Op-ed: How to Get Elected in America

The first LGBT person of color was elected to Congress in the land of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.

BY Jamie Ruddy and Rupert Russell

March 06 2013 5:09 AM ET

California’s 41st District lies only about an hour’s drive from Los Angeles, but the area has little else in common with its liberal, urban neighbor. Described as “the red headed step child of Orange County” by one of its tea party leaders, the desert communities of the Inland Empire are lined with strip malls, mega churches and even a creationist dinosaur museum. Water is advertised at most bodegas and serves as an unnecessary reminder of the scorching desert heat. The IE, as it’s referred to by locals, has a distinct flavor of its own.

We set out to document the story of a local teacher running for Congress.  Mark Takano, a gay Japanese-American, Harvard grad had returned to his hometown to teach in the public school system rather than cash in on his Ivy League credentials. He ran to forward education and to support his working class community, all too often overlooked by politicians. He was a true Mr. Smith—a teacher who stayed late with students when he should have been fundraising, the type of man most of us wish were in Washington. The film at first seemed simple, but when the polls closed on November 6, 2012, the votes cast across America told a bigger tale.

The country had reached a tipping point. After 30 defeats at the ballot box, gay marriage passed for the first time in three states and an anti-gay marriage proposition was voted down in a fourth.

The incoming 113th Congress would prove to be the most diverse in history. The number of openly gay members doubled, including electing the first openly gay senator, Tammy Baldwin, the first bisexual, Kyrsten Sinema, and the first openly gay person of color, Mark Takano, to the House. There is also a record breaking number of women, along with the first Buddhist representative, the first Hindu and the first non-theist. Barack Obama became the first president since Eisenhower to win election and re-election with more than 51% of the vote both times.

While voters embraced diversity in every stripe, for lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans it would become the most important political event since the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

Its importance isn’t just the fact that we now have twice as many gay and lesbian voices in Congress who can speak out against injustice and advocate for equality. Nor is it because struggling LBGTQ youth now have more role models than ever before.

Its importance is the timing.

Nov. 6 was the last national election before the Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8. If these laws are struck down, it will be the largest expansion of civil rights for a decade. If they are upheld, the court will rule that same-sex couples are separate and unequal in the eyes of the law. The damage of such a legal precedent would be felt immediately and last indefinitely. It could take generations before it is overturned.

Elections express public opinion and public opinion matters. We tend to think of the Supreme Court justices, secluded in their chambers with their lifetime appointments, as driven by their consciences alone. But legal scholars and political scientists have long found that the Supreme Court often rules in step with public opinion. This has also made them reluctant to make rulings that would overturn the laws held by a large number of states.

When interracial marriage was legalized by the court's 1967 ruling in Loving v. Virginia, only 15 states had their miscegenation laws overturned. To legalize gay marriage today the bar is set far higher: 39 state statutes and constitutional amendments would have to be struck down.  

And this is why the 2012 election was so important. The voters sent the political establishment the message that the country was changing.  

And nowhere was this clearer than in California’s 41st District.

In 1994, when Mark Takano ran for Congress for the second time, he was outed as a gay man and the voters rejected him. In 2008 voters of Riverside County overwhelmingly rejected gay marriage by 63%, 12 points higher than the state average. So when he chose to run again, he knew the odds were against him. Every openly gay Congressmember was from a liberal district, like Bolder, Colo., and Madison, Wisc.

His campaign team was preparing for a recount. But in the four years since the passage of Prop. 8, a lot had changed. The heartland of Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan elected Mr. Takano with 58% of the vote.  

Our film, How to Get Elected in America, captured this moment, this pivotal transition for the country. We did not set out to make a film that would encompass such a monumental change, but luck was on our side. Between the fly-on-the-wall campaign footage and the interviews later on with social scientists, political professionals, and historians, we uncovered what this change means for the country and the impact it will have on future elections. We invite you to follow us on our Facebook page and Twitter feed to help support the project.

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