Whether it was California’s Proposition 8 or Maine’s Question 1, opponents of gay marriage have embraced a winning mantra in recent battles: Think of the children! While previous generations of homophobic leaders may have spent time portraying gay people as pathological, sinful, and inherently self-destructive, their successors ignore the legitimacy of gay relationships themselves and instead play the fear card about children being raised by two parents of the same sex or being taught about gay families in school. This may be due in part to a lack of gay public figures—particularly men—who have children and who can normalize gay parenting for those unfamiliar with such family structures.
This is not why Steve Pougnet is running for Congress. But should the 46-year-old Democrat and current mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., prevail in November, he could become the first openly gay congressman who is both a father and legally married. He and his partner of 17 years, Christopher Green, tied the knot in California in 2008, and are parents to 3-year old twins Julia and Beckham. Though recent gay congressional candidates in California have failed to garner enough support and funding to be truly competitive, Pougnet’s money machine has kept pace with that of his opponent, Rep. Mary Bono Mack, who faces a right-wing tea party primary challenger in a district hobbled by high unemployment and home foreclosure rates. When canvassing in more conservative areas of the vast inland district, Pougnet is up-front. “Am I gay? Yes,” he says. “Am I a husband? Yes. Do I have children? Yes. Really, we are a family unit no different from any other. People will absolutely know who we are, and when I am standing there at the soccer games with moms talking about jobs and schools and the failings of our education system, they will know that it matters to us as well.”
The 45th congressional district, which covers a long, roughly rectangular section of California, including much of Riverside County and stretching to the Arizona border, was one of several Republican-held districts identified as potential midterm election battlegrounds by Democratic strategists. And though the Democrats have faltered in recent races (losing the late senator Ted Kennedy’s seat to Republican Scott Brown, who opposes marriage equality), the seat held by Bono Mack has been described by the Cook Political Report as “in play,” if leaning Republican. President Barack Obama carried the district in 2008.
“The reason Pougnet came on our radar was because of his solid record in Palm Springs, from a downtown hotel renovation incentive program to a sustainability program in Palm Springs,” says Andrew Stone, western regional press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Though Bono Mack had a sizable amount of cash on hand from her last race in 2008, Pougnet has gained fund-raising ground. He asserts the majority of campaign contributions have come from within the district (though he does make frequent westward trips to attract donors in Los Angeles, where he sat down recently with The Advocate). Campaign observers describe him as a gifted fund-raiser in his previous positions with the United Way, where he was associate director of national corporate leadership programs, and the Colorado School of Mines, where he served as vice president of development.
During the five-month window when California extended marriage rights to same-sex couples, Pougnet officiated at 118 such ceremonies—perhaps more than anyone in the state. But to portray the race as one between a gay rights activist and a right-wing obstructionist is arguably misleading. While not a leader on gay issues, Bono Mack, who was initially elected to fill the congressional seat of her late first husband, Sonny Bono, hasn’t been a true roadblock either. She broke party lines last fall to vote for hate-crimes legislation attached to a military spending bill and recently voiced support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (Bono Mack voted for ENDA in 2007). A spokesman confirmed that she also supports gender identity protections in the current ENDA legislation (the 2007 House bill passed with no transgender-inclusive language). Bono Mack’s stepson Chaz Bono revealed last year that he was a transgender man and had begun taking steps in transitioning. Bono Mack declined requests for an interview.
“Mary is highly respected in Washington and has always been a strong supporter of gay rights,” says Chuck Vasquez, president of the Riverside County-Palm Springs chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, which has endorsed Bono Mack. “She’s not a candidate of political party lines, but of her own convictions. And with the economic state of the district, and with city and local governments in California trying to get everything they can from the federal government, which has raided our budgets, I don’t see how changing to an unknown [candidate] will lead to getting a better job done.”
Pougnet, who has the support of California senator Barbara Boxer and gay representatives Barney Frank and Jared Polis, further points out that his opponent did not take a public stance on Prop. 8, nor has she been a strong advocate for repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” one of Pougnet’s chief concerns among gay issues. Bono Mack has said she believes any changes must be made only with extensive consultation with the Pentagon—a strategy that many DADT opponents insist would fail to end the policy.
“To me, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is something that should change as quickly as possible. If I were in Congress, I would have been cosponsoring the [repeal] bill with Rep. Patrick Murphy,” says Pougnet, referring to the lead sponsor of a House bill that would eradicate the 16-year-old ban. “Times are changing, and we’ll beat her.”