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.”