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Fresno activists wage lonely battle to oust congressman
Editor’s note: This is the second in an occasional series profiling congressional districts in which the incumbent is not supportive of LGBT rights. The articles seek to assess the chances of electing a supportive candidate to help advance pro-LGBT bills that have been stalled in Congress. Visit washingtonblade.com for the first installment on Maryland’s 6th District.
U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is one of 14 members of the U.S. House of Representatives from California who received a “0” rating on LGBT issues from the Human Rights Campaign’s 2010 Congressional Scorecard, which has a rating scale of 0 to 100.
Nunes and most of the other U.S. House members with a 0 rating in the state — all Republicans — represent districts inside or bordering on California’s Central Valley, a vast rural and agricultural region in the interior and eastern part of the state.
The region has traditionally elected conservative Republicans to Congress and to the California Legislature.
“The rabid homophobes come from rabid, red homophobic districts,” said Mark Leno, a gay State Senator from San Francisco and longtime LGBT rights advocate. “They’re going to get re-elected. So to waste time, energy and resources in those districts is just that, a waste,” Leno told the Blade.
“You have to look at party registration where it’s most possible for a Democrat to win, and that’s what the Democrats are doing,” he said.
The newly redrawn district includes precincts that voted overwhelmingly for Sen. John McCain in 2008, leading many observers to label the seat “safe” for Nunes.
But gay activist Jason Scott, a resident of Clovis, Calif., a small city that borders on the much larger City of Fresno, said he’s troubled that the national Democratic Party and national LGBT organizations appear to have written off the 22nd Congressional District and other Central Valley districts.
Scott is one of the organizers of Gay Fresno, an online LGBT news and resource service that covers Fresno and nearby cities and towns in the Central Valley region. Although he agrees that Nunes is likely to win re-election this year, Scott told the Blade residents of Nunes’ 22nd District have changed their views on LGBT issues in recent years.
“I don’t feel like the people he represents have the identical mindset that he does on gay rights,” Scott said.
Lesbian activist Robin McGehee, a Fresno resident who teaches communications at the College of the Sequoias in nearby Visalia, expressed a similar view. McGehee is co-founder of the national LGBT direct action group GetEqual and one of the lead organizers of the 2009 National March on Washington for LGBT Equality.
“It would be great if more of our state-based organizations and even national organizations were putting boots on the ground and resources in these congressional districts,” she said. “I think we can swing the vote because Nunes is really not liked as well as what would be expected in a farming community like this.”
McGehee added, “There are lots of liberal Democrats that are here. Nunes is the one who’s gotten all the resources. That’s the reason he’s been in that seat as long as he has.”
Nunes has voted against the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the law that prohibited gays from serving openly in the U.S. military. According to the HRC Congressional Scorecard, Nunes has declined to back all of the LGBT supportive bills pending in Congress, including the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, which calls for banning private sector employment discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity.
He also opposes legal recognition of same-sex marriage and has declined to support or co-sponsor legislation to repeal the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA.
Jack Langer, director of communications for Nunes’ congressional office in Washington, said he would make inquires to determine if Nunes has changed his position on LGBT issues since the release of the HRC Scorecard in October 2010. Langer didn’t get back with a response by Wednesday afternoon.
HRC is scheduled to release an updated version of its Congressional Scorecard in October. People familiar with Nunes’ voting record and positions have said he doesn’t appear to have changed his views on LGBT issues.
Scott of Gay Fresno said he wrote a letter to Nunes’ office urging him to take a more supportive posture on LGBT-related issues. He said the response he received was a terse refusal to back any of the bills or positions he inquired about.
“I was surprised that the response I received went further than the Republican talking points you would expect from a member of Congress,” Scott said. “It looked like it came from one of the anti-gay groups.”
Scott said he knows of no local LGBT political advocacy groups in Nunes’ district or in any locations within the Central Valley. While the statewide group Equality California gets involved in some issues in the region, for the most part LGBT people in the region have been left to fend for themselves, Scott said.
He and McGehee said an effective advocacy campaign for LGBT equality, especially through TV ads, could have resulted in far more votes in the Central Valley against Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure approved by California voters that bans same-sex marriage in the state constitution. McGehee said the No on 8 campaign had little or no presence in the Central Valley other than to provide campaign signs.
“I think voter education is an important part of this,” Scott said, adding that a concerted effort by national and state advocacy groups to promote LGBT rights in the region would significantly boost the chances for electing pro-LGBT candidates to Congress and state offices in the Central Valley region.
Leno, the gay state senator, points to a plan developed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that strategically targets eight congressional districts in California that are held by Republicans or are vacant due to redistricting.
The plan, dubbed “Red to Blue 2012,”calls for sending money and logistical support to the Democratic candidates running in those districts from the National Democratic Party and Democratic contributors from across the country.
One of the targeted races is in the newly created 41st District in the Los Angeles area, where gay Democrat Mark Takano is said to have a good chance of winning in an area with a solid Democratic majority. Takano is receiving logistical and financial support under the Red to Blue campaign.
Another district targeted is the redrawn 36th in the Palm Springs area, which is held by Republican Mary Bono Mack. The Log Cabin Republicans endorsed Bono Mack in 2010 but have yet to do so this year, according to an endorsement list on the group’s website.
Bono Mack received a rating of 53 on the HRC Scorecard in 2010, the highest rating of any Republican in the state.
The newly drawn 22nd Congressional District where Devin Nunes is running for re-election to his sixth term in office is not one of the districts targeted in the Red to Blue 2012 campaign. The Red to Blue 2012 campaign is targeting just three of the 14 California districts where the GOP incumbent had a 0 HRC Scorecard rating. The three targeted districts are not in the Central Valley region.
Nunes is being challenged by Democrat Otto Lee, a Chinese-American businessman and U.S. Navy veteran who served in the first Gulf War and later, as a commander in the Navy Reserves, was recalled to active duty during the Iraq war.
Lee is a former city council member and former mayor of Sunnyvale, Calif., in the state’s Silicon Valley area, which is located more than 100 miles away from the 22nd Congressional District. The fact that he and his family moved to the district earlier this year has prompted Nunes supporters to call him a carpetbagger.
Brandon Fisk, an official with the Fresno County Democratic Party Central Committee, said voters would likely view Lee’s experience as an accomplished businessman, Navy Reserves commander, and “public servant” in Sunnyvale as an asset that will help him better serve as a congressman in the Fresno area.
“Nobody called him a carpetbagger when he served in Iraq,” Fisk said.
Scott and McGehee said that although Lee has not mentioned LGBT issues in his campaign speeches he has made it known in the district that he would be supportive on LGBT issues in Congress. Scott said the Lee campaign reserved space to set up a booth at an LGBT Pride festival scheduled for Saturday in Visalia.
Although Congress in the past three-and-a-half years has passed legislation to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and to approve a hate crimes law that allows the federal government to prosecute hate crimes against LGBT people, all other LGBT supportive bills have remained stalled in committee.
Some LGBT advocates have said they are especially troubled over the inability of the Democrats to arrange for the passage of ENDA when they controlled both the House and Senate in 2009 and 2010. Then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) have said Democratic supporters, who far outnumbered Republicans committed to backing ENDA, had the votes to pass the bill itself but not to defeat one or more hostile amendments expected to be introduced by opponents of the bill.
Frank said a head count taken by House Democratic leaders found that supporters would fall short by a dozen or more votes in an effort to defeat an amendment calling for banning transgender people from certain jobs such as schoolteachers.
It was due to that uncertainty that Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders chose not to bring up ENDA for a vote at the time, according to Pelosi spokesperson Drew Hammill.
Most political observers say ENDA and most other LGBT bills would have little or no chance of passing in the next two years if Republicans retain control of the House. Pelosi and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s leaders say they are hopeful that Democrats will win the 25 House seats they need to regain control of the House in the November election.
McGehee and other LGBT advocates, however, say if Democrats win a majority in the House, nearly all of the new members making up their majority will likely be from swing districts with many conservative, Republican leaning voters. Unless advocacy groups and the Democrats do the outreach work needed to change the hearts and minds of voters on LGBT issues in places like California’s Central Valley, Democrats may not be able to garner the votes needed to pass ENDA and other gay bills, the advocates say.
“Could we do more about this?” asked gay California Assemblyman and former San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano. “Absolutely,” he said.
Ammiano said he was hopeful that the growing number of LGBT supportive members of the state legislature and in county and municipal offices throughout the state would serve as a “farm team” for future LGBT friendly members of Congress.
LGBT advocates note that while California has the distinction of having 14 congressional districts with anti-LGBT incumbents, the largest number of U.S. House members with a 0 HRC rating of any state, California also has the most members of Congress with a perfect 100 HRC rating — 21 House members and both U.S. senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.
“California certainly is a progressive state and is becoming ever bluer every year,” said Leno.
R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Tagged with Brandon Fisk, California, Defense of Marriage Act, Democrats, Devin Nunes, DOMA, Election 2012, Employment Non-Discrimination Act, ENDA, Fresno, GetEqual, Homepage Headlines, Human Rights Campaign, Jason Scott, John McCain, Log Cabin Republicans, Mark Leno, Mark Takano, Mary Bono Mack, Nancy Pelosi, National Equality March, Otto Lee, Robin McGehee, San Francisco, US House of Representatives
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