Mehlman Draws Fire, Praise

By Kerry Eleveld

Originally published on Advocate.com August 25 2010 10:45 PM ET

While some gay advocates joked that one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington was out, others welcomed the news with open arms — on both sides of the aisle.

Ken Mehlman, campaign manager for President George W. Bush in 2004 and former chair of the Republican National Committee, came out as gay in an interview with The Atlantic posted Wednesday afternoon.

Though many bloggers seethed with anger at the fact that Mehlman presided over a campaign that strategically pushed anti-gay marriage amendments in 11 states in 2004 (Joe.My.God’s Joe Jervis called Mehlman a “Quisling Homophobic Scumbag” among other choice epithets), one of the movement’s most prominent marriage equality advocates sang his praises.

“I have spent no time thinking about where Ken was four to five to six years ago. I’m just thankful that he’s with us today,” said Chad Griffin, cofounder of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the organization that’s solely funding the legal challenge to California’s Proposition 8 in federal court brought by former Bush solicitor general Ted Olson and progressive legal eagle David Boies.

“He is one of the most brilliant political strategists from the Republican side of the aisle,” said Griffin, “and he is also a master fund-raiser and brings contacts and relationships to bear that are comparable to almost no one.”

Indeed, Mehlman’s first act as an out gay man will be hosting a fund-raiser of the foundation next month to help support the case, which likely carries a price tag in the millions of dollars (the group has declined to disclose exactly how much).

Although the invitations have yet to be mailed, Mehlman told The Advocate Wednesday evening that just through pre-selling the event, organizers had already helped to raise about $750,000.

The lineup of heavy conservative hitters hosting the event includes people such as Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; Lew Eisenberg, former Republican National Committee finance chairman and national finance chairman for Sen. John McCain; and Mark and Nicole Wallace, former United Nations ambassador and White House communications director under Bush, respectively.

“A lot of different people have come together to make this a success, but the one who has been the most generous and who is hosting it is Paul Singer,” said Mehlman, referring to the wealthy GOP donor and hedge fund executive. But Mehlman added that he and his colleagues were merely building on the efforts of "a lot of people who have worked hard on these issues for a number of years."The tony, high-profile conservative fund-raiser may indeed mark a shift
in the political winds for marriage equality in much the same way the
Prop. 8 case has.

As Steve Elmendorf, a Washington Democratic
political operative, observed, “Ted Olson brought incredible credibility
to the legal case; Ken can bring incredible credibility to our
political case and send the message that being on the right side of this
issue is not going to cost you politically.”

Mehlman himself is
well aware that a number of LGBT people still harbor ill feelings toward
him for his role in targeting the gay community in order to whip up
conservative support for George W. Bush in '04. In Ohio, for instance,
the RNC sent out voter registration pamphlets attached to fliers
featuring an image of a bride and groom and the words “One Man One Woman
... One Vote Could Make a Difference in Making Sure It Stays That Way.”

Mehlman
readily admits that he has regrets about the strategy and that the
emphasis on the amendments made him uncomfortable at the time.

“I
understand that folks are angry, I don’t know that you can change the
past,” he said. “One thing I regret a lot is the fact that I wasn’t in
the position I am today where I was comfortable with this part of my
life, where I was able to be an advocate against that [strategy] and
able to be someone who argued against it. I can’t change that — it is
something I wish I could and I can only try to be helpful in the
future.”

Despite Mehlman's past positions, Winnie Stachelberg, a
senior vice president at the progressive think tank the Center for
American Progress, said she was not necessarily surprised by the news
that Mehlman is gay and she welcomed him into the fold.

“It is
exactly what marriage equality advocates have been saying — it’s not a
Democratic or a Republican issue, it’s not a conservative or a liberal
issue,” she said. “It’s an issue of the freedom and equality that this
country was founded on.”

Stachelberg expected that many LGBT
activists might be bitter about Mehlman’s history, but said she hoped
people could move past that.

“What we ought to focus on is
ensuring that we have as many people as possible — whether they’re gay
or trans or straight — helping us achieve equality,” Stachelberg said.
“I think it adds significant fuel to the effort of securing marriage
equality for gays and lesbians.”While Mehlman’s Wednesday confessional with The Atlantic
certainly wasn’t cause for celebration among prominent anti-gay
marriage forces, nor was it seen as further evidence of a conservative
party shifting toward a pro-marriage equality position, however slowly.

Brian
Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, told The
Advocate
that Mehlman was “abdicating core Republican beliefs” in
his support for the American Foundation for Equal Rights’ legal effort in challenging Prop. 8. “But it’s
never been about the leaders. It’s always been about the people, based
on an overwhelming majority of Republican voters — 85%, 86% —
who support marriage as a union between a man and a woman,” he said.
“That a few folks within the Republican Party are questioning a party
platform and have personal positions on same-sex marriage is a reality
of political parties. [Mehlman] is no longer a major party leader, so I
don’t know how influential he is, to be honest with you.”

Marriage
equality advocates, Brown said, are using high-profile conservatives
now supporting gay marriage — from Ted Olson to vice president
Dick Cheney — in order to “create an impression that there is an
inevitability to same-sex marriage. The facts strongly go against that
idea.”

Brown asserted that the RNC played a limited role in
rallying the anti-gay marriage vote during the 2004 presidential
elections, when Mehlman served as Bush-Cheney campaign manager. Eleven
states passed constitutional amendments banning marriage rights for
same-sex couples that year, including Ohio, which gave Bush his margin of
victory over Democratic senator John Kerry.

“These [amendments] were
pushed by people on the state level,” Brown said. “The whole notion
that it was some top-down, Machiavellian ploy by the Republican Party is
a farce.”

But Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin
Republicans, saw Mehlman’s revelation as an opportunity to move the
Republican Party forward on LGBT issues.

“Being gay and being
conservative are not mutually exclusive,” Cooper said. “As a fellow Bush
alumnus, I also look forward to Ken helping me and our colleagues build
a stronger more inclusive Republican Party.”