The mayor of Palm Springs is making a bid to become the first openly gay member of Congress who’s married with children.
Steve Pougnet, 46, a Democrat, is seeking to oust Republican incumbent Mary Bono Mack next year to represent California’s 45th district in the U.S. House. A win for Pougnet would make him the fourth sitting openly gay member of Congress.
Pougnet, who’s currently mayor of Palm Springs and a former city council member for the city, said in an interview with DC Agenda that he’s running for a House seat because he’s always had a “huge passion” for public service.
“I’ve always had the ability to lead, to bring people together,” he said. “And I think that’s why I moved pretty quickly in my young political career, because I’ve always had the ability to bring people together and to lead.”
Pougnet said he’ll need about $2.5 million to win and “a lot of hard, hard work” that relies heavily on grassroots outreach. He has secured an endorsement from the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and applied for support from the Human Rights Campaign.
He currently has no Democratic challenger for his primary in June, and would face Bono Mack in November 2010.
No stranger to helping the state’s LGBT community, Pougnet was involved last year in the fight against Proposition 8, which ended marriage rights for same-sex couples in the Golden State. He helped Equality California raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to preserve same-sex marriage and married 118 same-sex couples — more than any mayor in California.
“So, I have stood up for the issue of marriage equality,” he said. “I’m the mayor who married more couples than any other mayor in the state of California. One hundred eighteen — on our own time — we don’t get paid to do that because it was the right thing to do.”
Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, said Pougnet was “a great leader” in the fight to protect same-sex marriage.
“Steve chaired our Equality California’s Equality Awards in Palm Springs last year, and helped raised several hundred thousand dollars with us in the fight against Prop 8 at that dinner,” Kors said. “And he’s been involved in the cause for as long as I’ve known him.”
Kors said Equality California hasn’t traditionally endorsed candidates in federal elections, but that policy may change next year, and it would be difficult for his organization’s political action committee to support someone other than Pougnet.
“I think his victory would demonstrate that an openly gay candidate can win in a district that still is on the conservative side,” Kors said.
Pougnet was among the couples married last year in California. He wed his partner of 18 years, Christopher Green, who’s worked for more than 20 years in sales and marketing at Amgen, a biotech company. They have 3-year-old twins, Julia and Beckham.
During the course of his political career — as well as his current bid for Congress — Pougnet said his sexual orientation hasn’t been a major issue.
“Every once in a while you get a piece of hate mail, especially over Proposition 8, because I was very public,” he said. “Honestly, I think when you serve the people and all the people, and you’re working on the issues that are important to many different segments of the community, people respond to that.”
One of Pougnet’s priorities if he’s elected to Congress is improving the economic conditions for his constituents. He noted that his district has an unemployment rate of more than 15 percent and home foreclosures per capita are among the highest in the country.
But Pougnet also said he’s committed to advancing LGBT issues, should he be elected to Congress. He pledged to vote in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and a bill that would allow gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for residency, as well as backing repeals of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act.
“Those issues are no-brainers for me,” he said. “For me, the issues are something I wholeheartedly believe in and don’t have a problem supporting.”
Asked whether Congress and President Obama have moved quickly enough on LGBT issues, Pougnet said the administration has been dealing with a host of problems left over from the Bush years, but that lawmakers could have acted more quickly on overturning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“I do think that one issue that could have been done quickly is ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ because when you have an issue like that where when you start looking at the polls, the majority are firmly in favor of repeal,” he said.
Pougnet said he wants Obama to issue a stop-loss order to prevent the discharge of more LGBT service members until Congress can accomplish repeal.
“There certainly might be some initial, ‘My God, what’s he done to the military?’ type of thing, which is ridiculous, but that moves away very quickly,” he said. “And I think this issue we’re talking about is protecting American soldiers, men and women. That repeal would end up saving lives.”
Gay conservatives back Bono Mack
Even though he enjoys support from many LGBT groups, Pougnet is running against an incumbent lawmaker that some describe as a pro-gay Republican.
Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director of gay conservative group GOProud said his organization is among those supporting Bono Mack.
“She’s been a strong advocate for gay and lesbian Americans in Congress and she’s exactly who we need in that seat,” he said.
Bono Mack has often taken pro-LGBT stances throughout her tenure in the House. She voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004 and 2006, voted twice in favor of hates crimes protections legislation, and in 2007 voted in support of ENDA.
Ryan Watkins, campaign manager for Bono Mack, said her record shows her commitment to fairness.
“Congresswoman Bono Mack’s entire career has demonstrated her belief that individuals should be judged on their own merit,” he said.
“Tolerance and diversity are fundamental values that she embraces.”
LaSalvia criticized Pougnet for not taking a position on the estate tax, which LaSalvia said is discriminatory because it means inheritance from an LGBT person to their same-sex partner could be taxed, unlike the inheritance between straight married couples.
“He needs to realize that this is a congressional campaign and not a beauty pageant,” LaSalvia said. “If he doesn’t want to take positions on issues, he should run for Date Festival princess instead of Congress.”
Jordan Marks, campaign manager for Pougnet, said in an e-mail that Pougnet is focused on plans to create jobs in his district and is not responding to such criticism from Washington groups.
“The reality is residents of the district are facing a very difficult economy and that is what this campaign will be about. Bono Mack should disavow cynical attacks like this. This all just shows we need new leadership in Washington,” Marks said.
Even with her votes in favor of the LGBT priorities, Pougnet criticized Bono Mack for not taking a stand last year on Prop 8 as well as not stating her position on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“For her, she kind of wavers, waffles,” Pougnet said. “She didn’t want to upset one half and not the other half. My issue with that is come clean.”
Watkins said Bono Mack hasn’t taken a position on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” because she feels “military personnel decisions should be made by the leaders of our Armed Forces, not Congress.”
“If military commanders believe a change is warranted, she will revisit the issue,” he said.
As for Prop 8, Watkins said Bono Mack didn’t declare her position because it was a state issue and more properly left to the voters to decide.
But Pougnet said Bono Mack has taken a position on a state issue that will have significant impact on the people of California by endorsing Republican candidate Meg Whitman — an opponent of same-sex marriage — in next year’s gubernatorial election.
“She’s now very involved in the biggest state issue that we have, which is the next governor of the state of California, because Sacramento is such a mess,” Pougnet said. “She’s endorsed Meg Whitman, who is not a marriage equality person. Not at all.”
In uphill battle, Pougnet trails in campaign funds
Pougnet faces a significant challenge in his bid for Congress. A Republican has held the seat for California’s 45th congressional district since at least 1982, and Bono Mack won the seat last year by taking more than 60 percent of the vote.
Still, Pougnet has filled his coffers with significant funds. According to the most recent information on the Federal Elections Committee web site, he’s thus far secured $443,330 for his campaign. It’s short of Bono Mack, who’s raised $664,775, but his supporters say it’s enough for him to mount a serious challenge.
Andy Stone, spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Pougnet has a good shot at winning because the demographics in the district are changing and the area has had particular growth in non-white residents.
“If you look specifically at the voter registration numbers, the margin of difference between registered Republicans and registered Democrats has declined by more than half from just a couple years ago to today,” he said.
Stone also said Pougnet is a strong candidate because of his background as a public official.