When the Conservative Political Action Conference convenes later this week, Matt Schlapp has a message for gay conservatives: You are welcome here.
“To be absolutely crystal clear, if you are a conservative who is gay, you should come to CPAC — you are welcome to come to CPAC,” says Schlapp. “Yes, you are going to encounter people who disagree with you. My goal is for you to be respected and for them to be respected and for us all to think about not only the things that we have differences on, but the things we agree on. We ought to be talking about that as well.”
Schlapp was elected chairman of the American Conservative Union in June, and, during an exclusive interview at the ACU’s offices in downtown Washington, promised to “break from the past” and repair the organization’s strained relationship with gay conservatives.
“We have taken rather historic steps to make it very clear that CPAC is welcoming of all kinds of conservatives, including conservatives who are gay,” he says. “We have gay speakers on the main stage and the break out [panels]. We have made an intentional effort to make it very clear to people that that is part of what CPAC is going to be about. And that’s important to me.”
On Monday, the ACU announced that Gregory T. Angelo, the executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, would appear on a panel addressing Vladimir Putin’s “threatening actions toward Europe, as well as his tragic human rights record.” The announcement came days after Angelo accused the ACU of excluding the LGBT Republican group as sponsors of the annual conference — an assertion Schlapp denies.
CPAC, which will be held from Feb. 25 to 28 at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center at National Harbor, Md., has become an obligatory pit stop for Republican presidential candidates. But the conference has a messy history with gay conservatives, who have had no official presence at CPAC for several years. The now defunct GOProud participated in CPAC in 2010 and 2011 to the protests of social conservatives, but was kicked out of the conference in 2012 after GOProud co-founder Chris Barron labeled conservative attorney Cleta Mitchell a “nasty bigot,” blaming her for the Heritage Foundation’s decision to remove itself from the conference over GOProud’s participation. Despite an apology from Barron, GOProud was not invited back.
Both the ACU and Log Cabin Republicans blamed last week’s dispute on confusion and miscommunication between the two organizations, and Schlapp doubled-down on his promise to make CPAC more inclusive going forward.
“This is purposeful — I want to do this,” Schlapp says of giving an interview to an LGBT media outlet. “We want to reach out to every legitimate media outlet and tell our story, tell them what we’re about. People are going to agree with us on some things, disagree with us on other things. We’re going to respect each other and have the conversation.”
According to Schlapp, for the conservative movement to be successful politically, its message must reach all kinds of people.
“Specifically on social issues, we’ve got a huge contingent of libertarians,” he says. “A lot of young people as well who are more libertarian-minded. They’re part of our coalition. They’re awful important to us being successful politically. We are not going to succeed politically if it’s about subtraction and division of our numbers. It’s got to be about addition and multiplication.”
Schlapp is the first chairman of the ACU to be born after the organization’s founding in 1964. Born in Ohio, the 47-year-old grew up in Texas, New Jersey and Kansas. He attended the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and graduate school at Wichita State University. While at Notre Dame, he helped found a conservative magazine called Dialogue with the help of his roommate that he says infuriated the administration — an experience that appears to have spurred his vocal support for open debate.
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“They took that first magazine, which I had to raise $2,000 from people all over the country [to produce], and they threw it in the dumpsters all over campus,” Schlapp recalls. “I got up early to see if people were reading this magazine I put my whole heart into, and I saw some guy throwing it in the dumpster. I tell you, my heart just sank. I was like, ‘This is outrageous. This is not just. Why would someone be so scared to hear someone’s thoughts that they would literally throw it away?’ I went through that dumpster and wiped off every magazine. I put them back in those bins. And from that moment on they did not throw the next copy away because I think they felt completely foolish. Here I am, a student who is doing nothing but putting his thoughts down on paper.”
After opening a small business after college with his mother, Schlapp went to work on Capitol Hill and befriended a fellow congressional staffer named Ken Mehlman, who later recruited Schlapp to work on George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign. That led to Schlapp becoming an advisor during Bush’s first term. After running Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign and serving as chairman of the Republican National Committee, Mehlman came out as gay in 2010.
Schlapp is Catholic. He believes marriage should only be between a man and a woman. When asked about an anticipated ruling from the Supreme Court striking down state bans on same-sex marriage, he draws parallels to the issue of abortion and expresses hope that a political consensus can be reached that does not divide the country.
“We had people that founded America — came to America — because they had strongly held religious views that are enshrined in our First Amendment. I don’t want to do anything to ever change that religious zone for those people who have those strongly held beliefs,” he says. “By the same token, we have to figure out, in light of what the court is going to do and where the American people are on this issue, how we handle those folks who have strongly held religious beliefs with people that believe strongly in gay marriage and believe that’s a civil right. I think America is big enough and strong enough to figure out a way to accommodate both.”
While Schlapp may personally oppose same-sex marriage, he admits his inclusive tone has alienated some. Indeed, the same day as his election as ACU’s chairman in June, Cleta Mitchell resigned from the boards of both the ACU and ACU Foundation.
And although some may not like his new approach, Schlapp is okay with the criticism he may receive. “I am surprised by how many conservative leaders I have talked to have said, ‘You’re striking exactly the right tone.’ So, I think there are a lot of people who realize this is the right way to go forward.
“I come from a family of four kids and I have five kids,” he continues. “I’ve not gone through a dinner table conversation where everyone agreed. There’s always disagreement — I’ve just been brought up in a way where I understand that to be healthy. You put your differences on the table and you talk about them. And we’re going to do that.
“Some of those differences are on gay issues, some are on regulatory policy, tax policy, foreign affairs, everything under the sun. That discussion, I believe, will lead us to be more cohesive, because instead of hiding from our disagreements and sanitizing them, we put them out there.”