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Four Walk Out of the Closet And Toward the House

By Erika Niedowski, CQ Staff Writer

(CQ, April 25) -- Earlier this month, just a few weeks after she announced her candidacy for Congress, former Massachusetts state Rep. Susan Tracy got a call from Elsie Frank, an 85-year-old activist in the state's 8th District.

"I want to help you out," Tracy recalled Frank saying.

It was a convergence of natural allies. For years, Elsie Frank had been active in the local senior citizens community, and Tracy was making issues such as Social Security a key part of her campaign. But there was another reason Frank was interested in helping: She is the mother of Rep. Barney Frank, and like the 4th District Democrat, Tracy is gay.

There has never been a woman in Congress who has publicly stated she is gay. In fact, there has never been a gay candidate, male or female, elected as a non-incumbent. Homosexual members such as Frank, GOP Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona, former Democratic Rep. Gerry E. Studds of Massachusetts (1973-97) and former GOP Rep. Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin (1981-97) disclosed or acknowledged their sexual orientation after they were in office.

With candidates such as Tracy, who is running for the open seat of retiring Democratic Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, that could soon change. Four gay candidates, all of whom are Democrats, are waging competitive campaigns for the House this year.

Two are from states that have had gay members in their delegations before, Massachusetts and Wisconsin, and three of the four have been elected to state or local office.

"We do have a good chance now to make some history," said Mindy Daniels, executive director of the National Lesbian Political Action Committee, which was formed in 1996.

In the current political climate, where many Americans seem to draw distinctions between politicians' public lives and their private ones, some observers say sexual orientation may not matter on the campaign trail as much as it once did.

In 1997, there were 132 gay elected officials across the country from 27 different states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute.

But although these women wage campaigns no different from other candidates, focusing on issues such as education and taxes, that is not to underestimate the challenge they likely will face.

Even before retired Army Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, who is a lesbian, officially announced her candidacy against GOP Rep. Jack Metcalf in Washington's 2nd District, one local woman sent off a scathing letter to the Skagit Valley Herald.

"We have all heard of strange bedfellows," she wrote, "but we do not intend to get in bed with such characters at the voting booth."

Rep. Frank said the most difficult part of running as a member of any defined minority is convincing voters that you will not disproportionately focus on that minority's issues.

"The danger is they [the candidates] spend all their time talking to gay groups," he said.

The issue is potentially inflammatory in Ohio's 1st District, where Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls is running against GOP Rep. Steve Chabot. In 1988, Qualls, then running for city council, spoke at a rally attended by gay candidates and sponsored by the gay rights group, Stonewall Union. The appearance prompted the Columbus Dispatch to describe her as gay, a label Qualls apparently never refuted.

Subsequently, Qualls, who has been a vocal defender of gay rights, has deflected questions on the issue. In 1993, following her appearance at a gay rights rally at which she reportedly declared "We are wonderful," Qualls said that questions about politicians' private lives were "really inappropriate."

Qualls did not return repeated telephone calls by Congressional Quarterly for an interview and her staff declined to comment on the record.

Cincinnati has struggled with the issue of homosexuality. In 1990, city officials prosecuted a local art gallery and its director for displaying Robert Mapplethorpe photographs picturing homosexual acts. The gallery and its director were acquitted. The same year, two men were arrested for holding hands in a parked car (the charges were later dropped).

Qualls' sexual orientation has never been an issue in her campaigns before, and it may not be this time.

Feminist of the Year

Wisconsin's 2nd District may be more receptive than Cincinnati. State Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who became the first gay member of the Legislature in 1993, is running in a competitive Democratic primary for the open seat of Republican Rep. Scott L. Klug.

Slated to be named "Feminist of the Year" on April 26 by the state chapter of the National Organization for Women, Baldwin has demographics on her side: The 2nd includes Madison, a liberal bastion, and the district overwhelmingly backed President Clinton in 1996.

Baldwin also has the endorsement of gay and women's groups such as The Human Rights Campaign and EMILY's List, a political action committee for Democratic women who support abortion rights.

Rep. Frank and his partner, Herb Moses, hosted a February fundraiser for Baldwin in Milwaukee, where Moses' parents live. The event brought in about $10,000.

Baldwin, who has outraised every candidate seeking Klug's seat, finds her constituents independent-minded.

"While there will always be a handful of people who might not vote for a woman or who might not vote for someone because they are gay or lesbian," she said, "the vast majority will make their decision based on competence and issues."

Which is why launching her campaign for Congress from a seat in the Legislature makes her a more viable candidate than if she had never run for office before.

San Diego City Councilwoman Christine Kehoe, the likely Democratic nominee against GOP Rep. Brian P. Bilbray of California, has twice been elected to the council as a homosexual, the last time with 79 percent of the vote.

"I run as who I am," said Kehoe, who outraised Bilbray by $125,000 in the quarter ending March 31. But "[being gay] is not what I'm running on. Education, choice [on abortion], environment, handgun control; all these issues are the big issues for the voters of the 49th Congressional District."

Cammermeyer is arguably the most high-profile homosexual to run for Congress.

A divorced mother of four and grandmother of five, she was discharged from the military in 1992 after revealing her sexual orientation in an interview. In 1993, she testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee at a series of explosive hearings on the military's policy toward gays. Her book, "Serving in Silence," was made into a 1995 made-for-television movie produced by Barbra Streisand and starring Glenn Close. (1993 Almanac, p. 454)

But Cammermeyer resents the fact that she is best known not as a female candidate or a Democratic one, but as a lesbian.

"Labels have a way of stirring up every individual's stereotypes," she said.

With the help of Frank, who hosted a fundraiser for her in Boston, and gay rights groups as far away as Indiana, Cammermeyer posted more than $200,000 in the bank at the end of March, nearly twice as much as Metcalf. He won re-election in 1996 by just 1,900 votes.

But as Cammermeyer tries to position herself as a moderate, even some Democratic groups have questioned her electability, especially in a year that is expected to ratify the status quo.


EMILY's List, for instance, has not endorsed her. And Cammermeyer knows that her sexual orientation could become an issue in the swing district that includes Puget Sound and defense-related businesses.

"Sometimes there are subtleties that are brought into a debate or you see in the literature that's being sent out," she said. "My job is not to get caught up in their rhetoric but to talk to the constituents."

Metcalf has said he does not intend to delve into Cammermeyer's personal life, but notes that her record on gay rights is fair game. Cammermeyer, who has a little-known primary challenger, suspects that some special interest groups will take it further and run independent expenditure ads against her.

Indeed, as gay and lesbian candidates become more well-known and increasingly win their parties' nomination, it is likely that grass-roots conservatives will become more involved in trying to defeat them.

"Special rights for homosexuals is one of the issues that we do highlight on a regular basis, and I would expect that we would highlight it in those districts," said Arne Owens, a spokesman for the Christian Coalition.

In the last election cycle, two of the five gay candidates seeking their party's nomination won it. They fell short in the general election. Democrat Rick Zbur lost to Rep. Steve Horn, R-Calif., by 10 points; Democrat Paul M. Barby lost to Rep. Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., by nearly 30 points.

With term limits forcing state and local legislators out of office at a faster clip, though, it is likely that more gay elected officials will run for Congress in the coming cycles. Gay rights groups seem to be making inroads every year: The Human Rights Campaign's political action committee contributed more than $1 million to candidates in the last election cycle.

With support from such groups and a patchwork of other politically active blocs, Tracy, the former Massachusetts state representative, hopes the public is ready to make history.

"This is a district that paved the way for the first Catholic to become president," she said, referring to John F. Kennedy, who represented the Boston-based district from 1947 to 1953. "And maybe this is the district that could pave the way for the first person who happens to be gay to be elected to Congress."

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.
In CQ News This Week

Saturday April 25, 1998

Petition Pushes House GOP Leadership To Schedule Campaign Finance Debate
House Oversight May Get Clinton Fundraising Probe After Burton Brouhaha
Four Walk Out of the Closet And Toward the House
Republican Prospects Strong in Nebraska
Critics: Glenn Flight A Boost For NASA, Not Science

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