November 25, 2014 at 8:21 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Shutting down Hill’s ‘gayest’ office
Mark Udall, gay news, Washington Blade

From left, David McCoy, John Fossum, Jake Swanton and Mike Sozan (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Take a look inside the Capitol Hill office of Mike Sozan and you get the sense that everything is business as usual.

On a Thursday just weeks after Election Day, the chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) is typing away at his Mac. On the wall to his left is a shelf covered in photos of family and friends; on the wall to his right is a framed copy of an article from the New York Times on the Senate voting to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

You have to step outside his office amid piles of boxes lining the hall to recognize something is amiss. His boss was among the Democratic casualties in the Republican wave on Election Day, which led the GOP to win eight seats in the U.S. Senate and control of Congress.

In addition to the legislative work during the lame duck session of the 113th Congress, Sozan, 45, and other staffers are tasked with closing down Udall’s office. That includes archiving Udall’s work— a process that normally takes a about a year for U.S. senators, but as a result of the loss, must be condensed to the span of six weeks.

On top of that, staffers are assisting each other with finding new jobs, which Sozan said amounts to “operating a head-hunting firm at the same time you’re doing everything else.”

Among the 28 people in Udall’s D.C. office now looking for work are at least four openly gay staffers — three senior members who’ve been with the senator since he took office in 2009 and one junior member — who have worked with the senator on pro-LGBT initiatives.

In addition to Sozan, who works as chief of staff for Udall, the staffers are Jake Swanton, legislative director; John Fossum, administrative and systems director; and David McCoy, a legislative aide.

Having one-seventh of the staff identify as gay has earned Udall’s Senate office the distinction of being one of the most LGBT-friendly on Capitol HIll.

Swanton, 33, who helped drive LGBT policy as part of his legislative work, said that distinction is a source of competition in some circles on Capitol Hill.

“I think there’s very friendly competition among other Senate staff about who has the gayest staff,” Swanton said. “Obviously, it rotates because staff come and staff go, but we have permanently been up there in the highest spot or the top three, I would say.”

It’s also a source of humor. According to Sozan, Udall said during remarks at a closed-door meeting with the Human Rights Campaign’s board of directors in March 2011: “Some of my staffers tell me that I’m considered to have the gayest staff on Capitol Hill. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it sounds great to me.”

Fossum, 39, said in his role managing Udall’s staff, that efforts were made to include LGBT people, which is why the office procedures manual has a non-discrimination policy inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity.

“It’s one of the few Senate offices that has done that from the get-go,” Fossum said. “When Mike and I were developing the office policy, it was reflective of the senator, of being accepting for all people regardless of who they are. In some sense, it’s been a non-issue because everyone’s welcome and treated equally here, but it’s also a reflection of the senator on being a good person willing to welcome all people.”

A veteran of Capitol Hill, Fossum helped found the Gay, Lesbian & Allies Senate Staff Caucus, a decade ago when he was working for Harry Reid. Calling that era a “scary time,” Fossum noted the significant changes over the course of 10 years.

“I was knocking on doors in ’04 for the Kerry-Edwards campaign,” Fossum said. “And that was the era of the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. And to have that dramatic switch in a decade is remarkable. I remember coming out to my boss; I was working for Harry Reid. And he’s like, ‘It’s not a big deal.’ I remember I was really nervous about it.”

Udall’s loss is being felt by staffers and LGBT supporters alike. The wide consensus on the Hill is that any work important to the LGBT community is likely on hold now with Republicans in charge. Udall stood out as a champion of LGBT rights despite his reputation as a moderate and constituency in the “purple” state of Colorado.

McCoy, 29, said that work in part compelled him to join Udall’s office, where his portfolio consists of LGBT issues, education, immigration and agriculture.

“When I started looking into coming to this office, a lot of his work on LGBT issuers really stood out to me,” McCoy said. “I saw numerous statements and press releases, so it definitely made it a very exciting prospect to come join a team and serve a member who has been so forward thinking on these issues for such a long time.”

Mark Udall, gay news, Washington Blade

Jake Swanton and John Fossum (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Shortly after taking office in 2009, Udall took a lead role against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Calling on President Obama in 2009 to speed up the repeal process, the senator voted for open service at each opportunity in committee and on the Senate floor.

Sozan, who served as Udall’s point person for efforts to repeal the law, recalled the decision to take the lead on the issue wasn’t universally accepted among staff because some deemed it risky for a new senator from a “purple” state.

“And to his credit, he heard that out and said ‘I’m going to do it, anyway, because I feel the country is catching up to where it needs to be on this. Things are moving forward, and the sign of a good leader is someone who’s willing to take a little bit of risk, step out in front of something and help galvanize public opinion,'” Sozan said. “So, he made a pretty calculated choice in that instance to kind of ignore some of the political advice he was getting about what we would be the safest thing to do, especially to set him up for re-election.”

In 2011, Udall came out in support of marriage equality, beating Obama to the punch, and cosponsored legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act in addition to celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the law.

In a video statement at that time, when only six states had legalized same-sex marriage, Udall said, “I support marriage equality. We have work to do. Let’s go do it.”

“I think the way in which it’s unfolding has lessons for all of us,” Udall said. “Let’s work in our states, let’s work with our neighbors, let’s work with our communities, let’s work with our elected officials. And I have no doubt that we’ll soon reach marriage equality in states and across the nation.”

More recently, Udall has worked on ensuring gay veterans living in non-marriage equality states have access to federal spousal benefits guaranteed to former members of the armed forces in opposite-sex marriages.

After the ruling against DOMA, the Obama administration extended benefits to gay married couples to the widest extent possible, but determined current law prohibits the flow of spousal veterans benefits to individuals in same-sex marriages if they live in states without marriage equality.

Udall has called on the administration to reconsider that position, saying refusing those benefits violates the spirit of the DOMA ruling, and in the meantime he co-sponsored legislation to change U.S. code to ensure gay veterans receive equal benefits.

The senator continues work on this effort to make sure it’s done before he leaves office. Just last week, he had a conversation about it with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Swanton said.

Although he’s optimistic, Swanton was tight-lipped on the actual strategy, saying, “There’s a number of different avenues for that, but we’re going to do it however we can.”

Senator-elect Cory Gardner, who beat Udall, is among the Republican politicians who is less supportive of LGBT issues. Having voted as a state legislator against LGBT non-discrimination protections and adoption rights for same-sex couples, Gardner, a two-term U.S. House member, earned a score of “0” on the Human Rights Campaign congressional scorecard.

When marriage equality became legal just last month in Colorado, the candidate said the issue belongs to the courts “and we must honor their legal decisions,” but sought to change the subject.

“While others might seek to divide Coloradans, I will not do that,” Gardner said. “Coloradans are tired of politicians who spend all their time on partisan hot-button issues that divide our state. We need leaders who are focused on bringing people together on the economic issues that we all agree on.”

Despite the views that Gardner has articulated, Sozan said he can envision Gardner becoming more supportive of LGBT rights based on “just a sense of optimism.”

“In order to represent Colorado well and to have longevity there, at the very least you have to be able to have a viewpoint that is not extremist in either direction,” Sozan said. “I think that if the new senator wants to be successful, he’s going to have to have some views that are in line with where Coloradans are on these issues, or I think there will be some unhappiness with that.”

The day-to-day work load for the staffers isn’t for the feint of heart. It’s a 24/7 gig full of surprises with new legislative work each day and responses to the latest media coverage, which can cripple a social life.

Even though each of the staffers has a list of things to accomplish as they head into work, Swanton said it isn’t really necessary because those plans often go by the wayside.

“You can just go sit down on your desk, and then all of a sudden, it’ll be 7 o’clock and you can think about maybe going home in an hour because things are just constantly happening to you and being thrust on you. And it’s kind of like you’re sitting there and things are just rushing by you like 100 miles per hour, and your job is to figure out which ones to grab and work on those.”

Each of the staffers working in Udall’s office was part of the on-the-ground effort to get Udall re-elected.

Fossum, who used up vacation time to campaign for his boss, said he never before worked for a congressional office where every staffer wanted to participate — even the interns.

“We had interns here, and they got positions as field organizers and they were on our staff,” Fossum said. “And I worked with them when I was out knocking on doors.”

Swanton directed get-out-the-vote efforts in Arapahoe County, the suburbs south of Denver where he grew up; McCoy worked on college campuses in Greeley; Sozan worked throughout the state, including riding on a bus tour with Udall.

“By and large, it was really positive and actually pretty inspirational, especially when you can find somebody who wasn’t going to vote and turn them into a voter,” Sozan said. “You get doors slammed in your face sometimes; you get people who say, ‘No way am I voting for Mark Udall; I’m voting for his opponent.’ Those aren’t the most pleasant of conversations, but you move on to the next door and find an enthusiastic supporter.”

For McCoy, one of the biggest problems with on-the-ground campaign work was countering the negative campaign ads, much of which were funded by outside money.

“Colorado had some of the most outside money flooding into the state, flooding our airwaves,” McCoy said. “A lot of people were just kind of sick of the whole thing. We were trying to return to that person-to-person contact.”

Polls had consistently showed a small lead for Gardner right up until Election Day, but optimism persisted until the very end.

It was relatively early in the night when Gardner was declared the victor. Fox News was the first to call the race in favor of the Republican, followed about a half-hour later by the Associated Press. Udall called Gardner to concede at around 10 p.m. When the dust cleared, Gardner had won 48.5 percent of the votes, compared to the 46 percent won by Udall.

Watching the returns come in at a hotel event in Denver intended to be Udall’s victory celebration, Sozan said the declaration that Udall had lost the election was a “sad moment.”

“It’s never easy to lose a race, of course, especially when you put your heart into it for several years, but Colorado is losing a really terrific senator, the Senate is losing a world-class guy, and we’re all losing the opportunity to continue work on issues that he cares so much about,” Sozan said.

Fossum said he received a text message from his mother that night saying the election results were “so sad for Colorado.”

What went wrong for Udall? Two days before the polls closed, Cokie Roberts on ABC News said Udall ran a “terrible campaign” because of his reliance on women’s issues.

“Going after women on abortion and birth control and all of these things is pandering in a way that women start to just resent,” she said.

The blame for Udall’s loss is a touchy subject among staffers.When asked about it, Swanton attributed the loss to a combination of things, saying, “The election’s over and we need to move on.”

“If everybody in Colorado knew Mark Udall and who he was one-tenth like we do, then he would’ve won in a landslide,” Swanton said. “And so, I don’t think that they did know. Campaigns are tough. It’s tough to communicate a person and their values and what they really believe when everything is done in sound bites.”

In the meantime, his staff is busy looking for new work. Pursuing new work on Capitol Hill is tough thanks to the Democratic losses on Election Day. As they review each other’s resumes, they take calls from people expressing condolences for the loss of their jobs — and the loss of Udall from the Senate.

Drawing on Udall’s experience as a mountaineer who has climbed the highest peaks in Colorado, including the fourteeners (or mountains over 14,000 feet), Fossum put it succinctly: “This ’14 election was a fourteener that he didn’t summit.”

Mark Udall, gay news, Washington Blade

Mike Sozan (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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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