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‘A real twist’: GOP congressman with anti-LGBTQ past tries to win over gay Palm Springs voters

A portrait of a smiling man with graying hair in a suit and tie, left, and one of another man, also smiling, in a dark shirt
GOP Rep. Ken Calvert, left, is facing a challenge from Democrat Will Rollins, a former federal prosecutor, in the 41st Congressional District in Riverside County.
(U.S. House Office of Photography; courtesy of Will Rollins)

Ken Calvert has held on to his seat in Congress for 30 years, in part by opposing gay rights. Now that he’s running for reelection against a gay rival in a district that includes one of the largest concentrations of LGBTQ voters in America, Calvert says his views have changed.

Despite his previous opposition, the Republican says, he believes the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage across the nation should not be overturned.

“It wasn’t always my position,” Calvert said. “It’s a different country than it was 30 years ago.”

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Whether it’s principle or opportunism, Calvert’s change of heart seems a necessary shift in a race that has grown far more competitive as a result of the redrawing of California’s congressional boundaries.

Party registration in the new Riverside County district, which includes Palm Springs and surrounding communities, is about even; the district Calvert currently represents is solidly Republican. And his opponent for reelection? Democrat Will Rollins, a former federal prosecutor who worked on Jan. 6 insurrection cases and who campaigns with his partner, Paolo Benvenuto.

There is a bit of schadenfreude among Calvert’s critics.

“It’s poetic justice,” said Sam Garrett-Pate, a Los Angeles-based spokesman for Equality California, a nonprofit that supports LGBTQ rights and has endorsed Rollins. “I don’t think there’s any other way to put it than what goes around comes around.”

With California’s primary over, the focus turns to the state’s role in the battle for control of the House of Representatives in the general election.

Still, Calvert has clear advantages: the benefits of incumbency and the backing of former President Trump. The congressman raised nearly $1.9 million to Rollins’ $1 million as of May 18, according to the Federal Election Commission. The new district retained 7 out of 10 voters from his current district, and its largest city is Calvert’s hometown of Corona.

GOP redistricting expert Matt Rexroad contends that economic headwinds for Democrats — inflation, sky-high gas prices — are a boon to Calvert, but future elections are in doubt.

“Where this seat is in 2028 or 2024, I’m not sure. I think it’s probably a good seat this time, but [it] is trending the wrong way in regard to the breakdown of voters in the Coachella Valley,” Rexroad said.

In the 2021 redistricting — the redrawing of congressional districts that occurs every 10 years after the U.S. census — Calvert’s district lost solidly GOP areas such as Temecula and Murrieta while gaining liberal swaths, most notably Palm Springs, the first city in the nation to elect an all-LGBTQ city council. Riverside County had already been getting less red, in part because of an influx of Los Angeles residents seeking more affordable housing.

The new 41st Congressional District stretches from the equestrian community of Norco and the sprawling suburb of Corona on the west to the golf courses and resorts of Indian Wells, Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage on its eastern edge.

The partisan shift made the district more competitive, as did the addition of LGBTQ voters at a time when liberals believe that gay rights are under a threat unprecedented in recent years. These fears were magnified by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion last month in overturning Roe vs. Wade in which he questioned protections extended to contraception rights and same-sex relationships.

Nearly one-third of state’s districts in Congress would have Latino majorities under independent commission’s plan. The new map also endangers some GOP incumbents.

Calvert, 69, a small-business owner, is the longest-serving GOP member of California’s congressional delegation. He was first elected to represent the Inland Empire in Congress in 1992.

Two years later, one of his allies outed his rival, Mark Takano, as gay. Calvert’s campaign responded by sending voters hot pink and lavender mailers that claimed the Democrat had a “secret agenda” and asked whether Takano, who had not yet publicly disclosed he was gay, would be a “Congressman for Riverside … or San Francisco?”

(Takano was elected to Congress in 2012 and has represented western Riverside County since.)

Calvert batted away the notion that his race against Takano and his record on LGBTQ rights — voting for the Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages, and against the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy regarding gay members — would harm him as he seeks a 16th term, noting that top Democrats aligned with him on those positions at one time.

He pointed to his work securing money for district priorities including transportation projects, infrastructure upgrades and the region’s military bases, as well as his evolving views on same-sex relationships as reasons that the district’s new voters would back him.

“I’ve never had any animosity to the gay community,” Calvert said. “I come out of the restaurant business, for goodness’ sake. A lot of people who worked with me were gay.”

John Falcone, the treasurer of the Log Cabin Republicans of Coachella Valley — the local chapter of an LGBTQ Republican organization — said he was dubious when Calvert reached out to the group this year. But after meeting with Calvert for more than an hour, the 59-year-old bank analyst said his concerns were assuaged.

“We talked about gay issues and his past record, and he was very, very open and very accepting,” said Falcone, sitting in the clubhouse of his Rancho Mirage country club, a chilled oasis on a sweltering desert day. “I give him credit for reaching out and I found him authentic. Going in, I was skeptical, but coming out, I thought, OK, he’ll be fine.”

A man in a light-blue short-sleeved shirt and dark shorts stands in a landscaped courtyard
John Falcone, treasurer of the Coachella Valley chapter of an LGBTQ Republican organization, plans to vote for Rep. Ken Calvert in November.
(Seema Mehta / Los Angeles Times)

He added that he was unfamiliar with Rollins, who moved to Palm Springs this year from Canyon Lake, which is also in the district.

Rollins, sipping an iced coffee on the patio of a Palm Springs cafe, said he became interested in public service after seeing the World Trade Center collapse on Sept. 11, 2001, when he was a high school junior.

“Seeing Americans covered in ash on the street got me feeling — as it did for many of us — like I wanted to serve and help protect my country from the people who attacked us,” Rollins said. “But in 2001, it was still against the law [for gay Americans] to serve openly in the military. I was a closeted gay kid, and I was worried about being outed under that policy, worried about being humiliated, about humiliating my family.”

So he became an attorney and went to work for the national security division at the Justice Department, focusing on domestic terrorism cases in Southern California.

“The threats that the country is facing have changed, and some of those threats now come from within,” Rollins said, with the craggy peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains in the background. The 37-year-old decided last year to leave his job to run for office. “I didn’t want to look back on my life and regret not stepping up when one of these House Republicans is right in my backyard and voted to undermine our democracy after Jan. 6.”

After last year’s insurrection, Calvert voted against certifying the electoral college votes of Arizona and Pennsylvania. He says he believes there were voting irregularities in those states, but acknowledges that Joe Biden is president.

“I believe Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election. Unfortunately, violence occurred that day that shouldn’t have happened,” Calvert said. “That was certainly a dark day in the history of our country.”

Some voters say this answer is disingenuous because Calvert sought Trump’s backing after the insurrection occurred.

A woman looks out from a window, flanked by signs that say, 'Democratic Headquarters of the Desert'
Elle Kurpiewski, a volunteer with the group Democratic Headquarters of the Desert in Cathedral City, supports Democrat Will Rollins in his bid to oust Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona).
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“He wanted the endorsement of this man who tried to overthrow the government of the United States. What happened to your oath, Ken Calvert?” asked retired flight attendant Elle Kurpiewski, 75, who volunteers with a group called Democratic Headquarters of the Desert in Cathedral City. “I feel very strongly that we have an excellent candidate in Will Rollins who understands as a former federal prosecutor what an oath to your country means.”

Rollins’ story about 9/11 and limited options because of his sexuality resonated with voters such as Democrat John Lacombe.

The retired aerospace worker recalled his father telling him that he could do whatever he wanted, including becoming president. But after Lacombe realized that he was gay, he decided running for office was impossible.

Once the 66-year-old and some neighbors learned that their Rancho Mirage homes were part of the new 41st District, they invited Rollins to speak to their Good Trouble Club, formed in homage to the late civil rights icon and Democratic Rep. John R. Lewis of Georgia.

“Will spoke so eloquently, so passionately, so intelligently,” Lacombe said in an interview in the community center of his gated retirement community. “For me, that was the moment that crystallized all of this…. That was the very moment that I went back to that conversation with my father. And I looked at [Rollins] and said, ‘It could have been me if it were 40 years ago.’ And so, I’m going to get behind this guy 100%.”

A man in a blue shirt and gray shorts stands on a street, flanked by homes, with blue skies as a backdrop
John Lacombe of Rancho Mirage plans to vote for Democrat Will Rollins, a gay former federal prosecutor, in November.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat who has lived in Rancho Mirage since 2005 and held a fundraiser for Rollins in May that raised $200,000, said she expects the race to draw national attention.

“We have one of the clearest choices in the nation as to what the future holds for America,” Boxer said, pointing to Calvert’s votes against issues such as abortion rights and the Violence Against Women Act.

Riverside County Supervisor Karen Spiegel has known Calvert since she moved to Corona in 1985 and said some people are making false assumptions about him. The greater point is all the good he has done for the district, including stopping the closure of two military bases, said Spiegel, a Republican.

“He’s been involved in the community for so long, not just because he lives here. He’s enmeshed, he’s involved, he still goes to Rotary and Chamber of Commerce meetings when he’s home,” Spiegel said, adding that Calvert has seniority on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Takano, who has regularly collaborated with Calvert on legislation that benefits the region, has endorsed Rollins.

“I don’t bear this burning grudge about what happened in 1994, but what I do think is it will be an irony, a real twist, if an LGBT former prosecutor defeats congressman Calvert this November,” Takano said.


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