April 1, 2010 at 6:31 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Could 2010 be ‘Year of the Gay?’

David Cicilline, the gay mayor of Providence, R.I., is seeking a U.S. House seat in this year’s election. (Photo courtesy of Cicilline Committee)

The unprecedented number of LGBT candidates expected to seek political office this November could be setting up 2010 as the “Year of the Gay.”

A number of gay candidates are running for high-profile office this year. In addition to the three openly gay lawmakers in the U.S. House seeking re-election, several non-incumbent gay candidates are running for Congress.

Steve Pougnet, the gay mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., is seeking a House seat and David Cicilline, the gay mayor of Providence, R.I., is also running for Congress. Another gay candidate, Ed Potosnak, is running to represent New Jersey in the U.S. House. All three men are campaigning as Democrats.

Gay candidates are also seeking election to prominent statewide offices. In Massachusetts, Richard Tisei, a state senator, is in contention to become the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. In Connecticut, Kevin Lembo, a health care advocate, is seeking the Democratic nomination to become lieutenant governor.

Additionally, several LGBT people are seeking election or re-election in races at the local level. Notable candidates include Kathy Webb, a lesbian who’s running for re-election to the Arkansas State House; Jolie Justus, a lesbian who’s running for re-election to the Missouri State Senate; and Heather Mizeur, a lesbian who’s running for re-election to the Maryland State House.

The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which backs qualified LGBT candidates for political office, has endorsed for the November election 68 candidates for federal and local races. That’s the highest number of candidates the organization has ever endorsed at this point prior to a November election.

Denis Dison, a spokesperson for the organization, projected the Victory Fund will endorse at least 112 candidates by the time the general election arrives. It would be more candidates than the organization has ever endorsed for a general election.

“When people see someone like [lesbian] Annise Parker win election as mayor of Houston, they question their assumptions about what’s possible, and I think that when people see other LGBT candidates succeed, they believe they can they can do it, too,” Dison said.

The potential for the election of so many gay candidates to office could make 2010 a milestone in terms of visibility for LGBT officials. Such a change would echo a political phenomenon from 1992, which became known as the “Year of the Woman.” At the time, Democratic nominee Bill Clinton’s victory was accompanied by the election of four female Democrats to the U.S. Senate.

Three of those women still serve in the Senate today: Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Carol Moseley Braun, a presidential candidate in 2004, was also elected to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate. Never before had four women been elected to the U.S. Senate in one election.

Dan Pinello, a gay government professor at the City University of New York, said the 1992 election’s outcome was the result of greater attention paid to feminist issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment and the Anita Hill hearings on Capitol Hill.

“Maybe the same thing is happening now in the LGBT community, given what’s occurred in the last decade or so around the issue, for example, of relationship recognition,” he said. “So there may be a correlation there in terms of there being events that spark attention to a particular community, and then, a decade or so later, it’s recognized enough to have members of that community be acknowledged publicly through election to public office in substantial numbers.”

Despite this potential for gay wins, Pinello said even if three LGBT non-incumbent candidates were elected to Congress, it wouldn’t yet proportionately reflect the LGBT population if, as some national exit polling data indicates, around 4 percent of American voters self-identify as lesbian or gay.

“Thus, in order to increase the openly lesbian and gay membership of Congress so that it would be comparable to the proportion of the population that is gay, you’d need about 18 more members, or an additional 600 percent,” he said.

Pinello was skeptical, though, whether wins for LGBT candidates seeking office in Congress this November should be considered substantial. He said a greater number of candidates would be necessary to make representation more closely reflect the American public.

“If there were like eight or 10 out there, and 435 total seats in the House, that would be notable,” he said. “That would be a dramatic shift, but I don’t know that anything short of that would be.”

Nonetheless, Pinello said every additional LGBT person elected to office would be a representational win, and called having known LGBT candidates running for office “a substantial statement.”

Noting the lack of LGBT representation in public offices throughout the country, Dison said LGBT people have a “long way to go” toward achieving representation in elected office, even if 2010 brings significant success.

“There are over half a million elected offices in the country and only 470 right now are filled with openly LGBT persons,” he said. “We’re still at the beginning of this effort to have our voices heard in government.”

But Dison said with so many LGBT candidates seeking office, 2010 could bring a surge in LGBT representation and predicted that a majority of Victory Fund-endorsed candidates would be successful in their races.

“Our win rate has fluctuated sort of between 65 and 75 percent over the last five years,” he said. “If that tradition holds, we’ll see roughly 70 percent.”

Michael Mitchell, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, said his organization intends to help LGBT candidates win election at the federal level as part of their overall plan to help Democrats win races this year.

“There are some great gay candidates out there — some who are already in, obviously, some who are running,” he said. “We are in the process of fine tuning our election plan and we’re going to be launching that very, very soon in the next couple weeks.”

Mitchell said he’s planning a coordinated campaign with an online presence intended to engage people across the country, using a model similar to what was used for the election of Parker as Houston mayor.

“We had folks from all across the country calling with Stonewall folks from Texas, and we were responsible for about 10,000 calls in one day,” Mitchell said. “We want to do similar things for the candidates that we are focused on, and I’m sure that some of those LGBT candidates will be included in our races.”

Dison said so many wins for LGBT candidates would benefit LGBT Americans because it would help ensure the community’s voice is heard.

“When people are able to speak from an authentic place as an LGBT person, it really changes the debate in the rooms where the decisions are made on things that affect our lives,” Dison said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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