A squabble broke out at the Equality Forum panel discussion of national politics I moderated last week in Philadelphia.
A woman in the audience objected forcefully after the Victory Fund’s Torey Carter discussed his organization’s controversial endorsement of two gay candidates for Congress.
One is Richard Tisei, a gay Republican from Massachusetts seeking to unseat pro-LGBT (but straight) incumbent John Tierney. The race is dividing LGBT voters and donors, with some saying we should remain loyal to our allies in Congress while others like the Victory Fund see an opportunity to add an openly gay voice to the GOP caucus.
The other race is in New York where the Victory Fund and other LGBT advocates are backing Sean Eldridge over a Republican incumbent who opposes marriage equality. The race is controversial because Eldridge has a thin resume but deep pockets — he’s married to Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes.
The woman at Equality Forum nearly leapt from her seat, angry at the notion of a candidate buying a seat in Congress and questioning whether the LGBT community should play along with such unsavory tactics.
Her frustration is certainly understandable. Eldridge embodies much of what is wrong with our modern political system, which prizes money over achievement. LGBT advocates should reconsider supporting Eldridge’s vanity campaign for Congress from New York’s 19th congressional district.
Or is it the 18th district? It’s hard to keep track of where Eldridge and his wealthy husband — who won the lottery by ending up Mark Zuckerberg’s college roommate as he was creating Facebook — are buying their latest multi-million-dollar home.
We should abandon the term “carpetbagging” and call it “Eldridgeing” because he gives new meaning to the cynical practice of picking up and moving to a new district to buy a seat in Congress.
Eldridge is taking on incumbent Rep. Chris Gibson, a Republican who opposes marriage equality but is a co-sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Of course, no one would mistake Gibson for a gay rights advocate — he earned a zero on HRC’s congressional scorecard — but gay voters and donors should resist lining up behind an alternative just because he’s gay and rich. Surely there’s a viable, experienced Democrat living in the district. We won’t know because anyone contemplating a run was scared off by the Hughes war chest.
In sharp contrast to most newbie politicians, Eldridge shuns the media. He has refused multiple Blade interview requests. Politico last month published a profile of Eldridge and noted that he not only refused its interview requests, but locked the campaign headquarters door when a reporter showed up knocking.
Despite Eldridge’s arrogant approach to campaigning, LGBT voices are embracing him.
“They are young, rich, smart and good-looking. It’s a pretty powerful combination,” Richard Socarides told the New York Times in a predictable display of sycophantic ass kissing.
There’s no disputing they are rich. Hughes’ net worth has been reported to be between $600-700 million. The money came from his connection to Facebook’s Zuckerberg. As the New York Times put it, “For Mr. Hughes, a history and literature student with no programming skills, it later seemed to outsiders a lucky break.”
The couple bought an estate in Garrison, N.Y. along with 80 acres in 2011 for $5 million, the Times noted, quoting Eldridge as saying that’s where they “put down roots.” But just two years later, when the congressional seat in that area appeared out of reach for Eldridge, they bought a new, $2 million spread just north in the 19th congressional district.
Eldridge is just 27 but has a “deep commitment” to public service, according to his bio on Victory Fund’s website. It continues, “He helped lead the successful campaign for marriage equality in New York State in 2011.” That’s almost as ridiculous and brazen as author Jo Becker comparing HRC’s Chad Griffin to Rosa Parks in her new book “Forcing the Spring.”
Much gnashing of teeth followed publication of the book last month. Part of the reason for the backlash is that the book played into a narrative of HRC swooping in at the 11th hour and taking credit for the work of grassroots activists. Many of them have complained (often privately and off the record, fearing retribution) of HRC’s tactics, from Maryland to Maine and California to New York.
We all know the marriage equality movement didn’t start in 2008 with the Prop 8 case and that Griffin is no Rosa Parks. In fact, that case fell far short of its goals; it’s an odd choice for Becker’s grandiose claims.
As gays find increasing acceptance and move openly into the halls of power, we mustn’t forget our own history, as HRC bet wrongly we would in the case of Becker’s book. That history has always been about a shared responsibility for helping each other overcome discrimination and hate. We all stand on the shoulders of a generation of gay men who died and the LGBT survivors who took care of them.
And, as the insightful Maya Rupert of the National Center for Lesbian Rights told our audience at the Equality Forum: We don’t need a gay Rosa Parks. The original belongs to everyone.
Kevin Naff is editor of the Washington Blade. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.