Leading ladies: lesbian trio heads the pack of Election Day hopefuls on this year’s ballots – Washington State, Wisconsin and California congressional candidates; includes related articles on other ballot issues concerning gay marriage and key gubernatorial and congressional races across the US
The growing influence of gay and lesbian voters will be showcased in the November 3 national elections as several gay and lesbian candidates vie for seats in Congress and gay activists try to defeat antigay ballot initiatives in Alaska and Hawaii could shape the future of same-sex marriage rights.
But gay candidates and activists are fighting a two-faced enemy this election season: the religious right’s attempt to mobilize conservative voters through a summer-long series of antigay newspaper ads and predictions from pollsters that this midterm election could suffer from the lowest voter turnout in years, thanks in part to the ambivalence Americans feel over President Clinton’s sex scandal.
A bipartisan poll conducted by the Tarrance Group and Lake Snell Perry and Associates in late August — after Clinton admitted to having an “inappropriate relationship” with Monica Lewinsky — showed that a plurality of likely voters ranked “moral concerns” as the top problem facing the country today and “restoring moral values” as the top congressional mandate. In addition, 27% of likely voters expressed disinterest in this fall’s elections, a figure that could help more-conservative candidates.
“There are indications that Democratic voters … may choose to stay home on November 3, while Republicans may turn out at average or higher-than-average levels to cure the moral ills of politics,” notes an analysis by Democratic pollsters Celinda Lake, Joe Goode, and Vicki Shabo.
“It’s critical for our community to get out and vote and be a presence,” says Winnie Stachelberg, political director for the gay lobbying group Human Rights Campaign, which plans to spend close to $1 million in this fall’s campaigns. “There’s just too much at stake in these elections,” such as securing more congressional support for employment rights and hate-crimes legislation.
All eyes are primarily focused on three Democrats — Wisconsin state representative Tammy Baldwin, San Diego city councilwoman Christine Kehoe, and retired Army colonel Grethe Cammermeyer — who, if elected, will become the first openly gay nonincumbents to be elected to Congress. (Former representatives Steve Gunderson [R-Wis.] and Gerry Studds [D-Mass.] and current representatives Jim Kolbe [R-Ariz.] and Barney Frank [D-Mass.], both of whom are seeking reelection, came out publicly after taking office.)
Of the three women, Baldwin’s candidacy in particular has attracted the spotlight because Republican representative Scott Klug is retiring, giving Baldwin a better-than-even shot of taking the open seat. The first openly gay member of the Wisconsin state legislature, Baldwin pulled out a tough four-way primary in September — a feat do proves her ability to “pull together the organization to win in November,” says Brian Bond, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which supports gay candidates across the country.
In the general election Baldwin will butt heads with another moderate Republican, Josephine Musser, herself a victor in a hotly contested primary race against Ron Greer, a conservative who was fired from the Madison Wis., fire department for his antigay statements. Greer — who received backing from religious right leaders such as the Rev. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Family Research Council president Gary Bauer, and Green Bay Packers defensive end Reggie White — accused Baldwin of promoting a “homosexual agenda.” But Baldwin’s traditional Democratic platform of education and health care reform could serve her well in a district that sided with Clinton in the last election, she says. “I’ve worked my entire career on very significant issues such as extending health care coverage to people who don’t have it and broadening our definition of education to encompass young children and college-age folks,” says Baldwin, who supports more money for preschool classes and college loan programs.
Kehoe, whom Bond described as a “fund-raising goddess and campaign machine,” faces a tough bid to oust San Diego Republican Brian Bilbray in a race national Democrats are eager to win. She has the support of the New Democrat Network, a Washington, D.C.-based group that supports centrist and fiscally conservative Democrats. Vice President Al Gore, House minority leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), and other big-name Democrats have visited the district to campaign for Kehoe, a popular two-term city councilwoman.
To unseat an incumbent, candidates need money, and Kehoe has a lot of it, considering she spent nary a cent for her uncontested primary. At press time Kehoe was close to raising the nearly $1 million activists say will be necessary to unseat Bilbray. With most of her war chest intact, Kehoe admits her biggest challenge will be persuading her coastal district, which also comprises San Diego’s three major universities, that Bilbray has not performed well in key areas such as the environment and education reform.
“I need to get the voters who don’t know me to know me better, but that is a plus in a sense because we have a lot of good things to discuss,” Kehoe says, criticizing Bilbray for offering voters a “mixed bag” and flip-flopping on critical issues such as abortion rights.
Unlike Kehoe and Baldwin, Cammermeyer has no previous political experience, but she certainly has name recognition. The recipient of a Bronze Star in Vietnam, Cammermeyer was discharged from the military in 1992 for revealing her sexual orientation and rose to national prominence after Glenn Close portrayed her in a TV movie about the ordeal. Cammermeyer fought the discharge and was reinstated in 1994.
Cammermeyer’s celebrity has been attacked by her Republican opponent, two-term incumbent representative Jack Metcalf, who accused her of being a “national spokesperson for the lesbian lifestyle” in a campaign fund-raising letter in May. Cammermeyer, however, chose not to get into a name-calling debate with Metcalf, who has an abysmal voting record on gay issues. “My job is to focus on why I’m running and our vision … of an ethical campaign,” says Cammermeyer, who hopes to use her previous career as a nurse to persuade voters to back her ideas on health care and Social Security reform. In September both candidates signed a code of campaign conduct under which they agreed to refrain from personal attacks, including those based on sexual orientation.
In addition, Paul Barby, an openly gay rancher in Oklahoma, is challenging incumbent Republican representative Frank Lucas. Gay rights groups have not put money into Barby’s campaign because of his poor showing in his heavily conservative district in 1996. A fourth lesbian candidate, Susan Tracy, lost her primary bid to represent Boston in the House of Representatives.
Ghent is a reporter for Legi-Slate, an online service of the Washington Post Company.
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