Openly Gay Candidates Close In on House Seats

TIMES STAFF WRITER

History is about to be made, and you can be part of it.

That's the pitch on a flier recently used to lure people to a fund-raiser for Christine Kehoe, a candidate for San Diego's 49th House District. And the brink-of-a-breakthrough enticement is not just hype.

Kehoe, who is about to become the official Democratic nominee to run against Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-San Diego), has a shot at becoming the first acknowledged lesbian to be elected to national political office. And she's not alone.

Kehoe is one of four lesbians running for Congress this year. Together with two gay men seeking reelection to the House and a third gay man running as a challenger, they comprise the largest group of openly gay candidates to make a serious run for Congress.

Their candidacies have turned the 1998 midterm elections into a potential watershed for homosexuals.

"This is a breakthrough election," said Charles E. Cook, a political analyst. Most of the gay candidates "are running very, very competitive races."

The two gay House members--Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.)--did not reveal their sexual orientations until after they had been reelected several times. So, if any of this year's homosexual challengers wins, they will be the first to enter the House as openly gay.

"To break that barrier, to change the face of Congress, will mean the gay and lesbian community will have advanced another huge step in attaining our full civil rights," Kehoe said.

Financial Edge for Gay Candidates

The strength of the campaigns most of the gay candidates are running is a tribute, in part, to a paradox of gay politics: Despite the potential political liabilities of their sexuality, gay candidates enjoy access to a national fund-raising base that can give them a financial edge in their races.

As of March 31, Federal Election Commission records show, three of the four lesbian House candidates each had raised more than three times the national average for congressional challengers. Kehoe, who faces no Democratic opposition in California's Tuesday primary, has even outdistanced Bilbray, surmounting the renowned advantages of incumbency.

She and the other promising gay candidates are the beneficiaries of significant contributions by gay-rights political action committees and individuals around the country who support gay causes.

Still, none of these politicians are running a campaign centered on sexual orientation. Instead, they offer themselves as candidates who happen to be gay.

"They are great stereotype breakers," Frank said. "These are lesbian candidates who look like any other candidates in America."

Three have traditional political credentials, having run for elective office at the state or local level. Kehoe is a member of the San Diego City Council. Tammy Baldwin, one of three leading Democrats for an open House seat in Wisconsin, is a state legislator. Susan Tracy, one of a pack of Democrats running for an open seat in the Boston area, is a former state legislator.

The fourth lesbian candidate is a former member of the military--with near-celebrity status. Retired Army Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, expected to win the Democratic nomination to oppose Rep. Jack Metcalf (R-Wash.), became a hero of the gay community after she was discharged from the military in 1992 because she had revealed her homosexuality. A television movie was made about her.

Along with Frank and Kolbe, the other gay man running for Congress is Democrat Paul Barby, who is opposing Rep. Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.) for a second time.

Kehoe, Baldwin Have Best Chances

Of the gay challengers, analysts said, Kehoe and Baldwin have the best chance of winning. Cammermeyer and Barby face steeper odds because they are running in more GOP-leaning districts. Tracy is running in a liberal district in which the Democratic nominee will be the heavy favorite but a very crowded field is seeking the party's nod.

Kehoe, given her City Council post, already enjoys high name recognition in the 49th District, which encompasses the northern half of San Diego. The district includes military bases, universities and the city's high-tech and biotech industries, and in recent years has been one of California's most competitive.

Bilbray won the seat in 1994 from Democrat Lynn Schenk, then a one-term incumbent. In winning reelection in 1996, Bilbray polled only 53% of the vote, causing analysts to peg him as vulnerable. Still, he may be hard to topple because of this year's strong pro-incumbent climate.

In Wisconsin, Baldwin is running for an open seat now held by Republican Scott L. Klug, who is retiring from office.

The Madison-based district leans Democratic, so her toughest fight could be the September Democratic primary, in which she is competing with two other popular Democrats.

Both Kehoe and Baldwin have the advantage of having been elected to other offices. If they win now, analysts said, it probably will not be because they are gay. "Their gayness isn't and doesn't appear likely to be a major issue," said political analyst Cook.

To be sure, all this does not signal an end of resistance to gays in public life. For instance, being an openly gay candidate in Bible Belt regions such as Oklahoma, House candidate Barby said, is "still a hurdle."

The boomlet of openly gay House candidates is a product, in part, of increasing numbers of gay officials being elected at the state and local levels. According to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a group dedicated to electing gays, there are now 154 openly gay elected officials around the country. There were none as recently as 1973.

It may be increasingly difficult for gay candidates to run for office without coming out of the closet in this era of intense scrutiny of politicians' private lives. Tracy came out only recently, in part because she knew that her sexual orientation would become an issue. "You'd be naive to think you can run for office and not have people ask you questions about your personal life," Tracy said.

But for each of these House candidates, gay rights has not been a central part of their campaigns.

"They are clearly trying not to be perceived as single-issue candidates," said Brian Bond, executive director of the Victory Fund.

Said Baldwin: "The issues that I am running on in this congressional campaign are precisely the issues I expect Congress to be grappling with over the next several terms: health care, Medicare, educational opportunities."

So far, Republican opponents have not been making an explicit issue of gay challengers' sexual orientation.

Said Bilbray: "I don't see it as the real issue."

"I have never mentioned that, nor will I ever mention it," said Metcalf, the Washington state incumbent Cammermeyer is opposing.

Conservatives Likely to Weigh In

Some analysts predicted that, as election day nears, conservative groups will find ways to make sure voters are aware of the matter. "It's one way the conservative wing of the Republican Party can mobilize its troops," said Gary C. Jacobson, a political scientist at UC San Diego.

Arne Owens, a spokesman for the Christian Coalition, said the group likely will address the candidates' sexual orientation when they make their stands on gay rights public. Still, Owens insisted, "our response is focused on making voters aware of the issues rather than looking at candidates personally."

Even if GOP candidates refrain from directly criticizing their opponents for being gay, they may find subtle ways to remind voters of it.

The Metcalf campaign already is criticizing Cammermeyer for raising a lot of money from out-of-state sources--including supporters of gay causes.

But large sums of money are a big boon to a challenger. "I have names and addresses of donors in Phoenix and New York . . . San Francisco and Los Angeles," Kehoe said.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group, the average House challenger had raised a mean total of $85,645 by the end of March 31, the latest figures available. Kehoe had raised $370,534, compared with Bilbray's $319,092. She picked up $2,000 last week from about 50 individuals who attended a gay-sponsored fund-raiser in Washington.

Baldwin had raised $384,647 by March 31--more than any of her opponents in the Democratic primary. And Cammermeyer has raised $300,542--almost as much as Metcalf.

Her celebrity has brought her a star-studded list of donors, including Barbra Streisand, who produced the TV movie about her; actress Glenn Close, who played her in the show; and Rosie O'Donnell.

That race may be the best test of the power of money to overcome the potential political liabilities.

"It wouldn't be a close race, except I know what money can do," said Chris Strow, Metcalf's campaign manager.

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