February 8, 2014 | by Chris Johnson
Marcus Brandon seeks to become first out black congressman
Marcus Brandon, North Carolina, Greensboro, gay news, Washington Blade

N.C. state Rep.Marcus Brandon (D-Greensboro) is running for Congress in North Carolina. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Marcus Brandon has a chance to make history.

If he wins his bid to represent North Carolina’s 12th congressional district in the U.S. House, he could become the first openly gay black person elected to Congress.

Brandon, 39, says that distinction would be “really significant” because black people within the LGBT community tend to suffer most in terms of discrimination, but he asks potential supporters to look at his full body of work as the reason to back his candidacy.

“I tell people don’t vote for me because I’m gay, [but] because I passed more bills than anybody in the race,” Brandon said. “And so, we’re about effectiveness. So, for people to see my work, it really makes it a much more powerful conversation to say, ‘You know what, we really don’t care about his sexuality; we’re just glad he put 10 new schools in our district.’”

The congressional hopeful spoke to the Washington Blade on Thursday in the offices of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which has endorsed his candidacy.

“I felt that underrepresented communities, like the one I live in, were not really having true representation in terms of being able to deal with structural issues concerning our community, dealing with education and equality, dealing with income inequality, environmental inequality,” Brandon said.

The 12th congressional district, which is located in central North Carolona and comprises portions of Charlotte, Winston-Salem and High Point, is heavily Democratic. It has been vacant since former Rep. Mel Watt resigned this year to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency and a special election has been set for November.

The district has a significant African-American population; 47.2 percent of the residents are white, while 44.6 percent are black. More than a quarter of residents in the district live below the poverty line.

“The social ills that come out of that — I have the highest HIV rates, I have the highest infant mortality rates, I have the highest drop out rates,” Brandon said. “Whenever you say 41 percent of African-American males don’t graduate, that number doubles in that community.”

Brandon has experience in the political arena and distinction of toppling an incumbent in his own party. In 2011, he was elected to represent Greensboro in the State House of Representatives after beating four-term lawmaker and newspaper owner Earl Jones in the Democratic primary. He’s currently the only openly gay member of the North Carolina General Assembly.

Yet again in his run for Congress, Brandon has competition for the Democratic nomination. Several other Democrats are in the race to claim the Democratic banner for the seat, including State Rep. Alma Adams, attorney George Battle III, attorney Curtis Osborne and State Sen. Malcolm Graham.

But Brandon said the most recent fundraising numbers reveal that only two Democratic candidates are in a position to “run a sufficient race here.” Brandon has raised the most, taking in $213,804 and having $71,000 in cash on hand, while Adams comes in second, taking in $202,000 and having $92,000 in cash on hand. The primary is May 6.

“I’ve never lost an election, and I don’t intend to lose this one,” Brandon said. “We have the biggest organization, the one with the most momentum and we fully anticipate it to be a very close election, but I have no doubt that we’ll win this race.”

David Wasserman, House editor at the Cook Political Report, said it’s too early to determine what will happen in the primary, but added Brandon is a strong candidate.

“It’s so early in the race that it’s difficult to tell who will comprise the top tier,” Wasserman said. “But it’s safe to say Brandon will be a formidable contender, because he appeals to multiple constituency groups in the Democratic Party.”

If elected to Congress, Brandon said he’d work to address HIV/AIDS by restructuring the process of block grants from the U.S. government.

“We can’t treat Cincinnati, Ohio, like you treat High Point, North Carolina, or Charlotte, North Carolina,” Brandon said. “I, as a state legislator, was never able to move that money around to people who could do the work simply because of the control the federal government has on a very generic way that we deal with funding.”

Brandon said one piece of legislation long-pursued by the LGBT community, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, would be “a big priority” for him.

The congressional hopeful said he sponsored a bill in the state legislature that would bar anti-LGBT workplace discrimination in North Carolina and worked to ensure it included teachers and protections for transgender people.

“One of my colleagues in the Senate did an ENDA bill that excluded teachers because they were fearful of the conversation,” Brandon said. “I think that’s why it’s important to have LGBT people at the table when we’re making policy because we know that any kind of conversation actually moves people from one place to the next, and that’s always been a vision for us. To exclude anybody from a conversation on equality is not something that we do.”

As ENDA languishes in Congress, Brandon said he’d like to see President Obama sign an executive order prohibiting LGBT discrimination among federal contractors because it would serve as a “reference point” for the passage of legislation.

“I think it definitely would help simply because everybody needs a reference point to know what’s right,” Brandon said. “There’s a lot of fear-based rhetoric that goes along with this, and I think that if we have a reference point … it makes it a lot easier for that domino effect to take place.”

Brandon isn’t the only openly gay black candidate in the middle of a congressional bid. Also pursuing a seat is Steve Dunwood, a Michigan candidate who’s seeking to represent Detroit in the U.S. House.

Brandon also isn’t the only openly gay candidate running in North Carolina. Just this week, gay singer and “American Idol” runner-up Clay Aiken announced that he’s pursuing the Democratic nomination in the state’s 2nd congressional district in an attempt to unseat Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.).

Brandon said he welcomes a fellow openly gay congressional candidate in North Carolina running at the same time — mostly because he thinks it’s time for Ellmers to end her tenure as a member of Congress.

“I’m very excited about Clay running for Congress because I’m a Democrat and we really need that seat,” Brandon said. “Renee Ellmers has done nothing but show contempt and hate for our president, and so, I think Clay Aiken has studied issues and always been passionate about social issues. And he’s just like me, he’s just a guy that happens to be gay and wants to make change.”

Brandon was elected to the state legislature just one year before North Carolina approved Amendment One, a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and marriage-like unions. Brandon voted against it but the legislature approved the measure, as did North Carolina voters.

Although Brandon said his state is ready for marriage equality, he blamed redistricting in favor of Republicans as the reason why it hasn’t happened.

Amid numerous lawsuits making their way to the Supreme Court, including one filed in North Carolina, Brandon said a ruling from the high court would be a “much quicker route” to bringing marriage rights to gay couples in the state.

“I do believe the people of North Carolina, and polls shows that we are there, and North Carolina is ready for equality,” Brandon said. “I think the country is ready for equality, it just takes the political will, like it always does.”

Torey Carter, chief operations officer at the Victory Fund, said Brandon’s election to Congress is important because no openly gay black person has ever been elected to the body.

“North Carolina State Representative Marcus Brandon’s endorsement from the Victory Fund comes at a key moment in history where currently in the United States Congress there is not an out gay black member of Congress,” Carter said. “We are excited for Brandon’s primary on May 6 where he will hopefully shatter one of the many glass ceilings that need to be broken.”

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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