Jose Cunningham and Greg Nelson, partners of 20 years, have always been one of those “opposites-attract”-kind of couples.
Cunningham, 60, works by day in marketing and business development for a law firm but spends much of his free time working in politics. Nelson, 46, is a Minnesota native who came to D.C. in 1996 and works as a health care consultant, though his passion is for creativity and decorating. The 16th Street N.W. house they’ve shared since 2000 (next to Church of the Holy City) regularly attracts gawkers because it’s elaborately decorated for whatever is the next closest holiday. “My mantra is life is better with a theme,” Nelson deadpans.
Of course right now, it’s engulfed in ghosts and pumpkins as well as general fall staples like friendly scarecrows and mums. The decor continues indoors and while abundant, it never feels tacky. More Martha Stewart than Dollar General.
“The basement, the entire length of this house is decorations,” Cunningham says. “You should see Christmastime. It’s quite an extravaganza.”
“We’re very complementary to one another,” Nelson says. “I’m the disorganized, creative one. He’s the one who’s very organized and on track and helps me with things.”
The same bemusement and sense of goodwill Cunningham exhibits toward his partner’s passion for decor extends to their other main difference — Cunningham, chair of the D.C. Republican Party, is supporting Donald Trump for president; Nelson supports Hillary Clinton. And yet their home is not contentious. They simply agree to disagree.
It helps that Nelson is quick to admit Clinton’s flaws. He’s hardly a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat — he even voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.
“I’m pretty faithful to the party,” Cunningham says. “He votes the person.”
Numbers are hard to come by, but Cunningham is not alone in his support for Trump. The Log Cabin Republicans have declined to endorse him, but smatterings of LGBT Trump support have surfaced in news articles and social media and they’re not all of the Lucian Wintrick (of “Twinks4Trump” fame) or flamethrower (a la Milo Yiannopoulos) variety. Cunningham says all three of the D.C. members of the 168-member Republican National Committee are openly gay and all are supporting Trump.
“You can’t imagine how well received we are,” he says.
Cunningham voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980 and says the Carter presidency pushed him to register as a Republican in 1980, which he’s been ever since.
On local issues, a lot of his inspiration comes from Democrats having a stranglehold on local politics for many years. He says the trend of D.C. Democrats running as independents just to fulfill the dictates of the District charter is “just crazy” and “has to end.” Nelson agrees.
But when it comes to the presidency, Cunningham says it’s more complicated. He cites national security, foreign policy and his pro-life convictions as the main reasons he’s pro-Trump.
“I’ll be the first to admit, I’m as establishment as you can get,” Cunningham says. “But the reason I’m supporting this man is he wants change. If we want change, it’s not going to happen with Hillary Clinton, it’s with Donald Trump. Now I know, that comes with a lot of unknowns, but I know of an awful lot of people here in town who are not bashing Trump, not saying they’re not going to support him and are quietly signaling in the background that they’re ready to serve when he wins. If we wake up on November 9th and Donald Trump is our next president, we will only have a very short amount of time to get this government up and running.”
Nelson admits he’s the far less politically involved of the two. Heretofore, his biggest political endeavors have been creating a “Labradoodles for Obama” campaign inspired by their dog, Arbo, when the Obamas were debating between that breed and a Portuguese Water Dog (they went with the latter) and his creation of “the Combover,” a Trump-inspired cocktail with comb garnishment he serves at GOP functions at their home.
But even so, Nelson has strong words against Trump.
“If there had been a stronger Republican candidate who wasn’t this extreme, I would have considered voting Republican,” Nelson says. “This really is the first election where I just don’t understand how he could support the candidate. … I think Donald Trump is an irresponsible choice for anyone to pick because of his poor choices, poor temperament and lack of accountability.”
And to what degree do LGBT issues factor in their choices? Both say very little.
“I don’t think gay issues are very high on the totem poll for either one of us,” Nelson says. “I don’t think that just because you’re gay, you should be pressured into believing that should be one of your top three criteria in voting.”
Cunningham says the official GOP platform, which is anti-LGBT, is of little practical concern.
“Nobody reads it, nobody talks about it, nobody cares about it,” he says.
He was much more impressed with the way Trump spoke about LGBT people at the Republican National Convention and the speech by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, the first time in 16 years an openly gay person has spoken there. Cunningham and Nelson were there — they point out that Nelson was given the same courtesies any straight spouse would have been afforded even though he and Cunningham are not married — and also attended the second presidential debate on Oct. 9 in St. Louis.
“Everybody in that convention center in Cleveland stood up and cheered when Peter Thiel came out,” Cunningham says. “It was really amazing. Donald Trump has spoken a lot about equality. … I’ve never heard anyone say he’s anti-gay.”
Cunningham and Nelson agree that now that the Supreme Court has ruled on same-sex marriage, LGBT issues are considered largely settled and that’s why they’ve played so little role in the election this time.
The couple, who met at JR.’s the day Nelson arrived in town and have been together ever since, has also been impressed by how warmly GOP leaders have treated them. They commonly host events at their house and say nobody has ever batted an eye.
“We’ve had some really high-profile people here,” Cunningham says. “You would think it could be a potential PR nightmare that they’re having this event at a gay couple’s house, but it’s never been an issue. … I mean when [Republican National Committee Chair] Reince Priebus knows this gay Democrat from Minnesota by his first name, that’s really saying something.”
“People in the national Republican Party have been nothing but gracious, kind and welcoming to me,” Nelson says. “I’ve never had anyone say, ‘How could you vote for Hillary? You’re stupid, you’re crazy’ or any of that kind of blanket statement. Whereas Jose gets that all the time — he’s crazy, ‘How can you support Trump as a gay man?’ and all these terribly inappropriate remarks.”
But while Cunningham is pleasantly surprised by his party, Nelson says the Democrats have at times acted disgracefully. Three different times he’s caught people either trying to scrape the Trump for President sticker off Cunningham’s car or key it. One was even a gay couple.
“If that had been another person who targeted them for being gay and keyed their car, that’s a hate crime,” Nelson says. “But they felt justified because it was a Trump sticker. How is that not bullying and its own kind of hate crime?”
The vitriol Nelson encounters when telling other Democrats his partner supports Trump also galls Nelson. While waiting in line to have his photo taken with Clinton at the home of John Podesta recently, he says the incredulous looks and comments he got were rude.
“Well-educated Democrats can be incredibly close minded toward people who have other views,” he says. “I think it’s kind of funny that Jose is the chair of the D.C. Republican Party and I’m a Democrat. Like we’re some modern-day Matalin-Carville of D.C. or something. So we’re waiting there forever in line and I was making small talk with these two women and when I told them, one looked at me and said, ‘Have you no self respect? I guess you must have been really desperate when you were single.’ I mean, who says that to a stranger?”
Both say they find the vitriol that so often accompanies politics baffling.
“I don’t understand why it has to be so nasty,” Nelson says. “I might not agree with a lot of things Jose agrees with but the beauty of America is that we have a democracy that allows you to vote.”
Their gut feelings on the outcome of the election?
Cunningham says, “I actually believe Donald Trump will be our next president. It’s tough on the Electoral College side, but I think we’re going to get the numbers.”
“No way,” Nelson says.
While planning to vote for Clinton, Nelson admits some of the admiration he felt for her eight years ago has dimmed, citing a pattern of surrounding herself with people who “make terrible decisions” and “going to the edge of the cliff again and again.”
“There’s been a pattern of chaos that seems to follow wherever she goes,” Nelson says.
Cunningham says no matter who wins, the president will have his support.
“I have incredible respect and admiration for whomever the president is,” he says. “If Hillary Clinton wins, I’ll be there to support her and pray for her every single day. I still pray daily for Biden and Obama. It’s the United States of America and whoever wins will be my president.”