By Michelle Garcia
Originally published on Advocate.com May 19 2010 7:45 PM ET
At just 24 years old and with a meager $150 in campaign finances, earlier this week, Matthew Vanderpool pulled off the unthinkable, beating an Air Force veteran and a lawyer to win the Democratic primary for the 45th district of Kentucky's house of
representatives. Now, as the openly gay candidate gears up to face one of the state's most notoriously antigay politicians, Vanderpool talks to The Advocate about what made him run, what he expects from campaign season, and why he's sick of hearing politicians talk.
The Advocate: Why did you decide to run against incumbent Rep. Stan Lee?
Matthew Vanderpool: I got into it originally because I just couldn't stand Stan Lee. But that eventually went away, and I started thinking about how tired I was of hearing politicians talk. We need people in there that are actually going to do stuff, and work with the people. I've said throughout the entire campaign thus far — Stan's been in office since 2001, and I've always believed that if you stay in office that long, you start to lose focus on why you got in there, and it just becomes a job. You lose that passion, and that drive that got you in there in the first place. They start to think, Oh, I'll just keep running, but you can't do that to people. So I believe that even though I am as young as I am, my knowledge and enthusiasm can get the things done that need to be done. I don't like the term "politician." I don't consider myself one. I keep saying "public servant."
Have you always been interested in politics?
Honestly, I know this sounds corny, but I remember telling my mom, as far back as I can remember, "Mom, I want to go into politics. I want to help people." I think that's why I ran at 24. I guess I just waited until I was legally old enough to run, to achieve this dream of mine.
Despite facing an Air Force veteran and an attorney, you won this
primary with minimal advertising. How were you able to win over your
opponents with such a strategy?
I believed that you have to speak to everybody. I didn't even care if I
was talking to someone who didn't live in my district. I spoke to
everybody. Even the homeless down in Lexington. I guess that's how my
name got out there. I was shocked. I was sitting down there at City
Hall, because I wanted to be hands-on in my first campaign. I was
obviously really excited, and I was sitting there thinking, "There's no
way I'm going to win this. I've only raised $150, and my opponents have
raised $6000, and now that I look back, it's really just speaking to the
people. I never turned down an event I was invited to, I felt honored
to be invited to those events. I figured if someone wants to hear me
speak, I couldn't turn it down. I think it was just staying true to
myself, and speaking to everybody across the country. I wanted to hear
people's stories, and what was bothering them. I think they got kinda
shocked when they would ask me, "What are you going to do for me?"
because I would reply to them with, "Well, what do you want me to do?"
Are there any other openly gay legislators in Kentucky?
Ernesto Scorsone is one of them. He was our only one for a long time,
but he's no longer in office. He's now an executive judge in Fayette County. He's been keeping up on our campaign for a while. There was one
other guy who was running in Louisville, but he lost, unfortunately. I
actually just left him a message this morning. But other than that, I'm
the only openly gay candidate running for the house that I know of, and
there's no one else in the legislature that's open.
Stan Lee, as your campaign manager was telling me, is not exactly the most pro-gay person in Kentucky...
[Laughs] Yeah, I think that's the understatement of the century.
I'll just be more diplomatic about it. Do you think that being openly gay will be a challenge for you when running up against Lee and among some of the district's constituents?
It's gonna be very, very difficult, because Stan is very conservative and very antigay, that I wouldn't be surprised that during this campaign he might throw an f word around at least a couple of times. It really would not shock me at all. But I think if I stand my ground and stay true to it — I know this is really cliché, but someone I really look up to is Cleve Jones. And Harvey Milk is such an inspiration to me. Some people in the district have even called me the next Harvey Milk. I think it's a joke now, but even still, it's so inspiring to hear that. So I think going up against him, I don't think it'll be too much of a problem. It's basically the only thing he has to attack me on. I said in an interview back in November — someone asked me, "So you are openly gay?" and I said "Not necessarily the gay candidate, but someone who happens to be gay." Some people take that as me turning my back on the gay community, and that's not it at all. I've embraced all of it. They're the ones that got me here. But I want people to understand that I'm for everybody. I'm not just for gays. I'm representing everybody, but I think that approach has helped me a lot, that I'm more than just a gay candidate. And I think that eventually more people will warm up to that term. Right now, in Kentucky, we're in a Southern state where it's a naughty word to be gay. But once you let people meet you, they say, "Oh he's gay and he's not so bad." It's going to open people's eyes to not only help me hopefully win, but also help gay issues in the state.
why they shouldn't be discounted as a place to live, or respect?
I grew up in eastern Kentucky. There really are certain parts of the
state you can't even mention the word "gay." But if you go into
Lexington and Louisville and Paducah, some of the bigger cities, which
is generally the case, it's not so bad. I remember reading that
Lexington is one of the top places in the country to be if you're gay.
So it's a beautiful state, there's so many things you can do. I love
horses, so that's what I'm into. When I went down to volunteer after
Katrina, people still looked at my feet, wondering whether I had shoes
on. I think people still have the conception that we're just a bunch of
redneck hillbillies. We're coming along. I think the biggest thing is to
give us a chance. When you get to Kentucky, and see how nice the people
are, and how beautiful it is, and someone greets you at the gas
station, you'll like it. The other day, there was this guy coming down
from New England, and he said "I don't want to leave here. You all say
hello to me every time I walk into a public place." I just told him
that's how we are.
So you were sidetracked from going to college right after high school
because of a really bad jet ski accident. Has that influenced or shaped
the message of your campaign, or your purpose?
It's slowed me down. I was 18 years old when I had that accident. We
thought it was the end as far as my physical abilities. The boat, when
it hit me, it broke everything on my left side and damaged a few of my
organs. It slowed me down, and it made me appreciate life because I was
on the brink of death, and I came back from it. I'm here. I'm not
extremely religious, but I do believe in God. I'm very spiritual. While I
was in the hospital, a pastor came in, and he said, "You're in here for
a reason. You were supposed to die. Everything points to you dying, but
you're destined for something." I hear those words every single day in
my head, and I think that gives me the drive to keep doing what I'm
doing. Even though I've had many downs in this campaign, I've had a few
ups as well. I've never given up, and I'll never give up. In the event
that I do lose this election, and I hope that I don't, I want to focus
solely on gay rights and civil rights. I'm destined to something and if
it's not politics, it's something. I want to serve the people.
Looking forward, what do you think is going to take to win this
election against Stan Lee?
Patience. It's going to take a lot of patience, a lot of hard work. To
be honest, I'm still in such a mindset that I can't believe that I'm
having this conversation with you. Its just going to take a lot of hard
work. I think the biggest thing is staying true to myself. My mom raised
me, and from her I learned to respect hard work, and to never lie, and I
think that will carry me a long way. I'm going to be letting people
know who I am, and what I want to do for them. I think that will
separate me and Stan, because he is definitely a politician and he talks
a lot of fluff, to be perfectly honest. He just says what people want
to hear. I don't think that's a good leader. Sometimes you have to say
things that people don't want to hear, but you have to say them because
it's in their best interest. You have to stay true to yourself, and not
be a machine.
What are some of the major issues in your district that you face?
biggest focus is education. I'm going to college to be a high school
history teacher. Right now the dropout rate is number 1 in the
nation. So we're going to be focusing on that, hot and heavy, to keep
kids in school and find out why they're dropping out. I just don't
believe kids are waking up in the morning and saying, "I think I'm going
to drop out of school." There's other reasons there, so we're going to
work with some advocacy groups for youths, and programs, to see if we
can get these kids excited about going to school. If it's a money thing,
and their parents are pushing for it, we're going to look at that, but
we have to understand why kids are dropping out of school. Here in
Kentucky, we already have this reputation for not being necessarily the
smartest state in the United States, so we have to work on that, that's
Another thing we rank number one in the nation is child
abuse, and I
think that some of that — the dropout rate and domestic violence —
goes hand in hand. It's a psychological thing. I do mental health
volunteering at the Red Cross for the national disaster volunteer unit,
and I volunteered in Katrina, and learned a lot from it. I, myself, have
experienced domestic violence. My father was a drinker, which is a huge
story to get involved in, but with those two issues, I've always been
an advocate. We have to keep our kids in schools. You have to support
our kids in school, and you have to support our teachers. I wouldn't be
here if it weren't for some of my teachers. We wouldn't have lawyers, we
wouldn't have doctors, so you have to support teachers. As far as
district-wise, the economy is hurting people. Our employment rate in
Kentucky is getting a little bit better, but it's not good enough. It's
still at 10%, so it's not good enough. There's still people looking for
work, so that's another thing we've gotta work on.