While most of the nation’s attention remains focussed on the presidential race, openly gay and lesbian state and local candidates are quietly chalking up historic advances in campaigns from Georgia to Arizona. This year, there are more gay and lesbian candidates running more strongly for higher positions than ever in US history.
One engine behind that success is the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a political action committee formed in 1991 for the sole purpose of supporting queer candidates — be they Democrats, Republicans, or none of the above. Having distributed over $2.5 million since its founding, GLVF isn’t the largest gay and lesbian PAC — the Human Rights Campaign, which supports gay-friendly but not necessarily gay candidates, claims that title.
By concentrating on a relatively small number of “out” gay candidates each election, however, GLVF has managed to make a difference. But GLVF’s very success is complicating its mission: As gay and lesbian candidates become increasingly common, the Victory Fund’s resolutely non-ideological strategy is beginning to raise some hackles in gay-friendlier liberal urban centers like Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The organization has managed to attract support from plenty of political heavy hitters. A fundraising bash on the eve of this summer’s Democratic convention drew House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, Virginia Democratic Senator Charles S. Robb, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, and actress Judith Light.
In 1998 the Victory Fund played a significant part in helping Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin become the first out lesbian ever elected to Congress. This year, two of its endorsed candidates have already broken more barriers.
In September, Vermont State Auditor Ed Flanagan — already the nation’s first openly gay statewide elected official — became the first gay or lesbian US Senate nominee from a major party, narrowly beating Democratic primary opponent Jan Backus. “Ed Flanagan has already made history” even if he loses his uphill fight against Republican incumbent James Jeffords, notes GLVF spokesman Sloan Wiesen. An early boost from GLVF in the form of $4,000 cash and another $1,000 in in-kind assistance in mid-1999 helped get his effort off the ground. “They’ve been very helpful,” says Liam Goldrick, Flanagan’s campaign manager.
In Georgia, meanwhile, another GLVF candidate seems certain to become the first lesbian in that state’s legislature. In July, Karla Drenner won the Democratic primary to represent the Atlanta suburb of Avondale, and she faces no Republican opponent. Other races on the Victory Fund’s agenda could add another lesbian to the US House from California, give Michigan its first gay state legislator, and boost the lesbian caucus in the California legislature to four.
The number of gay and lesbian legislators has quadrupled since GLVF was founded, Wiesen says, but there is still a long way to go. “In a nation with half a million elected officials, fewer than 200 are openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual,” he says. “Our community is still largely without open representation. No senators, no governors. Over a dozen states don’t have a single openly gay elected official.”
To boost those numbers, the organization picks its races more on the basis of a candidate’s odds of winning than on his or her beliefs. Endorsees can belong to any party, or no party, and have any political viewpoint. The only political test is that they must support gay and lesbian civil rights legislation and “aggressive” public policies on HIV/AIDS, gay and lesbian health, and women’s reproductive freedom. GLVF candidates this year range from Green Party members to Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona.
In places like Georgia, where electing any gay or lesbian candidate is still groundbreaking, GLVF’s tactic of supporting gay candidates of any viewpoint stirs little criticism within the gay community. But the outlook is different in liberal urban centers where gay officeholders are becoming relatively common and queer community politics more complex.
In Los Angeles, which chooses a new mayor next spring, it’s not at all clear that GLVF’s candidate, newly-out-of-the-closet city councilman Joel Wachs, will get the most support from the city’s gay community. One of his rivals, Antonio Villaraigosa, sponsored gay and lesbian civil rights legislation in the California Legislature and earned much gay support along the way.
San Francisco, meanwhile, presently has three gays and lesbians on its 11-member Board of Supervisors, and at least a dozen gays and lesbians are running for supervisor seats this year. But the only supervisorial candidate endorsed by GLVF is current school board member Juanita Owens. Owens is also supported by Mayor Willie Brown, who is viewed as Public Enemy Number One by tenant and neighborhood activists in a city where raging gentrification is displacing renters, artists, and nonprofits at a staggering clip. Progressive gays and lesbians, including Board of Supervisors president Tom Ammiano and the Harvey Milk Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual Democratic Club, have lined up solidly behind one of Owens’ straight opponents, Matt Gonzalez.
Queer activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca says that shows GLVF’s strategy doesn’t fit San Francisco. “To only examine candidates here on the basics, such as queer rights, flies in the face of reality,” he argues. “Most, if not all, candidates here support the basics. But queer working- and even middle-class people are fighting for their lives. Juanita Owens is not our champion, lesbian or not. The Victory Fund needs to understand that.”
Wiesen defends Owens as a strong candidate with “a good record on the school board.” And he still thinks his organization’s non-ideological approach makes sense. “Whatever the table is, our community needs to be there, whether it’s the Republican table, the Democratic table, or the independent table,” says Wiesen. “The Victory Fund is only one way of getting more gay and lesbian representation. It’s not the only answer.”
For now, few cities are as friendly to lesbian and gay office-seekers as San Francisco. But as gay voters in more communities start to have the luxury of a choice of gay and lesbian candidates, plus truly appealing straight contenders, the pressure on GLVF to rethink its strategy seems certain to increase.