Cover Story

Campaigning from the closet

It's not what you might think. In contests between straight Republicans and gay Democrats, it's the Republicans who are hiding in the closet. Openly lesbian challengers are raising thousands of precious campaign dollars from gay political activists and PACs, but at virtually no political price. Republicans don't seem to have the courage to make an issue of the militant gay agenda. But it can be done-without resorting to bigotry.

Issue: "Campaigning from the closet," Sept. 19, 1998

in Everett, Wash., and San Diego, Calif. - In the church belfry across the street from Everett High School, the bells chime noon. About 15 women have just finished hanging the banners that will serve as the backdrop for the lone TV camera set up on the school's front lawn. If they're looking for a "photo op," Everett High certainly provides one. It's the kind of place most baby boomers envision when they think of a high school-big and traditional and rather austere. Cement markers are buried, crescent-shaped, in the grass, commemorating senior classes going back to 1929. The early ones bear mottoes like "Let us to the end dare to do our duty" and "Forward ever, backward never." Somewhere along the line, such mottoes evidently went out of favor; recent stones bear only the year. At 12:10, all eyes turn to the street as a dilapidated white school bus pulls up to the curb. A tall, broad-shouldered woman steps off, clutching the hand of a little boy. The assembled women squeal with delight, much as their daughters might if Hanson or the Spice Girls had finally arrived for a concert. The newcomer shakes hands for a few moments, then positions herself at the microphone in front of the banners. She gives a short speech that sounds like 10,000 other Democratic speeches. She advocates "putting money into a thousand after-school programs for kids." Head Start "needs 100 percent funding," she admonishes, and "the federal government needs to have full funding of Pell Grants." But, she warns, "without a Democratic Congress, that's not going to happen.... You're going to continue to see erosion." With her low-key, monotone delivery, she doesn't sound like a top-tier Democratic candidate. With her shy, somewhat awkward demeanor, she doesn't seem like a celebrity. And with her soft, matronly hairstyle and sensible pumps, she doesn't "look" like the stereotyped lesbian. Yet Grethe Cammermeyer is all those things. In raising more than $600,000 to challenge Jack Metcalf, a sophomore Republican who won reelection in 1996 by just 1,900 votes, Ms. Cammermeyer catapulted herself directly into the top tier of Democratic hopefuls. Her celebrity status grew from her fight with the Washington Army National Guard, where she served as a nurse for 30 years and earned a Bronze Star in Vietnam. When she was discharged from the Guard in 1992 after revealing her sexuality, she fought back in court and won reinstatement in 1994. The following year, Barbra Streisand produced a made-for-television movie about Ms. Cammermeyer's ordeal; Glenn Close won an Emmy in the title role. Friends like that have made the political neophyte a formidable fundraiser-and a serious threat to put Washington's second congressional district back in the Democrats' column. Ms. Cammermeyer has vowed to raise $1.5 million, and she seems likely to hit her mark. Much of that financial support comes from the glitterati living in the 90210 ZIP code, while another big chunk comes from a national network of gay and lesbian activists. Indeed, her two single biggest contributors are a pair of gay-rights organizations: Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. But for all her obvious debt to the homosexual political machine, Ms. Cammermeyer's opponent promises voters in the district they'll never hear him refer to her sexual orientation. Mr. Metcalf wasn't always so circumspect. In May, with Ms. Cammermeyer already out-raising him $258,000 to $94,000, the incumbent mailed a fundraising letter to 47,000 supporters statewide. Referring to his opponent's sexuality, he said, "We are in a life and death struggle for the spiritual and cultural heritage-and future-of our country. If you share with me values like honoring the traditional family structure, then I hope you will decide to support my reelection effort." The Cammermeyer campaign cried foul, and Mr. Metcalf-universally regarded as kind and gentlemanly-immediately promised never to raise the issue again. "To us her personal life is not something that we care about," says campaign manager Chris Strow from his favorite coffee shop in downtown Everett. "Our point was that she is a formidable opponent. In no way did we intend to denigrate her. That's not what we want this race to be about. We're very interested in having a serious debate on the issues." But Ms. Cammermeyer's sexual preference has instead foreclosed any "serious debate" on social issues such as gay marriage, domestic-partner benefits, and gays in the military. Although her views on such issues are probably well to the left of this generally conservative, blue-collar district just north of Seattle, her opponent dares not point that out, for fear of being labeled a gay-basher. Just how skittish is the Metcalf campaign? When asked to provide a copy of the controversial fundraising letter, Mr. Strow demurred, claiming the staff hadn't saved a single copy. "If I never see that thing again, I'm going to be happy," he says. Moreover, to avoid even the suggestion of gay baiting, the campaign is sticking entirely to economic issues. When it comes to family values, "We're not touching anything with a 10-foot pole after the response ..." Mr. Strow's voice trails off. The response was "vicious," he says. He doesn't even want to talk about it. Thus the bumper crop of open homosexuals running for Congress this year has produced a supreme irony: Gay organizations are flooding homosexual candidates with cash in hopes of advancing the so-called "gay agenda," yet straight Republicans are not supposed to broach the subject. The message, to paraphrase the well-known chant, seems to be: "We're here. We're queer. Don't mention it." So stringent are the unofficial speech codes that even some very unusual suspects may run afoul of the thought police. When AIDS activist Jim Graham, running for a seat on the Washington, D.C., City Council, said at a recent meeting that he wanted to use his position to be an advocate for gay and AIDS issues, opponent Todd Mosley criticized him as a single-issue candidate. "Jim Graham said that he's seeking this [Democratic nomination] to secure a gay seat on the council," Mr. Mosley told a caller during a radio debate. "That's never been my agenda," he continued, pointing out that he has been active on a wide range of neighborhood and youth issues. "I identify myself as a citizen and a resident of my community," rather than a member of any special-interest group, he concluded. Mr. Graham immediately characterized those remarks as "homophobic," while Rick Rosendall, president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, called them "pernicious" and "reprehensible." "This sure sounds like gay-baiting to me," he opined. Such responses were predictable enough-except that Mr. Mosley himself is openly homosexual. "I was not gay-baiting," he insisted when questioned by a local gay newspaper. Indeed, while campaigning in the heavily gay-populated ward he hopes to represent, he has never made any secret of his sexuality. What he objected to was simply Mr. Graham's singular focus on gay issues. "That's never been my agenda," Mr. Mosley said. If even liberal homosexuals cannot criticize other liberal homosexuals, what's a straight conservative to do? With out-of-the-closet lesbians mounting serious, well-funded congressional campaigns in Washington, California, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts, that's a question GOP strategists may be grappling with often in the coming weeks. But the question is new enough that they won't find any answers in the usual places. Issues '98, the epic, 600-page candidate briefing book published by the Heritage Foundation, doesn't even mention the term "gay marriage" in its comparatively slim chapter on "Family Breakdown." That speak-no-evil approach worries conservative leaders like Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council. "You have to raise these issues," he insists. "These are legitimate public policy issues. They're going to have votes in the Congress on marriage, on what should be taught kids in the schools. "If you allow a negative press reaction to deter you, then we may as well just all surrender now. Of all the things I see happening in the pro-family movement, the most disturbing is the loss of confidence in our ability to make the case for our values. It is as if we are voluntarily going into the closet when everybody else is busting out." The task of drawing legitimate lines of difference may be easier for Republican incumbents who have minded their pro-family base. In Washington's second district, where Mr. Strow the campaign manager says "socially conservative voters are absolutely critical," Mr. Metcalf has consistently achieved scores in the 80s and 90s on Christian Coalition scorecards, while getting a zero on the report card published by the gay-oriented Human Rights Campaign (HRC). With that kind of record, he may be able to campaign as a social conservative while dodging the question of his opponent's lesbianism. A thousand miles down the coast in San Diego, however, sophomore Rep. Brian Bilbray doesn't have that luxury. The self-described "pragmatic moderate" has spent four years distancing himself from social conservatives in his district, voting to increase funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and siding with the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) nearly half the time. He even gets a 56 percent favorable rating from HRC. This year, Mr. Bilbray faces Christine Kehoe, a popular city council member who, like Grethe Cammermeyer, is outdistancing her opponent in fundraising, thanks to her ties to national gay and lesbian organizations. Ms. Kehoe is positioning herself as a moderate Democrat in a district that everyone agrees is thoroughly middle-of-the-road. She avoids social issues, stressing instead fiscal responsibility, a tough stance on crime, and improving public education. Political experts say Ms. Kehoe is probably too liberal for the district in her social views, but Mr. Bilbray is in no position to point that out to the voters. By scrupulously avoiding a family-values emphasis during his tenure, he has made it almost impossible for himself to undergo a last-minute conversion. Without the ability to stress social issues, Mr. Bilbray may find it difficult to differentiate between himself and the personally appealing and articulate Democrat. Asked how his moderate record differs from Ms. Kehoe's, the intense, unsmiling candidate replies, "It separates me from Kehoe in the fact that I've proven that I can be an independent representative. All the campaign slogans don't change the fact that I've gained a reputation as a maverick, to the disgust of both parties' political leadership. Chris can talk about what she'll do, but I've proved it." Independent? Maverick? Isn't that tantamount to saying he has no political philosophy, that he simply tries to please all of the voters some of the time? "My political philosophy is to try new things but not lock yourself into one agenda or another," he replies, still without ever smiling. "It's about knowing how to bring real-world answers to real-world problems. Some people don't like that. They want ideologues, but that doesn't seem to work right. I'm not so ideological that I can't go left of the center line to find a solution that works. It's just that a majority of the time, the answer seems to be right of center." With both candidates hugging that elusive center line, their policy positions can be practically indistinguishable. That may leave voters with little to go on except personality-something that wouldn't exactly work to Mr. Bilbray's advantage. Despite his efforts to portray himself as a laid-back surfer, he comes across as a humorless, angry white male who is more than a little self-righteous about his vaunted independence. Given yet another opportunity to talk about genuine policy differences, he attempts to take the bait ever so carefully: "Her endorsement list and fundraising shows that her major support has been from the extreme left: big labor, trial attorneys." This is partially true, but he carefully avoids mentioning that her top three contributors are, in fact, all focused on ideology rather than economics. Two of the three are pro-gay groups, with the pro-abortion PAC Emily's List sandwiched in between. "And other groups that are left of left of center," he adds after an extremely long pause, still without naming the groups. By naming Human Rights Campaign as one of those top contributors, Mr. Bilbray might be able to raise the issue of rescinding the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy-something HRC favors and a topic that would interest many voters in this heavily military district. With logical arguments on both sides of the issue, voters would probably appreciate hearing the pros and cons in a legitimate political debate. But Mr. Bilbray's tongue is tied by his past silence on such issues, leaving him to try to convince voters that Ms. Kehoe's donations from fat-cat trial lawyers should cause concern, while his own donations from fat-cat corporate attorneys should not. For Christians more concerned with long-term spiritual gains than with short-term political wins, the issue is a delicate one. Opposing homosexuality may indeed deliver votes, since even many secular Americans understand what a family is, and is not. But stirring up a visceral reaction falls far short of what biblical principle demands. If the ultimate goal is souls in heaven rather than seats in Congress, the immediate task is to show that homosexuals, like heterosexual adulterers, like all of us, are sinners who need to be transformed by God's grace. Doing that in an era of political soundbites is not an easy task. In any event, sensitivity does not demand silence. Foreclosing debate on an entire range of issues will defeat the purpose of the political process. And more subtly-but more significantly, perhaps-it will reinforce the Clintonian notion that a politician's personal life has no bearing on his or her public career.

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