Gay candidates for Congress draw interest, hope

Posted by Michelle R. Smith of The Associated Press on

"Laure Rondeau, an 82-year-old Catholic, supports Providence Mayor David Cicilline for Congress because he wants to get the troops out of Afghanistan and says Washington is losing sight of what's happening to regular people.

"The sexual orientation of the openly gay mayor doesn't figure into her decision.

"'That doesn't bother me at all," Rondeau says. "He's been a good mayor of Providence, and I think he'd do well in Congress."

"Just three of the 535 members of Congress are openly gay, but two candidates hope to inch that number up to five this year: Cicilline, who is running to succeed fellow Democrat Patrick Kennedy, and Democrat Steve Pougnet, who's trying to knock Republican Mary Bono Mack out of her seat in California.

"The races have drawn intense interest from gay advocacy groups, which are excited about two candidates who could help push for legislation to institute hate crime protections, prevent discrimination and advocate for freedom to marry rights.

"'There are so few people on the Hill who can speak authentically about what these things mean in their own lives,' said Denis Dison, spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a group that works to elect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender politicians. 'We are vastly underrepresented.'

"Sexual orientation and marriage equality are not the flashpoints in this midterm election that they have been in the past. There are no statewide ballot measures on the freedom to marry this November, and polls have shown a growing acceptance of same-sex unions. Five states now honor the freedom to marry, including Rhode Island's neighbors Massachusetts and Connecticut.

"That has bolstered the hopes of advocates, who would like to see the number of openly gay members of Congress increase.

... "'People are really focused on the issues that are important in their own lives, and what they think the individuals running for Congress can do to respond to the urgent challenges that their families are facing,' Cicilline said in an interview. 'I think the sexual orientation of candidates in this race, including mine, have been irrelevant to voters, and I think that's progress.'

"Both Cicilline and Pougnet support legalizing marriage equality, which in past election cycles has been a divisive issue but has been less so this year, when there are no ballot initiatives on the issue.

"Pougnet married his longtime partner in 2008, after the freedom to marry was legalized in California but before it was banned by the ballot initiative Proposition 8.

"Since 2007, he's been mayor of Palm Springs, which has a large gay population, and he's mounting the most serious challenge yet to Bono Mack, who has for 12 years represented the 45th District in California's Inland Empire, a huge district that stretches from the Arizona border nearly to Los Angeles.

... "Bono Mack has rankled members of the gay community for not opposing Proposition 8 and for voting against the repeal of the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy on gays in the military. Her campaign manager Ryan Mahoney says she supports leaving marriage equality up to the states and touts the support of groups such as the Log Cabin Republicans.

"Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California, said the district has become more Democratic in recent years and Obama carried it in 2008, but otherwise vulnerable Republicans like Bono Mack may be OK in a year expected to be a good one for Republicans.

"But Pougnet calls it a 'winnable race' and says he's working hard to meet voters, sometimes bringing his family — he and his husband have 4-year-old twins — to campaign events. He said his sexual orientation isn't as important to voters as the economy, foreclosures and health care — although he's had a lot of support from people around the country excited about the possibility of electing the first openly gay parent to Congress.

"'Folks vilify gay couples with children, that somehow we're different and of course, we're not,' he said. 'When folks watch us climbing the Capitol steps ready to be sworn in, America will see a family.'"



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