October 22, 2020 at 3:23 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Gay congressman’s dating life attacked in fiery N.H. debate
U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) speaks at the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s annual McIntyre Shaheen 100 Club Dinner in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 8, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Collin Gately)

The dating life of Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.), one of seven openly gay members of Congress, became the focal point Wednesday night in a debate that got ugly with a personal attack from a Republican challenger who’s facing an ethics investigation.

Matt Mowers, who’s challenging Pappas to represent New Hampshire’s 1st congressional district in Congress, levied the attack in a debate already fiery over the federal government’s response to the coronavirus.

“With all due respect, you’ve been dating a corporate lobbyist who actually was lobbying on behalf of Amazon at a time when you went to cast 10 separate votes on Amazon’s behalf on bills they lobbied you on,” Mowers charged.

Pappas, in response, said the accusation was “not true” and in turn said Mowers has been “paid by pharmaceutical companies and D.C. special interests after you left the Trump administration.”

In fact, Mowers has been a consultant for at least two pharmaceutical companies. After filing an illegible financial disclosure form for his candidacy, Mowers was accused of trying to hide that work from New Hampshire voters, which led to a complaint now before the U.S. House Ethics Committee.

But Mowers wouldn’t let up in his attack, saying Pappas is “doing the bidding for a bunch of corporate special interest groups in D.C.”

“You are dating a corporate lobbyist,” Mowers said. “The fact of that matter is you never disclosed it.”

As the debate participants began talking over each other, Mowers made the false claim Pappas was required to disclose his dating life to the public.

“In fact, there’s actually rules and regulations,” Mowers said. You have to disclose that, especially gifts from lobbyists to the House Ethics Committee, something you’ve never done.”

Pappas, who continued to say the charge was “outrageous” and “not true,” said his opponent is “somebody who worked for the Trump administration.”

“I have read your financial disclosure, Matt,” Pappas said. “You get paid by big drug companies, you get paid by D.C. lobbying firms, you’re representing their interests, not the interests of the people of New Hampshire.”

Pappas hinted the criticism was a veiled attack on his sexual orientation, concluding, “To go after me personally is really disgusting, and there is no place for them on this debate stage.”

Following the debate, Pappas issued a statement calling Mowers’ attack on his dating life “despicable” and said it “crossed a line.”

“Members of the LGBTQ+ community have always been held to a different standard when running for office and Mr. Mowers’s baseless attacks perpetuate those same harmful lines of attack,” Pappas said. “New Hampshire voters saw gutter politics at their worst tonight, but true Granite Staters know that hate has no place in our state.”

Mowers said after the debate that the topic was valid, suggesting the line wasn’t about Pappas being gay, according to a report from WMUR-9.

“I don’t care who the congressman dates. I really don’t,” Mowers is quoted as saying. “What I care about is whether he was transparent and truthful about why he was casting votes the way he did.”

No ethics requirements to disclose dating life

Although Mowers made charges about Pappas’ dating life and said he had an obligation to disclose information as a member of Congress, ethics experts who spoke to the Washington Blade said that wouldn’t be the case even if the claim were accurate.

Bryson Morgan, an attorney with the D.C.-based law firm Caplin & Drysdale who worked as an investigative counsel for the Office of Congressional Ethics from 2013 through 2015, said via email to the Blade members of Congress like Pappas are “not required to publicly disclose their private dating relationships.”

“House Rule XXV, clause 7 does require members of Congress to prohibit their congressional staff from discussing legislation with their spouse if their spouse is a lobbyist,” Morgan added. “An argument could be made that the spirit, if not the letter, of this Rule would extend to a lobbyist that a member of Congress is dating and not just to a spouse. But I am not aware of the House Committee on Ethics ever extending it in that manner.”

Meredith McGehee, executive director of the government watchdog group Issue One, affirmed Congress doesn’t require members to disclose their dating life, but conceded it have does rules stating they must “never discriminate unfairly by the dispensing of special favors or privileges to anyone, whether for renumeration or not.”

“That being said, and the difference between having a spouse or an immediate family member who is a lobbyist and dating someone is a significant difference,” McGehee said. “I don’t think you want to get in a world where you now have public disclosure filings of who members of Congress are dating. I think that falls in the TMI category.”

Morgan also questioned how Mowers could have the information to levy the attack on Pappas, even if that relationship was spousal in nature and not just dating.

“You simply cannot tell from the lobbying disclosure reports which members of Congress or congressional offices that a lobbyist or company has lobbied,” Morgan said. “So, I don’t know what support Mr. Mowers could have for his claim that Amazon has lobbied Rep. Pappas. All he likely knows is that Amazon and its lobbyists had contacts with the House of Representatives, which would be expected.”

Coming to Pappas’ defense was the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which seeks to elect openly LGBTQ candidates to political office and said in a statement the attack on Pappas’ dating life was a homophobic dog whistle.

“Matt Mowers proudly accepted Donald Trump’s endorsement and now he is proudly following the Trump political playbook as well – using lies and dog whistles to distract voters from the issues that matter,” said Annise Parker, CEO of LGBTQ Victory Fund. “Matt knew he wanted voters to focus on Chris’ sexual orientation and his absurd accusation during the debate was a desperate attempt to do just that.”

Richard Grenell, the former acting director of national intelligence under President Trump, gave Mowers cover and sided with him on Twitter.

“Why did @ChrisPappasNH lie about dating a corporate lobbyist for Amazon while voting on bills they lobbied him on? #Swamp,” Grenell tweeted. “Clean up this corruption, NH! Vote for @mowers!”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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