also won city council seats in Austin, Fort Worth and Houston.

Then, this month, Annise Parker, the city controller who is a lesbian, swept to a solid victory in the mayoral race in Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city.

There are currently at least 445 openly gay and lesbian people holding elected office in the United States, up from 257 eight years ago, according to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a political group that supports gay candidates.

And while Ms. Parker’s victory in Houston, a city of 2.2 million people, was the biggest victory for gay rights advocates this year, gay candidates made strides in other places in the last election cycle.

Charles Pugh, an openly gay former broadcaster, swept to victory as City Council president in Detroit in his first bid for public office. Akron, Ohio, elected its first openly gay council member, Sandra Kurt, an industrial engineer at Goodyear Tires.

Some political scientists say the rise in openly gay candidates’ winning public office is a better barometer of societal attitudes than are the high-profile fights over same-sex marriage.

“Gay marriage ballot measures are not the best measure,” said Patrick J. Egan, a political scientist at New York University who studies issues surrounding gay politicians. “They happen to be about the one issue the public is most uncomfortable with. In a sense, they don’t give us a real good picture of the opinion trend over the last 30 years.”

For instance, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago has been polling people since 1973 about whether homosexual behavior is morally wrong. In 1973, 73 percent of the people polled described it as always wrong and only 11 percent as “not wrong.” By 2006, those saying homosexuality was “always wrong” had dropped to 56 percent, and 32 percent said it was not wrong.

One reason for the shift in attitudes, some political scientists contend, is a rising number of gays acknowledging their sexual preference openly in various walks of life, from workers on factory floors to Hollywood stars.

“More and more people have been coming out,” said Sean Theriault, a political scientist at the University of Texas who tracks gay politics. “Ten years ago, you could talk to a lot of people who didn’t know a single gay person, and now, especially in the cities, you would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know anyone who is gay.”

Yet, most of the openly gay politicians who have won races recently have done so by avoiding being labeled as single-issue candidates, several gay politicians said.

In Houston, Ms. Parker never hid her sexual orientation but did not champion gay issues either, focusing instead on municipal concerns like crime, the city budget and drainage. It was a formula that led her to win citywide elections first as an at-large City Council member, then as the controller and, now, as the mayor.

Other successful gay candidates have followed the same strategy, and some have found their opponents are often unwilling to attack them directly about their sexual orientation, though smear campaigns often are carried out through proxies, as happened in Houston.

In Detroit, Mr. Pugh’s sexuality never became an issue in his race for City Council. “I thought I would be attacked during the campaign for being gay,” he said in an interview. “I wasn’t. It was a pleasant surprise.”

Mr. Pugh might have been insulated from attacks based on his sexual orientation because of his popularity as a television reporter and anchor, political strategists said.

One key to victory for gay politicians has been building reputations in their communities as candidates well qualified for the job. Voters who may be uncomfortable with homosexuality in the abstract are often willing to vote for a gay individual they feel they know, political strategists said.

During her first race for sheriff in 2004, Lupe Valdez, a former federal agent, won a bitter campaign in Dallas County in which her Republican opponent, Danny Chandler, made sure voters knew she was gay and accused her of promoting a gay agenda. It was a year in which Republicans, led by President George W. Bush at the top of the ticket, romped to victory in Texas, and same-sex marriage was a hot topic that favored Republicans.

Yet Ms. Valdez still won a narrow victory. When Mr. Chandler tried to draw attention to her sexuality late in the race, she followed the advice of strategists from the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund in Washington. She pointed out she had always been honest about her sexual orientation and asked what it had to do with law enforcement.

Last year, after four years in the public eye, Ms. Valdez — a 62-year-old former agent for the Customs Service, where she did undercover, drug and fraud investigations — easily defeated her Republican challenger, Lowell Cannaday, for a second term. The main issue was her handling of the jails, not her sexuality.

“It’s like anything else,” Ms. Valdez said in an interview. “When it becomes close and personal, it’s not hateful anymore.”

RainbowZine, news for the LGBT community

 

 

 

 

 

 

Annise Parker, with a voter, was elected mayor of Houston.

RainbowZine, news for the LGBT community

 

 

 

 

 

Charles Pugh said his sexuality did not play a role in his race for Detroit’s City Council.

RainbowZine, news for the LGBT community

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lupe Valdez won a bitter race in Texas in 2004, a year before the state banned same-sex marriage.

Rachel Marcus contributed reporting from Houston, and Susan Saulny from Detroit.

Read the original article in The New York Times

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