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Reagan adviser, Log Cabin supporter Bob Bonitati dies at 79

Accompanied president to Hilton Hotel on day of assassination attempt

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Bob Bonitati, gay news, Washington Blade

Bob Bonitati died at age 79. (Photo by Tony Burns)

Robert “Bob” Bonitati, a longtime government affairs specialist in Washington who worked as White House special assistant to President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and served as a behind-the-scenes adviser to Log Cabin Republicans in the 1990s, died Oct. 31 in Tampa, Fla. He was 79.

His friend Phil Sparrow said during his retirement in recent years he spent summers in Rehoboth Beach, Del., and winters at his home in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Sparrow said Bonitati was participating in an experimental cancer treatment protocol in Tampa at the time of his passing.

A write-up about his career prepared by Sparrow and his longtime friend Robert Kabel says Bonitati, a native of Bridgeport, Conn., graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in political science. It says he did graduate work at Arizona State University and the University of Tennessee.

While at Tennessee he met then-U.S. Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) and worked on Baker’s re-election committee before joining Baker in 1967 as his Senate chief of staff. Among the positions he held after leaving his Senate job for the private sector was heading the government affairs office for the Airline Pilots Association for six years.

According to Sparrow and Kabel’s write-up, Bonitati joined the Reagan White House as a Special Assistant to the President, where he served as White House liaison to organized labor.

The write-up says Bonitati was with Reagan on March 30, 1981 at the Washington Hilton Hotel where the president delivered a speech to the Building Trades Union.

“As they were walking out of the hotel together to return to the White House Bob was stopped momentarily by a friend just as the President exited and was shot,” says the write-up. “Bob credited his friend with saving his life.”

Minutes later Reagan was rushed to George Washington University Hospital where doctors said a gunshot wound by would-be assassin John Hinckley came close to taking his life.

Bonitati lived at the time in D.C.’s Dupont Circle area and had a wide range of Washington friends, both Republicans and Democrats, people who knew him said. Following his White House job he became part owner of a flower shop while working for the Kamber Group, a prominent public relations and government affairs firm. He later joined The Hawthorne Group, another public affairs firm.

Kabel and Rich Tafel, who served as president of the national gay group Log Cabin Republicans in the 1990s, said Bonitati played an important role as an informal, behind-the-scenes adviser to Log Cabin.

“We opened our D.C. office in 1993, and Bob was a key adviser for Log Cabin and me in the 1990s,” Tafel said. “He gave great advice, great strategy. He was particularly helpful to me, especially in the early years when I was new to D.C.”

Kabel said that in marked contrast to the current toxic, highly partisan atmosphere in Washington, Bonitati was a product of the old school mold where Republicans and Democrats were able to engage in bipartisan efforts to get things done in Congress.

“Bob enjoyed his many years as a visitor and then in retirement as a homeowner in Rehoboth and Ft. Lauderdale,” Sparrow and Kabel said in their write-up. “He was a longtime supporter of CAMP Rehoboth, the LGBT community center in Rehoboth,” the two said.

“Bob Bonitati was an amazing man who did good in his life and who made friends wherever he went,” said friend Peter Rosenstein. “He was a Republican who I could talk and communicate with. He was a member of a Republican Party that seems to no longer exist. He was a decent man who cared about people. Bob, may you rest in peace, knowing you brought joy and smiles to many during your life and that you will be remembered and missed each day by all of them.”

Bonitati is survived by his sister, Peggy Person of Tampa, Fla.; his niece, Sandra Butte; his nephew, Richard Person, and his great nephew, Ryan Butte. Sparrow and Kabel said he is also survived by “many wonderful friends in Rehoboth Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, and Washington, D.C.”

A Celebration of Life for Bonitati was scheduled to be hosted by family members, Sparrow and friends on Dec. 2 from 5-7 p.m. at the Vantage View Condominium where Bonitati lived at 2841 North Ocean Blvd. in Ft. Lauderdale. Plans for a Celebration of Life in Rehoboth and D.C. were expected to be announced in the near future.

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Maryland

Bomb threat shuts down Takoma Park holiday drag show

MotorKat evacuated when Tara Hoot was performing

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Tara Hoot was performing at MotorKat in Takoma Park, Md., on Dec. 9, 2023, when a bomb threat forced the business' evacuation. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Police cordoned off a popular strip in Takoma Park on Saturday after a bomb threat shut down businesses, including a holiday performance by drag artist Tara Hoot.

MotorKat General Manager Mike Rothman told the Washington Blade that Takoma Park police notified them of a bomb threat to their business around noon.

Tara Hoot was delivering a holiday brunch performance at the MotorKat when the evacuation order came in.

Rothman said they were notified “five minutes into her final performance.” Tara Hoot herself told the audience to leave for their safety.

Police proceeded to tape off the area and evacuated all businesses between Eastern and South Carroll Avenues, including TakomaBevCo, which is co-owned by MotorKat Wine Director Seth Cook.

Cook told the Blade that police brought in “bomb-sniffing dogs” to clear the area before allowing businesses to reopen around 2 p.m.

“The timing is unfortunate as this is one of the busiest weekends before the holidays,” Cook said.

Rothman was also disappointed by the lost revenue due to what ultimately was a false threat, but he was firm that the Takoma Park LGBTQ community is resilient and would continue to thrive despite this setback.

“Takoma Park is a pretty proud and resilient community,” he said. “I don’t expect people to lay down and be scared by this.”

MotorKat and TakomaBevCo reopened for business around 3 p.m.

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Comings & Goings

Jimmy Alexander joins WTOP News as a feature reporter

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Jimmy Alexander (Photo courtesy of Jimmy Alexander)

The Comings & Goings column is about sharing the professional successes of our community. We want to recognize those landing new jobs, new clients for their business, joining boards of organizations, and other achievements. Please share your successes with us at: [email protected]

Congratulations to Jimmy Alexander who has been hired at WTOP News as a feature reporter. Over the last four years Alexander has been covering stories as varied as the Jan. 6 insurrection to the 17th Street High Heel Race. He has been working as a co-host on the Jack Diamond Morning show on Cumulus Media, Manning Media. On his acceptance of the new position Alexander said, “I’m thrilled that at WTOP News, I will be able to focus on events and people that bring hope to your heart and a smile to your face.”

Alexander is a versatile multimedia broadcaster with more than two decades of experience covering both major news events in Washington D.C., and important human-interest stories outside the Beltway. He is an engaging interviewer with a track record of having compelling conversations with the biggest names in government and show business, from presidents to Paul McCartney. Prior to this he worked as a freelance feature reporter with WDCW50-DC News Now. He is also with Writer-20, Twenty Country Countdown, United Stations Radio Networks. There he developed a concept for a countdown show featuring country music’s weekly top songs on-air and online and prepared weekly scripts for a three-hour show. 

Alexander conducted the only Jan. 6, 2021 interview with “The QAnon Shaman” Jacob Chansley. Since 2016, he has served by request of the D.C. mayor as official host of the 17th Street High Heel Race, the city’s second largest LGBTQ event of the year. He is featured in the documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” and is a frequent guest on CNN’s Morning Show “New Day.” He covered White House visits by Queen Elizabeth, the Pope, and the yearly Easter Egg Roll. He also won $10,000 on the game show “Pyramid.” 

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Maryland

LGBTQ University of Maryland students prepare to celebrate Hanukkah

Eight-day festival to begin Thursday night

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

A number of Hanukkah events for LGBTQ students will take place at the University of Maryland this week.

Queer Jewish students and allies are welcome to attend Crazy Cozy Chill Chanukah Celebration on Sunday at the University of Maryland Hillel. Hamsa, home to queer Jewish life on campus, hosted a study break with hot drinks, snacks and games and a chance to welcome Hanukkah early. 

The first night of Hanukkah is Thursday.

Chabad UMD is hosting a menorah lighting on Thursday in front of McKeldin Library and plans to mention the war between Israel and Hamas, according to Rabbi Eli Backman of Chabad UMD. The event is going to be a focus on the positivity and the message of the Hanukkah story.  

“We’ve been around for thousands of years and all those who’ve tried to make sure that we didn’t live to see the next generation (is) no longer here,” Backman said. “That message will really resonate at home for the holiday.”

The story of the Maccabees is one of the few stories where Jewish people fought, Backman said. In Jewish history, people don’t see a military response in many of the other holiday moments. 

“It should give us a boost of energy,” Backman said. “A boost of strength (and) a boost of hope.”

Part of the Hanukkah story’s message is that Jewish people were in a position that they needed to form a military to secure their borders, Backman said. And they succeeded. 

For some, celebrating Hanukkah depends on the people they’re around, Florence Miller, a sophomore English and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies who is Hamsa’s president, said.

Miller is agnostic and does not find themself to be a religious person, but the thing that has kept their Jewish faith is the people about whom they care are Jewish and the sense of community that comes from being Jewish.

“I just wanted to do a Hanukkah event,” Miller said. “It’s been a good refresher with how the semester has been.”

Miller last year attended a Hanukkah party and played a game of dreidel, a spinning top with four sides marked with a Hebrew letter. The people who were in attendance wanted to bet something, but the only thing they could find were pinto beans. 

“When I took them out of my pocket one got stuck in there,” Miller said. “I still have that bean.”

For some Jewish students it’s important to go to Hanukkah events like Hamsa’s celebration to be around like-minded Jewish people, Yarden Shestopal, a sophomore American Studies major, said. 

“Which is why I like Hamsa,” Shestopal said. “Since we’re all queer people or allies we kind of share that mentality of acceptance.”

Being part of the Jewish community at the University of Maryland has opened Shestopal up to how diverse the LGBTQ and Jewish communities are. Shestopal this year, however, debated whether or not to put his menorah up on the windowsill of his apartment because of the rise in anti-Semitism due to the war in Israel.  

“I’m pretty sure I am going to put the menorah in my window,” Shestopal said. “The only way to combat anti-Semitism is to stay visible.” 

Several University of Maryland students lived in Israel before or during their time at the university. 

Elisheva Greene, a junior animal science major, went to seminary, a school for women to learn about Torah, during the pandemic. Greene said celebrating Hanukkah while a war is happening is going to be a similar feeling. 

“I’m able to do what I can from over here by supporting my family and friends,” Greene said. “The biggest thing I can be doing is living my life as a Jewish person and showing that I express my Judaism and I’m not afraid.”

Greene recalled they could not go more than 1,000 feet from home for two months and Hanukkah took place during that time. While it was difficult, Greene said people still put their menorahs on their windowsill.  

“Knowing the resilience the Israelis have and the fact people like to show their Jewishness (is not) gonna stop me,” Greene said. “Like there’s a war going on but you’re gonna be a Jew and you’re gonna flaunt that.”

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