Mike Fleck, who represented the state’s rural and conservative 81st House District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 2006 until late last year, in June officially became the director of the Bureau of Workplace Partnerships and Operations within the commonwealth’s Department of Labor and Industry.
The agency helps Pennsylvanians find employment after losing their jobs. It also works with young people looking for post-high school employment and offers access to training and other assistance through centers that operate in each of the state’s 67 counties.
Fleck told the Washington Blade during an exclusive interview at his home in Huntingdon County on July 16 that he sees himself in many of the people with whom he and his agency works.
“I was once laid off in a county with double-digit unemployment with a mortgage to pay,” he said while sitting at his dining room table. “That’s a lot of the people that we see.”
Republican lost seat after coming out
Fleck, 42, accepted the position with the Wolf administration less than seven months after he lost the seat in the Pennsylvania House to which he was first elected in 2006.
Then-Huntingdon County Treasurer Richard Irvin defeated Fleck in November 2014.
Fleck narrowly lost to Irvin in the Republican primary earlier that year after staging a successful write-in campaign. Fleck won the Democratic nomination and appeared on the November ballot as a Democrat, even though he was a Republican.
Fleck told the Blade he feels he lost the election because voters objected to the fact that he had come out in December 2012.
“It came down to me being gay,” he said. “There’s no way to sugarcoat that. People will say that it didn’t. They were upset that I came out after the last election in 2012.”
“There were people that I had helped who were die-hard Democrats who had my opponent’s sign in their yard,” added Fleck. “It’s like I helped you repeatedly, didn’t care you were a Democrat. Still don’t. So why do you have a Tea Party Republican’s sign in your yard? They’ll come up with all sorts of excuses.”
Victory Fund asked Fleck to delay coming out
Fleck became the first openly gay state lawmaker in Pennsylvania when he came out. He was also the first out Republican to ever hold a seat in the Pennsylvania Legislature.
Fleck told the Blade that his decision to come out was “really an evolution over the last several years leading into that.” He said that one of the moments that made him realize that he needed to publicly declare his sexual orientation came in May 2012 when President Obama announced he supports marriage rights for same-sex couples.
Fleck said that he was watching CNN shortly after Obama’s announcement when he saw Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, a fellow alumnus of Liberty University, talking about the issue with then-anchor Piers Morgan.
Perkins said during the interview that his son would never be gay because he and his wife “raised him right.”
“That was the first time that I really felt that sickening in my gut,” Fleck told the Blade. “It really gnawed at me and it’s like I’m not doing any good by staying in the closet.”
Another moment came a few days later when he read a story about “equality issues” in a local newspaper.
The reporter interviewed a gay man from Blair County who had just moved back to the area after living in Brooklyn, New York, for several years. Fleck read the print version of the article in his office a few days later and noticed the issue of the newspaper had “a huge picture, this guy wearing a pink boa in drag” above the fold.
“For me that’s the only gay I saw growing up: The butt of jokes… no one that I could ever relate to,” said Fleck. “It really gnawed at me for a while. That’s when I decided to come out.”
He said another reason that he wanted to come out was to “give hope to people who were struggling,” especially in the rural area in which he lives and grew up.
“I certainly didn’t see that growing up,” he said.
Fleck said he “stumbled upon an article” about gay former Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman and sent him a message through LinkedIn. Mehlman called Fleck and put him in touch with lobbyist Bill Smith, who connected him with Denis Dison of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund.
Fleck told the Blade that he wanted to come out before the 2012 election, but the Victory Fund encouraged him to wait until after he had secured re-election.
“They didn’t think anything good would come out of it,” he said. “I’m not afraid to make a good decision, and I thought it was a good decision.”
Fleck told the Blade another issue that factored into his decision not to come out until after the election was that a number of his colleagues from the Philadelphia suburbs were in close races during that election cycle. He downplayed reports that the Victory Fund asked him to delay his coming out because it had backed gay state Rep. Brian Sims’s (D-Philadelphia) campaign.
“That story got blown out of proportion,” Fleck told the Blade. “That whole Brian Sims thing got thrown in there.”
“Brian’s worked hard to get where he’s at,” he added. “I know that he believes in the issues that he’s fighting for.”
Dison on Tuesday did not immediately return the Blade’s request for comment, but he has previously disputed reports the Victory Fund’s decision to endorse Sims in 2012 factored into the way it advised Fleck.
“Our work assisting closeted officials who want to come out is aimed at increasing the likelihood they can remain public servants,” Dison told the Blade in 2013 after the reports emerged. “That was our only consideration when we advised Rep. Mike Fleck last year. Other theories are false.”
GOP ‘left me’
Since leaving the Pennsylvania House, Fleck has worked with the Pennsylvania Student Equality Coalition, an organization that works with LGBT college students. He and his partner of nearly four years, who lives in Manhattan, on June 26 hosted a fundraiser for the group that coincided with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Obergefell case that extended marriage rights to same-sex couples throughout the country.
Fleck highlighted the lack of a statewide anti-discrimination law in Pennsylvania that includes sexual orientation and gender identity. He pointed out to the Blade that he was on an Equality Pennsylvania panel after same-sex marriage became legal in the commonwealth in May 2014.
“There’s not a lot in this neck of the woods,” said Fleck. “One of the reasons I wanted to come out was to give hope to people who were struggling. I certainly didn’t see that growing up.”
Fleck also criticized the Republican Party.
“I will be happy when they put any equality issues behind them,” he said, without specifically criticizing any of the GOP presidential candidates. “I don’t feel like I left the Republican Party and I’m still a Republican. They left me.”
“The party that I grew up loving, that was my grandfather’s party was not the anti-social issues,” added Fleck. “It was a fiscal conservative-type thing. And I still view myself as a fiscal conservative.”
Sexual orientation not ‘only definition of me’
Fleck now divides his time between his home, which was built in 1840 and overlooks a valley through which Aughwick Creek flows, and his partner’s Manhattan apartment near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel in the West Chelsea neighborhood. Fleck also described his new job as “challenging,” but something he wanted because it is “beneficial and giving back.”
“Helping people get back on their feet, helping them find a job, helping them get to the next rung on the ladder in their career by coming in for additional training, that’s important,” he said.
Fleck added he does not want his sexual orientation to be the only thing that defines his legacy in Harrisburg.
“When my obituary is written someday I know that it’s going to say the first openly gay politician in Pennsylvania at the state level,” he told the Blade. “I know that, but I hope it says he helped usher in other reforms. He did this. He did that. I’m proud of that, but I also don’t want it to be the only definition of me either.”