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According to figures posted by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, the District of Columbia counts about 330,000 registered voters. About 90 percent of them are Democrats. Obviously, there is no doubting that D.C. is a Democratic stronghold and that its three electoral votes were in Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama’s pocket from the moment he accepted the nomination in August.
But while Obama’s lock may seem to dampen Nov. 4 drama in the District, that’s certainly not the case. As the political center of the known universe, Washingtonians are possibly more enthused about the upcoming Election Day than most. And not just about the presidential election, but about local D.C. races, Virginia and Maryland races, and beyond. For politically minded locals, Tuesday, Nov. 4, is the Super Bowl, World Series and American Idol finale, all rolled into one — on steroids, with a cherry on top.
IN SUCH A Democratic, gay and politically minded place, support for Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential run is obviously high. Consider that the site www.ObamaPride.org is not national. It’s been scooped up by Obama Pride Metro D.C. Not that there was a fight for it. The local GLBT support for Obama, while grassroots, is working in unison with the national campaign. That’s how Paquita Wiggins, in Beltsville, and Phil Attey, who lives in D.C.’s Logan Circle neighborhood, ended up as co-chairs of the group.
Wiggins had initially begun her own metro-area group to support Obama’s campaign, which she says was rolled into Obama Pride Metro D.C. at the campaign’s request. It’s a minor step among the leaps she’s made during the past few months.
”I wasn’t engaged in politics before — this has shown me how I can help,” says the 31-year-old Wiggins, explaining that the extent of her past involvement was voting — general elections only, no primaries. Her turning point came when Obama won Iowa’s Democratic primary in January.
”At this defining moment in history,…you have done what America can do in this new year, 2008,” Obama told Iowa voters, thanking them for his win.
Wiggins says that prior to that speech, she was ”a complete Hillary supporter.” And, as a Chicago native, she was paying some attention to the Obama campaign. She had simply never heard him speak.
”When I heard that speech, I cried,” she recalls. ”It was like the best thing I’d ever heard. It was life changing. His vision of what America could be was overwhelming. I don’t think I listened to another speech [till the convention]. I wanted the Iowa speech to be my motivation.”
Her motivation shows no signs of abating — not even with Nov. 4. Instead, Wiggins says she’s turned a newfound appreciation for what individuals can accomplish at the political grassroots level into a push to establish a Maryland chapter of the national Stonewall Democrats group, providing GLBT Marylanders a vehicle to better influence congressional races.
”We don’t have anybody watching our federal [level office holders]. Equality Maryland can’t touch them,” she says, pointing to the state’s primary GLBT-advocacy group’s legal limitations as a state-level political action committee (PAC).
”Obama Pride taught me how to do grassroots efforts,” she continues. ”I never understood I could be a part of it. I didn’t realize it was a sport everyone could engage in.”
Wiggins’ Obama Pride co-chair, on the other hand, has been playing this sport for years. For the bulk of the 1990s, Attey worked for the Human Rights Campaign. He looks to the 1992 presidential campaign as a sort of glorious initiation. As a Florida native, he was sent back to his home state to campaign for then-Gov. Bill Clinton.
”It was wonderful being young and gay and working on that campaign,” he says. ”After 12 years of Reagan and Bush, AIDS was killing us. It was do or die. Our community really proved our political stature as ground troops in that campaign. There wasn’t a campaign office you could go into without seeing some smiling gay guy or a lesbian field organizer. We were there. We were present. We proved ourselves in that election.”
These 16 years later, Attey says the Obama campaign is the first he’s seen that’s as well organized as Clinton’s. His own enthusiasm in 2008 is in some way penance for 2000, when he stood aside, confident that Vice President Al Gore would surely beat Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
”I’ve been kicking myself every since.”
To make amends, Attey is front and center, making repeated forays into Virginia to support the campaign, as well as canvassing here in the District.
”I’ve been putting in 40 to 60 hours per week,” he says. ”My parents came to town for two days in July, and I took off for that. It’s worth it. This is a chance to walk in history. Where do you want to say you were? I don’t want to look back with any regret like I did in 2000.”
In the final stretch to the election, Attey seems to be on the verge of exiling his 2000 regrets once and for all: ”A stellar candidate. An amazing field operation. An energetic LGBT community. We’ve got a lot of things going for us. We haven’t seen this since the early ’80s, what the evangelical churches did in activating their networks to usher in the Reagan revolution. The comparison is legitimate.”
The frequent trips Attey and his political peers have been making to Virginia have become the key component for GLBT Washingtonians supporting Obama and needing an outlet.
”I don’t recall whether we did them in 1996, but certainly in 2000 when it became clear that swing states would be very important,” says Jeffrey Hops, volunteer coordinator for such trips — collectively dubbed ”Yes We Van” — on behalf of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the District’s primary club for GLBT Democrats, and of which Attey and Wiggins are also members. ”In the past, it’s always been to Pennsylvania. This year, we’re concentrating on Virginia. Pennsylvania seems more solidly Democratic.”
Just don’t look for some sort of central committee running this operation. Rather, it’s more of an all-hands-on-deck effort to get feet and voices into Virginia. It’s more similar to the evacuation of Dunkirk in reverse — minus the bombing and death, of course — rather than a highly orchestrated, systematic sweep. If you can go, you go.
”Basically, it’s cooperative,” Hops explains. ”Our last trip, Sept. 27, Gertrude Stein picked up the cost. ObamaPride publicized the event and got people to show up. Virginia Partisans lent their name. It’s a mutual support society.”
Hops adds that while Attey, who coined ”Yes We Van,” has been organizing trips beyond what the Stein Democrats are offering themselves, the group will be spending the Nov. 1 weekend on a Virginia Beach trip.
”On the Sept. 27 trip, we had 60 people who showed up and went on a day trip with us,” says Hops. ”We’re going to aim for a hundred people on the 1st and 2nd. Enthusiasm is much stronger this year. I think particularly because people can taste victory, particularly because Sen. Obama is a more exceptional candidate. Partially because efforts to get youth involved have been really spectacular — we had a nice group from [Bisexual, Lesbian and Gay Organization of Students at Howard]. And because people are excited about the end of the Bush administration.”
Jasper Hendricks, director of field operations and political programs for the D.C.-based National Black Justice Coalition, has reason to relate to Wiggins, Attey and Hops, well beyond his support for Obama. Like Wiggins, he originally supported Sen. Clinton’s presidential campaign. Like Attey, he’s worked on the inside, specifically as an assistant on Capitol Hill for two different members of Congress. Like Hops, he’s coordinating trips to Virginia — his own trips, that is.
While he keeps an apartment in Arlington, Hendricks considers Farmville, Va., near Richmond, his home. He’ll be taking vacation time from work to spend the final stretch there, supporting the Obama campaign.
”I’ve e-mailed the campaign there. They have stuff for me to do. They’ve offered my family things to do.”
His family was onboard even before he was — and they still rib him from time to time for his early Clinton support. But it’s not as though Hendricks had anything against Obama, recalling how the senator offered to buy lunch for staffers during a Congressional Black Caucus meeting.
”I felt he was a great guy,” says Hendricks. ”I just didn’t know that much about him.” Once it began to seem clear that Obama would win the nomination, Hendricks knew he would be voting for him. He did not know, however, that he would be campaigning for him.
”I was still holding onto Clinton,” he says. ”But when I heard Michelle Obama speak [at the Democratic National Convention], I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll take leave from my job and go to Farmville.”’
Wiggins sums up in a word what the stretch from here to Nov. 4 looks like for these four Obama supporters of the GLBT community: ”Virginia.”
Adds Attey: ”Our role, especially here in D.C., is to channel volunteers into winning Virginia. Early on, they saw Virginia would be a battleground state. D.C. and Maryland are pretty solidly blue. Our role is to support Virginia…. Not since 1964 has Virginia gone blue, with L.B.J. beating Barry Goldwater. Because of all the new registered voters and this dynamic candidate, we’re leading in the state for first time since 1964.”
Back inside the District line, the City Council race is keeping the electorate on its toes. For the most part, Democratic D.C. seems to choose Council members during the Democratic primaries. Non-Democrat spots are such a conventionally agreed upon long shot, that they’ve been filled only by a peculiar rule of City Council structure that guarantees that two of the Council’s four at-large seats go to candidates of any affiliation but Democrat. That has served as an entry point for gay Councilmember David Catania, once a Republican, now independent; and Councilmember Carol Schwartz, a Republican and longtime ally of the GLBT community. But where Catania’s seat is safe this election cycle, Schwartz’s is in jeopardy. Everything changed in September when Patrick Mara won the Republican primary nod for City Council, in a roughly 60-40 percent split.
As a result, Mara’s name will appear on the ballot, while Schwartz’s will not. Instead, Schwartz is waging an aggressive write-in campaign, reminding voters that they will need to both write in her name and be certain to connect the two ends of the arrow next to it, as D.C. ballots are crafted.
Remaining candidates for the at-large seats are the Democratic incumbent, Councilmember Kwame Brown; Michael Brown, running as an independent; Dee Hunter, running as an independent; Mark Long, running as an independent; and David Schwartzman, of the D.C. Statehood Green Party.
The nonpartisan Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, which regularly rates candidates based on those candidates’ answers to a GLAA questionnaire, as well as on the candidates’ records, has rated the at-large candidates. Notably, on a scale of -10 to 10, Schwartz earned an impressive 9 while Mara earned a 2. Nevertheless, since winning the Republican nomination for the seat, Mara has picked up endorsements from Catania, longtime gay activist and Democratic politico Peter Rosenstein, and the D.C. chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans.
Kwame Brown and Michael Brown both earned ratings of 6.5; Schwartzman earned a 6 and Hunter a 5. Long, who did not return the GLAA questionnaire earned a neutral score of zero.
THE 2ND OF OCTOBER spawned a coincidence. As the first Thursday of the month, members of the Log Cabin Republicans-D.C., the local chapter of the national organization of GLBT Republicans met for their monthly happy hour at Nellie’s, the gay sports bar at Ninth and U Streets NW. It was also the night of the vice-presidential debate between Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) and Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska).
Being a sports bar, Nellie’s has TVs aplenty and an appreciation for politics as sport in D.C. It was standing-room only, with eager viewers sharing ”Palin bingo cards,” looking not for traditional bingo combinations, but instead waiting for Palin to offer some of her signature phrases, such as maverick, Wasilla and lipstick. Any Republican in the room could certainly be excused if he or she felt a little uncomfortable. But Chris Scalise, president of LCR-DC, was feeling fine.
”We were upstairs and most of our guys stayed,” says the 35-year-old, Louisville, Ky., native who now calls D.C.’s Shaw area home. ”We sort of had the whole upstairs. It wasn’t contentious. Most people were pretty intent on the debate. I didn’t hear a lot of comments.”
Scalise, to his credit, does not seem to mind putting himself in environments that would see him as the outsider. Four nights after the debate, he was sharing a stage on the Howard University campus with three diehard Democrats in front of an audience of substantial Barack Obama support. Again, he was at ease, explaining why he’s been a lifelong Republican, why Log Cabin had endorsed John McCain for president.
As a gay Republican, Scalise says he has reasons to be looking up. The Republican National Convention in September, for example, saw the Log Cabin Republicans being officially credentialed at the convention for the first time.
But looking up or down, neither Scalise nor most people could simply manipulate their beliefs to accommodate a local majority. Plainly put, Scalise feels McCain has more experience than Obama.
”Given the challenges we have in the world today, I feel Barack Obama is much, much less experienced,” he says. ”John McCain is much more experienced in government and foreign affairs than Barack Obama. Given the things going on in the world today, 20 years of experience is going to be useful. I agree with [McCain] that the presidency is not a place for on-the-job training.
”I really follow foreign affairs, international relations. That’s what I studied in college. That’s something I consider very important when it comes to the president. What makes this election year different than previous years is that there seem to be so many foreign-policy challenges. There’s Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, Iran…. Everything is sort of connected. Oil, energy, the credit markets.”
Scalise and his fellow LCR-DC members have, at least, something of a diversion from the world’s woes at the local level. In the District his group has put its efforts behind two City Council races, endorsing Patrick Mara for one of the two at-large seats and Christina Culver against incumbent Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). The Mara endorsement came after the group initially endorsed Schwartz. LCR-DC revised its endorsement after Mara won the September primary.
”Patrick definitely reached out to us, even in the primary,” Scalise says. ”He doesn’t have the record Carol [Schwartz] has, but the views he’s expressed are very gay friendly. He’s definitely somebody we’re supporting.”
Although the Mara endorsement was unanimous, Scalise grants that his members may have more reservations about McCain. They are, however, minor. Instead, Scalise refers back to the convention credentialing.
”I think that’s reflective of John McCain. I hope it’s reflective of the party as a whole. McCain doesn’t necessarily agree with us on every single issue, but he’s certainly — in the past, and promised to be [in the future] — very open-minded about hearing our arguments.
”If you put his voting record against Obama’s, he’s not great. He did vote against the Federal Marriage Amendment. But George W. Bush made us scapegoats. McCain hasn’t done that. There are a lot of things he could’ve seized on to demonize gays and lesbians, and he hasn’t done that. He’s somebody that we, Log Cabin Republicans, feel like we can really work with.”
But regardless of which way the presidential election may go, Scalise is proud of the work he and his fellow GLBT Republicans are doing.
”I know I’m in the minority, but I don’t feel like an oddity,” he says. ”We’re definitely representing a good chunk of LGBT voters, but also making a contribution to the Republican Party as well, making it more inclusive. People say, ‘How can you be gay and Republican?’ It’s not such a rare thing. There’s a good number of us out there.”
WHILE POLLS SHOW that there is a real opportunity that Virginia may send its electoral votes to a Democratic presidential nominee, Maryland has not thrown up any surprises this election season. Or has it?
Ask Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland, where his attention is directed, and he’ll respond only as a private resident of Maryland. That’s because Equality Maryland can play no part in federal-level races.
”[Andy Harris] is a state senator, very well known as one of the most conservative and anti-gay state senators in the Maryland General Assembly,” says Furmansky. Harris also won the Republican nod for Maryland’s 1st Congressional District seat. ”He may not have gotten as much press as [Del. Donald] Dwyer [Jr.] or [state Sen. Alex] Mooney, but he’s been a constant thorn in the side of all progressives.”
Harris will be running against Democrat Frank Kratovil, the current state’s attorney for Queen Anne’s County.
While the 1st District usually goes Republican, Furmansky is heartened that polls indicate a neck-and-neck race. Should Harris make it to Congress, however, Furmansky warns that Harris’ anti-gay values will be able to reach beyond Maryland’s borders.
In the other direction, gay Virginians also have their eyes on state races.
The Virginia Partisans, the commonwealth’s GLBT Democratic group, has made several endorsements — in particular, Gerry Connolly (D) to succeed Rep. Tom Davis (R) to represent Northern Virginia’s 11th Congressional District. Connolly, who currently chairs the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, will be facing Keith Fimian (R), chairman and founder of a national property-inspection company.
Virginia Partisans President Charley Conrad says his group has already spent $5,000 supporting Connolly.
”Gerry Connolly’s race to take over Tom Davis’ seat is crucial,” says Conrad. ”We’d be taking over a Republican seat and putting in an experienced politician. And he has a really good chance of winning.”
Conrad notes that Lawrence Webb’s recent win to the Falls Church City Council — making him Virginia’s first openly gay, African-American, elected office holder — has helped energize gay constituents.
”Lawrence Webb’s election in Falls Church was huge. It’s very exciting.”
As for the Partisans’ counterparts in the GOP camp, the Log Cabin Republicans of Virginia, the focus is on the 8th Congressional District, also in Northern Virginia. LCR-VA has endorsed Republican Mark Ellmore in that district against incumbent Democrat Jim Moran, who has the Partisans’ endorsement.
”Traditionally, the 8th District Republicans are the most ‘socially tolerant,’ shall I say, so for years we’ve reached out to get involved in their campaigns,” says David Lampo, LCR-VA’s vice president and political director. ”We have really had little contact with anybody else. We had a great relationship with Tom Davis, but no contact really with Keith Fimian, so we haven’t endorsed him or any other Republican congressional candidate.”
COME NOV. 4, all Americans will see John McCain and Barack Obama on their ballots. If you live in D.C., you’ll also see Cynthia McKinney. She’s the candidate of Green Party affiliates across the country — known locally as the D.C. Statehood Green Party — a former Democratic congresswoman from Georgia, and one of two candidates on the ballot who support full and equal marriage rights. The other will be Ralph Nader, running as an independent.
Outside Washington, you might have former Republican Congressman Bob Barr, also of Georgia, on your ballot, running for the Libertarian Party. Of course, you can always just write him in on a D.C. ballot. That’s what D.C.’s Berin Szoka says he’ll be doing.
”When I vote for Barr, the point is not whoever the Libertarian candidate is. Voting Libertarian is a way of sending a message…. The more votes the Libertarian Party gets, that communicates something. That’s why I’m voting at all.”
Before supporting Barr, however, Szoka had publicly — and somewhat jokingly — dubbed himself the ”HomoPaulertarian-in-chief,” promoting Rep. Ron Paul’s (R-Texas) dark-horse candidacy for president.
”He’s always been a hero of mine. I was delighted when he ran for president,” says Szoka. ”At the same time, I was astonished by the enthusiasm among young people.”
While Szoka’s philosophical leanings tend toward the libertarian, the 28-year-old shares a view probably not uncommon among many who eschew Democrats and Republicans for smaller political parties.
”I think both the major political parties are philosophically corrupt.”
With such strong convictions, one can imagine how difficult it might be for Szoka to pull the lever for either.
Instead, says Szoka, ”I vote for limited government in all respects: social issues, economic issues, foreign policy. Keep the government away from the bedroom, the boardroom and invading foreign countries.”
In a winner-take-all political system, he readily admits, any ”third-party” presidential vote will remain a largely symbolic gesture. But Szoka is surely not the only gay Washingtonian making that gesture.