Homosexual Candidates Pin Their Hopes on November Elections

October 7, 2008 - 4:00 PM
In his liberal Colorado district, it's no big deal that Jared Polis is gay. Yet his expected victory Nov. 4 in a congressional race would be a historic milestone and, he hopes.<br />
(AP) - In his liberal Colorado district, it's no big deal that Jared Polis is gay. Yet his expected victory Nov. 4 in a congressional race would be a historic milestone and, he hopes, send an encouraging message to gay and lesbian young people nationwide.
 
Polis, a 33-year-old entrepreneur who made millions creating Internet-based businesses, is the Democratic nominee and overwhelming favorite in the 2nd District encompassing his hometown of Boulder.
 
If he wins, he would be the first openly gay man to win a seat in Congress as a non-incumbent. There have been at least five other gays and lesbians in Congress, including currently serving Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., but only Baldwin was open about her sexuality when first elected.
 
"Sexual orientation has been a non-issue in our district. ...If any of my opponents tried to raise it, it would backfire," Polis said in a telephone interview.
 
"Outside the district, it has taken on a larger significance," he added. "Young gays and lesbians who might want to run for office look to examples and role models."
 
Polis is one of a record 100 gay, lesbian and bisexual candidates for federal, state and local offices winning endorsements this year from the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a national group founded in 1991 to increase the number of openly gay elected officials. The number has risen - steadily but slowly - to more than 420 out of the nation's roughly 500,000 elected officials.
 
"We don't have to accept sitting on the sidelines and hoping others will do the heavy lifting," said the Victory Fund's president, Chuck Wolfe. "We can roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves."
 
While Polis, Frank and Baldwin are all heavy favorites, another congressional candidate endorsed by the Victory Fund, Democrat Linda Ketner, is an underdog in her race in South Carolina's 1st District, which includes Charleston and other coastal communities.
 
Ketner, 58, whose father founded the Food Lion grocery store chain, has been a major financial supporter and organizer of several gay-rights campaigns, including a failed attempt to defeat a ban-gay-marriage ballot measure in 2006.
 
However, neither Ketner nor her opponent, four-term Republican incumbent Henry Brown, has raised her sexual orientation as an election issue, and Ketner's campaign has turned down requests for interviews that would highlight the topic.
 
"She happens to be gay - she's not a gay candidate," said Tony Snell of the South Carolina Gay and Lesbian Pride Movement.
 
"Throughout the South, there's softening on the gay issue," he said. "It's becoming more of a non-issue as we look at the economy, we look at the war. ... People are going to go beyond their old biases."
 
Among other noteworthy races:
 
-In Oregon, state Sen. Kate Brown, who describes herself as bisexual, is the Democratic candidate for secretary of state. That's the No. 2 job in Oregon, which has no lieutenant governor.
 
-In one of the most conservative states, Democrat Jim Roth is seeking election to the three-member Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees energy, transportation and utilities. In 2002, Roth became the first openly gay man to win any elected office in Oklahoma - a county government post.
 
-In Texas, Lupe Valdez faces tough opposition in her bid for re-election as Dallas County sheriff. In 2004, she became the first woman, first lesbian and first Latina sheriff.
 
-In Pennsylvania, the Victory Fund has endorsed Kevin Lee, a Democratic candidate for the state House of Representatives from suburban Philadelphia, and says he would - if victorious - be the first openly gay legislator ever in the state.
 
Another political milestone is approaching in Portland, Ore., which is scheduled to become the nation's largest city with an openly gay mayor when Sam Adams takes office in January. Adams averted the need for a Nov. 4 runoff election by winning 58 percent of the vote against a large field in first-round voting in May.
 
"I'm running not to be a gay mayor, but a great mayor," Adams said in his victory speech.
 
Polis has taken a similar approach in his Colorado campaign, emphasizing his entrepreneurial expertise and the education reforms he advocated during six years on the State Board of Education.
 
"Candidates of any minority have the additional challenge to show they're not just about advocating the interest of their group," he said.
 
Colorado's 2nd District seat has been held by the Democrats since 1975, and Polis' toughest challenge likely came in a three-way primary, when he spent more than $5 million of his own money to defeat former state Senate president Joan Fitz-Gerald and conservationist Will Shafroth.
 
That race divided Colorado's gay activists, since Fitz-Gerald had been among their staunchest supporters. Software entrepreneur Tim Gill, whose Denver-based foundation has given millions to gay-rights causes, backed Fitz-Gerald.
 
During the primary campaign, Polis rarely drew attention to the fact that he's gay, adding to the impact of his jubilant victory celebration at which he introduced and embraced his partner of five years, Marlon Reis.