The Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city’s largest LGBT political group, voted this week to endorse at-large D.C. City Council member Phil Mendelson over his gay challenger, Clark Ray, 62 percent to 35 percent.
Stein members also on Monday endorsed at-large Council member Kwame Brown in the race for City Council Chairman over his main rival, former Ward 5 Council member Vincent Orange, 80 percent to 16 percent.
The club’s endorsement of Mendelson and Brown for the Sept. 14 Democratic primary followed its decision last month to endorse City Council Chairman Vincent Gray over Mayor Adrian Fenty in the hotly contested mayoral race.
Mendelson, whose gay supporters portrayed him as an unfailing straight ally who shepherded the city’s same-sex marriage law through the Council last year, received just two points above the 60 percent threshold required for an endorsement under the club’s rules.
Monday’s endorsements came after the candidates spoke during a club forum at the gay nightclub Town, and members debated whom to back. About 100 members voted on the endorsements, according to Stein Club President Jeffrey Richardson.
A third candidate running in the at-large Council race, D.C. shadow senator Michael Brown, did not receive any votes from Stein members, although he received loud applause for what he said was the main mission of his candidacy: to promote D.C. statehood.
Michael Brown expressed strong support for the city’s same-sex marriage law and pledged to be a “champion” for LGBT rights if elected to the at-large Council seat.
During the forum, several Mendelson supporters praised Ray as a highly qualified candidate. But they said it would be wrong not to stand behind Mendelson, a pro-LGBT Council member who has a record of support on a wide range of LGBT issues such as same-sex marriage equality, gay adoptions and domestic partnership laws during his nearly 12 years on the Council.
“Here in the District of Columbia, we have more rights as members of the LGBT community than we do in other states,” said transgender activist Jeri Hughes. “And it’s due to legislation from men like Phil Mendelson. So no matter how much I love Clark Ray, I’m not going to forget what Phil Mendelson has done and the progress that has been made in the District. I’m supporting Phil Mendelson.”
Ray, who also praised Mendelson for his role in helping pass the local same-sex marriage law, said he was running to bring change to a Council “status quo” that has impeded progress for city residents.
“I’m a firm believer that for a city to breathe and move forward, you need fresh leadership,” he said.
Ray pointed to his many years of experience in public service, including his work for Vice President Al Gore in the Clinton administration, his role as head of the constituent services office under former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and a similar post under Mayor Adrian Fenty. Ray also served as director of the Department of Parks & Recreation under Fenty.
“I have not asked any one of you to vote for me because I’m an openly gay man,” Ray told Stein Club members. “I want you to vote for me because I’m qualified.”
But Ray and his supporters also stressed that as an openly gay man, he would provide the LGBT community with another “seat at the table” in city government, where he would have a greater understanding of the needs and concerns of LGBT people.
“I’m not only a friend of the LGBT community, I am a member of that community,” he said.
If Ray wins the election, he would become the third openly gay person on the 13-member City Council. Gay Council members David Catania (I-At Large) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who are running this year for re-election, are considered strong favorites to win another term on the Council.
Among the club members who spoke on Ray’s behalf at the Stein forum were Nick McCoy and Carlene Cheatam, two of the lead organizers of a coalition of local activists and city residents who lobbied the Council to pass the same-sex marriage law.
Among the club members supporting a Mendelson endorsement were lesbian activist Barbara Helmick and nationally recognized gay rights attorney Nancy Polikoff.
Polikoff told club members that while Mendelson’s work on the same-sex marriage law captured most of the community’s attention, he introduced and played a key role in passing a gay adoption law that is considered the most far-reaching such measure in the country.
“None of this would have happened without Phil,” she said.
Mendelson said after Stein Club members voted that he was honored to have won the club’s endorsement and he would continue his commitment to LGBT rights and causes.
During a question and answer period, one written question directed at Ray asked whether he would consider running for the other at-large Council seat that would become vacant if Kwame Brown wins his race for Council chairman.
Under the city’s election rules, the D.C. Democratic State Committee would appoint Kwame Brown’s interim replacement until a special election is held several months later. Ray said he’s running to win in his race against Mendelson but added that he would view a Council vacancy created by Kwame Brown’s possible election as Council chairman as a development “of interest” to him.
Several club members supporting Mendelson said they would back Ray for an at-large seat vacated by Brown.
Orange addresses flip
on same-sex marriage
In his opening remarks at the Stein forum, Orange addressed an issue he seemed to know would hurt him in his quest for the club’s endorsement: his stated opposition to same-sex marriage during his unsuccessful mayoral bid in 2006.
In a development that riled LGBT activists, Orange said then that any of his fellow candidates for mayor who backed a proposed same-sex marriage bill were not fit to hold public office.
“In 2006, I did say marriage was for a man and a woman,” he told Stein members Monday. “Now, in 2010, I strongly support the Marriage Equality Act.”
Orange added that he had a long record of support on LGBT civil rights issues during his tenure as a Ward 5 Council member and later in his post as an executive with the Potomac Electric Power Company, where he said he pushed for a company policy of providing benefits to employees’ domestic partners.
When gay activist Lane Hudson, a Kwame Brown supporter, questioned Orange’s commitment to same-sex marriage, Orange reiterated his support for the same-sex marriage law, calling it the “law of the land.”
“I made some mistakes that I’m not proud of,” he said, referring to his 2006 comment. Orange said he changed his position to support marriage equality “long before” he decided to enter the Council chairman’s race.
Kwame Brown was among the 11 Council members who voted for the same-sex marriage bill in December. He told Stein members he’s strongly committed to LGBT equality in all areas, not just marriage.
He noted that his commitment to same-sex marriage is “unwavering,” despite expressions of outrage against his vote on the marriage bill by some community activists and clergy members who opposed the bill.
In response to an audience question, Kwame Brown said he opposes a ballot measure proposed by same-sex marriage opponents that would allow city voters to decide whether to keep or overturn the law.
Orange said he supports the marriage law but did not say, after repeated requests to comment on the matter, what his position is on a possible ballot measure to overturn the marriage law.
“I’m not going to speculate on hypotheticals,” he said.
Ray told the Blade he was disappointed but not discouraged over the Stein Club’s decision to endorse Mendelson.
“This is not going to hinder me at all,” Ray said. “I’m in this thing for the long haul and I’m in this to win. I plan to take my message to all residents — gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, straight, questioning — all the residents of the District of Columbia.”
Although Michael Brown, the D.C. shadow senator, received no votes from Stein Club members in his bid for the at-large seat, some political observers have said he poses a potential problem for Ray.
Michael Brown the shadow senator, who is white, has the same name as popular at-large D.C. Council member Michael Brown, who is black and is the son of the late Democratic National Committee chair and Clinton administration official Ron Brown.
Some activists say a significant number of voters are likely to confuse shadow senator Brown with Council member Brown and mistakenly vote for shadow senator Brown in the at-large Council race.
This would hurt Ray, some political observers say, because voters likely to back the wrong Brown would not be supporters of Mendelson, who enjoys widespread name recognition citywide, but instead could be potential votes for Ray.
The city’s two shadow senators, along with one shadow representative, hold unpaid elected posts created by the city to advocate voting rights for the District. They are not members of Congress and have no congressional authority or duties.