August 8, 2012 | by Chris Johnson
Gay activist loses bid for Congress in Michigan
Trevor Thomas, gay news, Washington Blade

Trevor Thomas (right) lost his congressional bid on Tuesday night (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A gay candidate who has built his political career on LGBT activism has lost his bid to represent his home state of Michigan in Congress.

Trevor Thomas, a Michigan native who worked for LGBT advocacy groups in D.C. before returning to his home state, lost the Democratic nomination for Michigan’s 3rd congressional district to Steve Pestka, a small business owner and former Kent County commissioner. Pestka will go on to challenge Republican incumbent Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) in the general election.

In a statement issued late Tuesday, Thomas said he called Pestka to concede the race at around 11:15 p.m. With 73 percent of precincts reporting at around midnight, local NBC affiliate WOOD TV reported Pestka was leading with 56 percent of the vote compared to Thomas’ 44 percent of the vote.

“I spoke with Judge Pestka tonight and congratulated him on his victory in this hard-fought campaign,” said Thomas in a statement. “I told him that I look forward to working together to defeat Justin Amash in the fall. Democrats and folks from across the political spectrum are united in feeling that Representative Amash is out of touch with West Michigan values, and we need to make sure that we unseat him in November.”

Thomas served as deputy communications director for the Human Rights Campaign and communications director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. His work at disseminating information on developments on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lauded as Congress made its way though the process for repealing the military’s gay ban. Thomas also worked for the short-lived group Equality Matters, which was an arm of the watchdog group Media Matters.

However, Thomas faced a significant challenge in winning the Democratic nomination in the race. For starters, Pestka had been endorsed by many unions — including the United Auto Workers, the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO — which are a powerful force in a state that is highly dependent on the automobile industry.

Pestka also had more money to campaign on than Thomas, although much of Pestka’s money was the result of him contributing to his own campaign.

Pestka’s net receipts were $799,000 over the course of the cycle, but $590,000 of that was self-financing and $208,000 was from external sources. Meanwhile, Thomas had raised $282,000 from contributors and self-financed only $7,000. At the time of the primary, Pestka had $452,000 in cash on hand while Thomas had $86,000. Still, Pestka had accrued $658,000 in debt over the course of his campaign and Thomas’ campaign carried no debt.

Thomas obtained the endorsements of Michigan’s former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Lt. Gov. John Cherry after having worked for them during their gubernatorial campaign. A number of high-profile figures in the gay rights movement also endorsed him, including former Rep. Patrick Murphy, who sponsored legislation that repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the U.S. House, as well as retiring gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).

Michigan has an open primary, meaning voters can cast their ballot in a primary regardless of their declared political affiliation. It wasn’t immediately clear if the open primary had a significant impact on the primary results.

In other election news, Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) won the Republican primary in a three-way competition to challenge incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who’s considered among the most vulnerable Democrats in the Senate. The outcome has relevance to the LGBT community because Akin has been leading anti-gay initiatives in the Republican-controlled U.S. House. Akin was the sponsor of amendments in the House Armed Services Committee to major Pentagon budget legislation that would bar same-sex weddings from taking place on military facilities.

CORRECTION: An initial version of this article incorrectly stated Pestka had outraised Thomas during the campaign. That characterization didn’t take into account the money that Pestka had loaned himself for his campaign. The Blade regrets the error.

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

5 Comments
  • Peter Rosenstein

    We are all proud of the race that Trevor Thomas ran.

    He had the endorsements of five members of Congress and Planned Parenthood among others. The shame was that the Victory Fund didn’t endorse him. I am a strong supporter of the Victory Fund but there has to be a way that young men like Trevor who has devoted years to working on behalf of the LGBT community are endorsed. As it turned out Trevor got nearly 45% of the vote without their help and who knows what he could have done had the Victory Fund helped him raise the needed funds.

    This is a loss for our community and for the Democratic Party. Democrats have to stop endorsing politicians who end up siding with Republicans against women and who are not strong supporters of the LGBT community and strong Party issues.

    Trevor ran a great race and I predict that one day Trevor will be in Congress and we will all be better for that.

  • it actually ended up being pestka 60, thomas 39

  • Trevor had over 41 percent of the vote, but thanks.

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