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Will Rollins campaign not just about gunning for anti-LGBTQ Congressman Ken Calvert

Gay prosecutor running in Calif. 41st Congressional District

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Two years ago, openly gay prosecutor Will Rollins launched his first bid for public office and nearly defeated incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Ken Calvert, who has represented California in Congress since the presidential administration of George H.W. Bush.

In this election cycle, the Democratic challenger believes he is even better positioned to win the seat for the state’s 41st Congressional District, which could tip control of the U.S. House of Representatives to his party now that Republicans have only a feeble five-member majority in the chamber.

And if accurate proxies can be found in the results of recent polls, quarterly fundraising metrics, and extra muscle deployed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, it appears Rollins’s confidence is shared by critical masses of voters, donors, and party leaders.

Speaking with the Washington Blade by phone on June 13, Rollins explained why his candidacy is resonating so strongly with constituents from across the political spectrum, including key swaths of Republicans and the 90,000 Independents “who are going to decide this election.”

On the one hand, Rollins said he is buoyed by flagging support for his opponent. He argued that instead of working to deliver results for his constituents like “high paying jobs, better wages, and better benefits for workers,” Calvert has instead spent much of his time in Congress helping to fuel costly culture wars and embracing right-wing extremism while enriching himself through “legalized corruption” schemes and undermining the justice system and rule of law.

At the same time, Rollins said that his background in law enforcement, his political orientation as a moderate, and his policy agenda, which includes a focus on popular and often populist reforms, has proven to be a winning formula on the campaign trail from the westernmost parts of Southern California’s Inland Empire to the Colorado Desert town of Palm Springs.

The city, home to a thriving LGBTQ community, helped make the 41st District far purpler after congressional maps were redrawn to include the region in 2022. Rollins said the redistricting helps to explain “part of why people are so bullish on flipping the seat.”

He explained, “Calvert has historically [represented] deep red parts of southern California, and that used to include Murrieta and northern Temecula,” Rollins said. When the new maps were drawn, “he lost those two cities and he gained the Coachella Valley, Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, La Quinta, Indian Wells, all of which had previously been represented by a Democrat, Raul Ruiz.”

Rollins is well positioned at this point in the race

Reflecting on his performance in the midterm elections, Rollins noted that 2022 saw higher turnout among Republican voters and lower turnout among Democratic voters, a hurdle made more difficult by the advantages Calvert exercised by virtue of his 32-year incumbency.

By contrast, as a first-time candidate, “when you go from a job as a federal prosecutor, where it’s the antithesis of self-promotion, to suddenly needing to build an entire brand and raise your name I.D. and self promote and campaign, that’s a steep learning curve, and I had basically six months after a primary to do it,” Rollins said.

As November approaches, the presidential race is expected to even out the disparities in voter turnout, and by now Rollins has now spent nearly three years introducing his candidacy and his campaign to residents across CA-41.

For the first time in either cycle, Rollins was ahead of his opponent (by one point) in an internal poll last month that provided respondents with no additional information about the candidates, a sign that “more people are getting to know me, and our name I.D. is increasing, and more people are also hearing our message,” he said.

The Democratic hopeful also noted his campaign out-raised Calvert’s in the third consecutive quarter, Q1 2024, and by more than $1 million, thanks to “voters and our grassroots supporters [who] know that this seat is primed to flip.”

The DCCC seems to agree with their assessment. As one of the organization’s “Red to Blue” candidates, a highly competitive distinction awarded to those with the best odds of unseating Republicans in their districts, Rollins receives “strategic guidance, staff resources, training, and fundraising support” to ensure the best possible odds for his victory in November.

Additional help from the organization responsible for fundraising and organizing on behalf of Democratic House candidates could be decisive in a race as close as this one, but Rollins also stressed his appeal among center and center-right constituents.

Building coalitions in a purple district

For example, the campaign recently secured high-profile endorsements from the likes of Stan Sniff, retired Republican sheriff of Riverside County, and California State Assemblymember Chad Mays, who previously served as the elected Republican leader.

Additionally, last month, the Palm Springs Police Officers Association, which had supported Calvert in 2022, announced it would back Rollins this year. Asked how he managed to win over the organization, Rollins pointed to his ability to relate to law enforcement officers along with his tenacious approach to engaging with the group.

“For cops in Riverside County, having somebody represent them who has worked alongside them, prosecuting MS-13, the Sinaloa Cartel, murderers, rapists, terrorists, that’s really powerful for the line officers who want somebody that understands what it is like every single day to do an important job that they do, putting their lives on the line to keep us safe,” he said.

Rollins added that he was now cowed by the group’s endorsement of his opponent during the midterms and was persistent in reaching out to facilitate a dialogue. “I refuse to give up on trying to persuade people that I would do a better job of representing them in Congress than Ken Calvert,” as well as his ability to relate to law enforcement officers.

The campaign’s efforts to engage with the Log Cabin Republicans, the conservative LGBTQ group, were less successful. Rollins said that during both election cycles “we reached out to [chapters located in CA-41] repeatedly, and all of our outreach was ignored.”

It is easy to imagine areas in which the organization could find common ground with the Democratic candidate. Rollins would be the first LGBTQ member of Congress with a law enforcement background, a candidate who has worked for a Republican governor and deliberately engaged with and courted support from other individuals and groups that are right-of-center.

He also questioned why conservative LGBT Californians would ally themselves with his opponent. “What is Ken Calvert done for you? He’s voted against the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act. He’s voted against letting you serve in the military. It makes no sense to go out and support somebody like that.”

Rollins said it seems Log Cabin “is increasingly used by elected Republicans to try to maintain the appearance of support and to conceal some of their actual record on our rights” and their refusal to engage with him is likely a sign of the extent to which the GOP has become mired in partisanship.

Drawing the contrast

Rollins attributes much of his success in winning major endorsements and contributions to the many contrasts voters are seeing between his campaign and his opponent’s, perhaps starting with the professional backgrounds and records on which they are running.

In recent months, Calvert’s campaign has sought to portray Rollins as “soft on crime” because of his opposition to a criminal justice initiative, California’s Proposition 47, but the former prosecutor told the Blade he welcomes the chance to frame their race around these issues.

Rollins pointed out that while his career was spent “going after drug cartels, terrorists and violent criminals across southern California,” Calvert “is somebody who has voted to defund the FBI, who voted to defund Border Patrol, who said that the FBI has been infiltrated, [that] the Department of Justice has become a political weaponization tool,” and “called for dropping charges against people who assaulted the U.S. Capitol” on Jan. 6.

Further undermining Calvert’s effort to position himself as the “law and order” candidate is the encounter he had with police who found him consorting with a sex worker shortly into his first term in Congress, Rollins said.

He added the incident also shows the hypocrisy of his opponent’s legislative record, considering the Republican’s habit of “voting to get the government into our bedrooms and into our exam rooms, and to prevent gay people from getting married, from serving in the military.”

Rollins, who has prosecuted cases involving white collar crime, also accused his rival of exploiting “a system of legalized corruption” in Congress through which members from both parties have been allowed to exploit the powers and privileges of their office for personal financial gain with loopholes and loose oversight protecting them from consequences.

Specifically, he said Calvert has enriched himself to the tune of $20 million over his 17 terms in office “by using earmarks to benefit his own personal real estate investments,” Rollins said, “a form of insider trading in real estate.”

Rollins said that his opponent has earned a reputation for self-dealing and topped lists of the most corrupt members of Congress, with California’s 41st District taking notice. “When people have seen their own rent and gas and groceries skyrocket while their member of Congress makes $20 million since 1992, that is a major red flag for voters,” he said.

The corruption problem is bigger than Calvert, which is why Rollins said he has made reforms and policy solutions in this area a cornerstone of his campaign.

If elected, the Democrat said he will push for “a ban on members trading stock across the board” as well as “a ban on [members] using inside information to benefit their real estate investments” and “a ban on lobbying by former members of Congress.”

Rollins said he will also work to implement term limits for members of Congress and to fix the problems created by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Ruling in Citizens United v. FEC (2010), which allowed for unlimited spending by corporations and outside groups on political campaigns.

He said that even more modest reforms like establishing “disclosure rules for members” would go a long way toward mitigating concerns about the flow of dark money “into these competitive congressional races through independent expenditures.”

Each of these proposals “have been tied into our own theme of the campaign around public service and protecting our communities, and law enforcement service versus self-enrichment, self-dealing,” Rollins said. “There’s no movement to police ourselves, and yet that is what the public craves most,” he added.

Polls have long shown the overwhelming popularity of measures designed to improve the functioning of Congress along with mechanisms requiring more accountability and transparency from its members, which should perhaps come as little surprise considering that 66.7 percent of Americans disapprove of the institution according to FiveThirtyEight.

Rollins said audiences from across the political spectrum have responded enthusiastically whenever he has discussed his anti-corruption proposals, whether before a chamber of commerce or a meeting of the Stonewall Democratic Club.

Generally speaking, rather than “angertainment and click-bait politics,” most Americans want to see policy solutions aimed at addressing real problems, he said. “They want money out of politics. They want common sense solutions to traffic problems in their district. They want safer streets. They want clean energy. They want term limits.”

Likewise with their elected representatives, Rollins said. Voters “want people in the middle, not necessarily on the far left or the far right,” especially in purple districts where “you can run a successful campaign just being on what I call ‘team normal.'”

“The challenge for Democrats,” particularly those running for competitive seats, “is to make it really clear that the current MAGA majority [in the House] is different from the moderate, regular Republican voters in your district,” Rollins said.

Democrats should embrace populism

One way to reassure conservative-leaning voters is for Democrats to talk openly about the problems that helped facilitate the ascent of Donald Trump and the rise of right-wing populist movements, Rollins said.

Americans, regardless of their politics, are right when they say “government is broken,” or “The system is corrupt,” but solutions are not going to come from elected Republicans, least of all “the former host of Celebrity Apprentice,” Rollins said.

The more Democrats elected to the House who “are focused on those reforms, the better the party will do,” he said. “Because our brand can become an anti-corruption brand, and we should try to to cultivate that as much as possible, because certainly the GOP isn’t about that right now.”

Rollins added, “Right now, there’s only one political party that cares about getting money out of politics,” meaning that Democrats have the opportunity to campaign on an issue that “is supported by 90 percent of Americans.”

When it comes to more divisive matters, “a lot of it is tied to kitchen table issues, and I think that’s where we as a party are our strongest, where we’re talking about how it affects your wallet and why the far-right’s focus on culture wars is actually a massive waste of your tax dollars,” Rollins said.

Of course, it is important to call out the ways in which women, LGBTQ communities, and other groups are harmed when elected Republicans endeavor to restrict their rights, freedoms, and protections, but there is also an opportunity to explain why all Americans suffer as a result, he said.

For instance, after noting that Calvert and Congressional Republicans support “a national [abortion] ban with no exceptions,” along with restrictions on access to the abortion medication mifepristone and measures to make it more difficult for women in the military to access reproductive healthcare, Rollins stressed how these moves could damage the economy and threaten national security.

Likewise with LGBTQ rights. “I would be remiss if I didn’t also state the obvious,” Rollins said, “which is Calvert has one of the most horrible anti-LGBTQ rights voting records of any member in Congress, and started his political career by outing Mark Takano,” the gay congressman who ran against him in 1992 and now represents California’s 39th Congressional District.

Rollins said that when the subject comes up on the campaign trail, “I also talk about the way that his votes don’t just impact the LGBTQ community, because obviously they have hurt our community over the years, but they’ve actually hurt every American.”

For instance, he said, “when you try to make it harder for openly gay people to serve in the U.S. military, you deprive us of qualified pilots, snipers, Marines, Navy SEALs, Arabic linguists,” thereby weakening America’s military and security interests.

Rollins also noted the widely reported story last year about pediatric cardiologist Jake Kleinmahon, who ultimately decided to relocate out of Louisiana with his husband and daughter when conservative state lawmakers in Baton Rouge advanced a slate of anti-LGBTQ bills last year.

Following the family’s move to Long Island, Kleinmahon told CNN the only two remaining physicians in Louisiana who manage heart transplants would be expected to serve the same number of patients as they did before his departure.

“That is going to affect care,” he said, adding that “the absolute hardest part is me saying goodbye to my patients.”

“I believe the kids in Louisiana should have the same world class health care as any other part of the United States.”

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Garcia and Log Cabin Republicans president react to new GOP party platform

RNC had not issued a new position manifesto since 2016

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Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Committee at National Harbor, Md., on March 4, 2023. (Screen capture via Vimeo)

Following the issuance of the Republican Party’s first new policy platform since 2016, U.S. Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) and Charles Moran, president of the conservative LGBTQ group Log Cabin Republicans, shared their reactions this week with the Washington Blade.

Unlike previous iterations, including in 2016 and 2012, the 2024 version contains no mention of same-sex marriage and very little discussion about abortion, issues long championed by the religious right factions of the party.

Still, the document calls for banning transgender girls and women from competing in girls and women’s sports, as well as a proposal to cut federal funding for “any school pushing critical race theory, radical gender ideology, and other inappropriate racial, sexual, or political content on our children.”

“We will keep men out of women’s sports, ban taxpayer funding for sex change surgeries, and stop taxpayer-funded schools from promoting gender transition, reverse Biden’s radical rewrite of Title IX education regulations, and restore protections for women and girls,” the platform says.

“Republicans will ensure children are taught fundamentals like reading, history, science, and math, not leftwing propaganda,” according to the document. “We will defund schools that engage in inappropriate political indoctrination of our children using federal taxpayer dollars.”

Garcia, an openly gay co-chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus, told the Blade by phone on Tuesday that the language is of a piece of the party’s efforts across the board to restrict rights, freedoms, and protections from many of America’s most vulnerable.

“The platform is the platform,” he said. “It’s reactionary. It moves us backwards. It does not support diverse communities.”

What is more important, however, than “the Republican platform, Project 2025, all of these ideas and proposals,” Garcia said, is the question of “who’s going to implement these.”

“Look at what Donald Trump is actually saying,” Garcia said. “That should scare us. He’s saying he’s going to deport undocumented people across the country. He’s saying he’s going to empower fossil fuel and oil companies in public. He’s saying that he doesn’t support unions. He’s saying all of these horrible things. I think we should take him for his word.”

“We should already know that he’s going to do what he says. He’s saying he’s going to jail his political opponents,” the congressman added. “This is insane. So, I think that is much more instructive than any party platform or other conversation happening right now.”

Project 2025, the exhaustively detailed governing blueprint for a second Trump term that was published by the right-wing Heritage Foundation think tank, “is finally starting to get more attention,” Garcia said.

Unlike the party platform, the 900-page document reads like a wishlist for the most right-wing conservative Christian flanks of the GOP — with proposals to criminalize all pornography, for instance, and to revoke LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination protections for federal government employees.

“I wish that over the last two days we were talking about Project 2025,” said Garcia.

House Democrats, who had just returned from the July 4 break, had been inundated with questions about whether President Joe Biden should continue leading the party’s 2024 ticket after a shaky debate performance last month exacerbated concerns about his age.

“Moving forward,” he said, Project 2025 “needs to get more attention, and I’m hopeful that it will.”

Also speaking with the Blade on Tuesday was Moran, who had attended a Log Cabin Republicans fundraiser on Monday that former first lady Melania Trump hosted and netted $1.4 million. The event was the first to be held in the Trump Tower residence since her husband launched his 2024 campaign.

“Project 2025 is like a kid’s Christmas wish list — and it has just as much chance of coming to fruition as Santa Claus coming down that chimney,” he said. “It’s just not reality.”

“On July 5, President Trump posted on Truth Social disavowing Project 2025 and officials on the campaign had been saying the same for months,” Moran added. “Those who continue to conflate that private think-tank manifesto with the official RNC Platform or the President’s own policy portfolio, Agenda 47, are knowingly deceiving voters which shows a level of desperation leading them to lie rather than dealing with the reality at hand.”

By contrast, the platform has Trump written all over it, Moran said.

“Even though I was not on the platform committee, it was clear those in leadership understood that the process had been commandeered in the past by special interests and those trying to use intimidation and fear to bully their influence into the final document,” he said. “The RNC took steps to ensure a clean, orderly and accessible drafting process.”

As a result of influence peddling by special interest groups, “the platform continued to be an albatross around the necks of common-sense Republicans,” providing opportunities for Democrats to portray their political opponents as anti-gay, for example, since the document historically took a position against same-sex marriage.

“The 2016 platform was crafted under the influence of Ted Cruz’s delegates, veering it in a much more conservative direction on gay issues,” Moran said. “President Trump made it clear that he wasn’t aligned with the 2016 platform, and if the full RNC convention would have been held in 2020, it would have been changed then.”

Moran added that while “the platform process has historically been influenced by paid lobbyists representing special interests trying to game the system for their client’s pet projects and desires,” this year “presented President Trump with his first opportunity to genuinely make the GOP platform represent the modern Republican Party, and make it represent an inclusive, America-First context.”

Moran said the new platform is a reflection of the campaign’s strategy and approach to this election.

“I believe the president knew that the old platform made the GOP uncompetitive in major geographic and critical demographic areas,” he said. “The platform was definitely worth fighting over, because we know that the presidential nominee needs to get the party in the best position possible to appeal to the broadest number of people.”

“This is a platform that is inclusive of many communities, including LGBT Americans,” Moran said. “It promotes the sanctity of marriage, but doesn’t exclude our marriages. It supports IVF, which is the principle way same-sex couples build families.”

“This is a pro-family platform,” he added, “but it provides a place for our families too.”

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Republican National Convention expected to address LGBTQ issues

The Washington Blade will be reporting from Milwaukee next week

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LGBT rights, Donald Trump, gay news, Washington Blade
Former President Donald Trump (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Washington Blade will be in Milwaukee next week covering the Republican National Convention, which is expected to include events and discussions concerning LGBTQ issues.

  • GRACE, the gender research advocacy council and education, will host a media availability at the RNC next week with Alaina Kupec, its founder and president, and Executive Director Jennifer Williams.

Williams is a city councilmember representing Trenton, N.J., the first transgender woman elected to a municipal office in the state, and a registered Republican. Kupec, who is also trans, is a Navy veteran who has served in executive level positions at biopharmaceutical companies.

GRACE was founded to “assist other groups in addressing misinformation about transgender people,” as Kupec told Bay Area Reporter. The organization has also focused on engaging conservatives and moderates, including through a series of ads spotlighting right-leaning, Christian fathers of trans children.

The organization notes that the 2024 Republican Party platform included “references to the transgender community.”

  • On July 15, the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, will host “Heritage Policy Fest: Fighting for America’s Future.”

The group’s Project 2025, a 900+ page governing agenda for a second Trump administration, would repeal LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination protections and direct the federal government to advance principles of Christian nationalism.

The Biden-Harris 2024 Campaign has sought to bring attention to Project 2025 and tie it to Trump’s candidacy, as the document contains extreme policy proscriptions including a proposal to criminalize all pornography.

  • The anti-LGBTQ group Moms for Liberty will host “Giving Americans a Voice Town Hall” on July 16.

The group, which is considered a far-right extremist organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center and has close ties to the Republican Party, has sought to ban books with LGBTQ characters or themes and its members have harassed and intimidated educators and school officials.

  • Log Cabin Republicans, the conservative LGBTQ group, will host a Big Tent Event on July 17.

Former first lady Melania Trump hosted a fundraiser for the organization on Monday at the Trumps’ penthouse in Trump Tower, raising $1.4 million according to the New York Post. The event was the 2024 campaign’s first that was held at the couple’s residence.

  • On July 18, the anti-LGBTQ Faith and Freedom Coalition will host a prayer breakfast.

The organization, led by Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, opposes same-sex marriage and “transgender ideology.”

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Rep. Garcia on why he’s standing behind Biden

HRC: ‘We are proud to stand by our endorsement’ of the president

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U.S. Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) (Screen capture: YouTube/MSNBC)

After congressional Democrats emerged from closed-door meetings on Tuesday, House and Senate leaders reassured the media of their continued support for President Joe Biden in his bid for reelection.

As lawmakers returned from the July 4 break this week, a handful of Democrats publicly urged the president to step aside, following a debate performance last month that worsened concerns regarding the candidate’s age, signs of a potential decline in his mental acuity, and questions over his ability to bring the vigor necessary to lead the ticket.

However, speaking with the Washington Blade on Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) shared his thoughts on why “it is time to move forward” from Biden’s debate performance and “focus on attacking Donald Trump and the dangers that he poses.”

The congressman was clear that colleagues who have a different opinion should feel free to express their concerns — and, to that end, he said leadership has “been incredible in hearing members who have sought out input” from them.

“The president had a rough debate, and I think he recognizes that, and I think we all recognize that it was not a great moment,” he said. “I respect the people that have had those concerns and the conversation that’s happened since, so, I get that.”

“Personally, I’ve known from day one that Joe Biden is going to be our nominee,” Garcia said. “He reinforced that with everyone, and it is time to move forward. I’ve been behind the president and the vice president. I continue to be.”

Every day the Democratic Party continues having these conversations internally, “we’re not out there defeating Donald Trump,” the congressman added. “I think for some folks it’s going to take some time for them to feel comfortable, and that’s OK [but] I’m ready to go. I’m fired up and ready to go.”

Garcia, who’s gay, serves as a vice-chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus, alongside some LGBTQ Democratic members who agree with his position, like Ritchie Torres (N.Y.), and others who do not, like Mark Takano (Calif.) and Angie Craig (Minn.), who have called for Biden to step aside.

When it comes to LGBTQ voters, “from our perspective, I think we’ve just got to understand that we have the most pro-LGBTQ+ administration in the history of politics in front of us, and we have Donald Trump on the other side,” Garcia said. “Those are our choices.”

“You don’t have to love every choice you make, but we have to understand the stakes, and we have to understand that there is a binary choice,” he said. “Every person that’s not voting, or not voting for Joe Biden, is certainly empowering Donald Trump. That’s the reality of the moment we’re in.”

Asked how the Biden-Harris campaign can outrun the speculation about the president’s age and the calls from some Democrats for him to step aside, Garcia said “the president has to continue what he’s been doing for the last couple of days. And I think what you’ve seen in the last few days is a fighting Joe Biden.”

“Joe Biden is proving that if he’s going to get punched in the nose, he’s going to punch back twice as hard,” the congressman said. “And I think that is where the campaign is headed, and what needs to continue to happen.”

Weathering the moment in which “the president did have this really bad debate night,” Garcia said, has “also invigorated the campaign and him” with Biden and his team realizing “this is serious, we have a real challenge, here. And let’s get this done.”

Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest LGBTQ rights organization and a group that has made major investments in Biden’s reelection effort, also reaffirmed her support for the president in a statement to the Blade on Tuesday.

“Donald Trump and his Project 2025 agenda pose an existential threat to our rights, freedom, and democracy itself,” she said. “Our job remains the same: defeat him. Biden-Harris is the ticket to do it and we are proud to stand by our endorsement.”

Asked for comment, a GLAAD spokesperson said “as a [501]C3 nonprofit org, we focus on voter and reporter info and resources, to inform about elevate facts on the candidates’ records and statements about LGBTQ people.”

The spokesperson referred the Blade to a statement by the group’s president, Sarah Kate Ellis, which was issued shortly after Biden’s televised debate against Trump.

“Media must do their job to ask questions of candidates about their records and plans for and against LGBTQ people. Our community is enduring an onslaught of attacks on our lives and fundamental freedoms. Everything from our marriages to our ability to have children to keeping schools safe for LGBTQ youth is on the ballot.

“The candidates’ records are very clear, and voters need to be informed about this history to make the best decisions. Reporters and moderators must challenge candidate rhetoric for facts about abortion, immigration, inflation, and the security of each person’s vote.

“CNN failed to find time in 90 minutes to ask about Project 2025, the fascist fever dream that is laying a path for anti-LGBTQ zealots to weaponize the government to fully eliminate abortion access and LGBTQ people from equal access in American life.

“Accurate information is essential for voters to choose a leader who values the truth, decency, and who will work to ensure freedom and equality for all Americans.”

The GLAAD accountability project includes detailed entries for Trump and Biden, detailing the candidates’ records on and rhetoric concerning LGBTQ matters.

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