August 22, 2012 at 9:31 am EST | by Chris Johnson
Bi congressional candidate accuses opponent of homophobic tactics

A former Arizona state lawmaker who could become the first openly bisexual person elected to Congress is accusing a Democratic primary opponent of telling potential supporters that she can’t win because of her sexual orientation. Meanwhile, LGBT supporters of her opponent have rushed to his defense.

Kyrsten Sinema, who was a state lawmaker for seven years, is competing in a three-way primary set for Tuesday with Andrei Cherny, a former chair of the Arizona Democratic Party, and State Senate Minority Leader David Schapira. The winner gets the Democratic nod to represent the state’s 9th congressional district in the U.S. House.

In a Washington Blade interview on Friday, Sinema had particularly harsh words for Cherny, whom she said has engaged in “very, very, very dirty” campaign tactics by telling potential supporters she wouldn’t be a good choice for the Democratic nomination because she’s bisexual and single.

“Unfortunately, his strategy every time he runs for office has been to really seek to tear down his opponent instead of putting forth his own positive ideas for the future,” Sinema said. “We’re seeing that same strategy again in this election.”

In one instance, Sinema said she was told by a union — which ultimately chose to endorse her — that Cherny said during an earlier endorsement interview that she couldn’t win because of her sexual orientation.

“I got a call from some union folks who support my campaign because of my long history of standing with working families,” Sinema said. “Apparently, he had told some of them in interviews that I couldn’t win the election and that I shouldn’t get the endorsement because I’m openly bisexual and can’t win a general election.”

Sinema said the union asked her later about her sexual orientation and she replied, “It’s true that I’m openly bisexual, I have been my entire adult life, and I’ve managed to win four elections, and, meanwhile, he’s lost two, so perhaps it was being straight that was the problem here.”

Before becoming chair of the Arizona Democratic Party, Cherny lost an election for California State Assembly in 2002 and lost an election to become Arizona state treasurer.

Additionally, Sinema accused Cherny and his wife of telling potential donors she wouldn’t be the right choice because she’s “not a family person.” While Sinema is single and has no children, Cherny is married and has two children.

“I spent nearly two decades as a social worker and an educator with kids,” Sinema said. “So, my whole life has been about helping middle-class families. So it’s just kind of a hollow argument to say I’m not a family person.”

However, Sinema said the strategy “backfired” and as a result of him allegedly making these comments to potential donors, she’s received phone calls from individuals offering help because they considered it “a distasteful strategy.”

Sinema declined to identify the union or the potential donors to whom Cherny allegedly made the accusations.

Seth Scott, Cherny’s campaign manager, responded to Sinema’s accusations by denying the charges and calling her a liar.

“Kyrsten Sinema’s false accusation is a dirty, desperate and slanderous lie,” Scott said. “Sinema’s willingness to make up such egregious lies tells us all we need to know about her own personal character, her standing in the polls and her fitness for office.”

It’s not the first time Sinema has accused Cherny of underhanded campaign tactics. In May, The Hill newspaper reported that Sinema and Schapira issued a joint statement criticizing Cherny for what they called “Karl Rove-styled attacks” from an earlier campaign as well as in the current primary.

According to The Hill, Sinema and Schapira criticized Cherny for his 2002 campaign for a seat in the California State Assembly. The mailer featured a photograph of a tattooed black male with a gun, suggesting voters would be unsafe under Cherny’s opponent. Further, Sinema and Schapira reportedly accused Cherny of circulating false information to right-wing publications, misrepresenting news articles and employing guilt by association to attack other Democrats. Cherny’s supporters reportedly said the other candidates were smearing him and Cherny was quoted as saying the 10-year-old flier doesn’t reflect the work he’s done over the past 15 years.

Sinema, who is known as an LGBT rights advocate in Arizona and led campaigns against state ballot initiatives prohibiting same-sex marriage, has been endorsed by major LGBT organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund.

Denis Dison, a Victory Fund spokesperson, said the campaign tactics that Sinema says Cherny is employing against her aren’t unusual in tight races involving LGBT candidates.

“It’s something we’ve seen before in races as they’ve come down to the wire and our candidates are in a good position,” Dison said. “Unfortunately, even in Democratic primaries, you see people start to play this ‘sexual orientation’ card. It’s particularly unfortunate that this is happening in a primary in a party that is supposed to beyond this type of politicking. But you see it from time to time, and it’s unfortunate that it is apparently happening now in Kyrsten’s race.”

Some prominent LGBT individuals in Arizona rallied behind Cherny in the face of the accusations, saying that they couldn’t believe he would make homophobic remarks and that Sinema was making accusations without offering proof.

Jim Kolbe, a gay Republican who formerly represented Arizona in the U.S. House, called the allegations against Cherny “preposterous” and said there’s no way the candidate would employ such campaign tactics.

“I’ve known Andrei for a number of years and there has never been anybody that is more open, more gay friendly,” Kolbe said. “It’s just inconceivable that he would try and make that charge. It’s ironic, I guess, a sign of times, that gay politics has come to this, where instead of accusing somebody of being gay, you accuse of maybe not being gay enough. But, obviously, that’s not true. I feel absolutely certain that’s not accurate.”

Neil Giuliano, a gay former mayor of Tempe, Ariz., and former head of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said he knows Cherny and there’s “nothing homophobic or anti-gay” about the candidate.

“I understand it’s been a really rough race between the three of them,” Giuliano said. “They’re all good people, but I’m compelled to weigh in on Andrei’s behalf because I just can’t, for the life of me, believe that kind of an accusation against Andrei Cherny. I just don’t believe it.”

According to Federal Election Commission reports, Giuliano has contributed a total of $1,500 to Cherny, but Giuliano said he otherwise has stayed out of the race.

Rebecca Wininger, a lesbian Phoenix, Ariz., activist, said she backed Cherny early in his campaign and doesn’t believe he would make homophobic comments because people within his family are members of the LGBT community.

“I’ve seen him interact with them with love and support, and I can’t believe the Andrei I know would make such statements,” Wininger said.

Wininger is board president of Equality Arizona, but she said she was speaking on her own behalf and not as part of any organization.

The three Democrats have been involved in a fierce fundraising battle with less than one week before the primary. The Washington Blade was unable to find any recent, independent polls reflecting the state of the campaign.

According to the most recent Federal Election Commission reports, Cherny has raised the most money, a total of $861,477 while spending $572,889 and having $289,088 in cash on hand. In comparison, Sinema has raised $747,403, spent $592,909 and has $154,495 in cash on hand. Meanwhile, Schapira has $237,889 in net receipts, spent $223,826 in expenditures, has $14,063 in cash on hand.

Besides making allegations about Cherny, Sinema said during the Blade interview she’s committed to LGBT issues and sees passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and second-parent adoption as priorities along with other initiatives if she’s elected to Congress.

“People actually do get fired for being gay,” Sinema said. “People do get refusals to promote or refused to hire because they’re gay or perceived to be gay. I see ENDA and second-parent adoption as being very practical. People need jobs and need to take care of their families. So those are high on my priority list.”

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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