Out With the Old

By Matt Link

Originally published on Advocate.com August 12 2010 5:00 AM ET

 Unemployment is hovering at close to 10%, frustration over two wars and the Gulf oil spill is unabated, and a recent CNN poll found that a majority of Americans are angry at both political parties. Conventional wisdom suggests that an anti-incumbent sentiment could be bad news for Democratic majorities in Congress, but a number of gay candidates—running as newcomers or challengers in dozens of races this fall—hope the tide might also help sweep them into office.

“With an anti-incumbent sentiment, gay candidates have an opportunity to do better than ever before,” says Andy Szekeres, a Denver-based political consultant. “Where we would lose that seat in other election years, now up to 10% of voters may cross party lines just to try someone new.”

Baltimore’s Mary Washington thinks this year offers her the best chance yet to get elected to Maryland’s house of delegates. Four years ago she narrowly lost the same seat she seeks this year.

“All challengers, irrespective of their sexual orientation, are being buoyed this cycle by deep concerns about the economy, the war, and a disaffection of the slow pace of change,” she says. “I believe deeply that LGBT candidates will be successful this year.”

Steve Pougnet, currently the mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., is running in California’s 45th district against Republican congresswoman Mary Bono Mack, who’s served for 12 years. The gay father of two says anti-incumbent fervor is especially high in greater Palm Springs, an area especially racked by unemployment and foreclosures “People are more interested in hearing how you’re going to create jobs” than discussing sexual orientation, Pougnet says. “Obviously, [constituent frustration] is an opportunity for gay candidates, but you still have to explain how you’re going to make a better congressman.”

Bryce Bennett, a gay 25-year-old seeking a seat in Montana’s house of representatives, hopes his promise to create jobs and fight pollution wins voters over. Bennett captured the Democratic primary for the relatively liberal district around Missoula, giving him a good shot of taking the seat of retiring congressman Robin Hamilton. Like Washington and Pougnet, the University of Montana graduate has been endorsed by the Victory Fund, the D.C.-based group that works to elect gay candidates to office.

“Being young and gay isn’t helping or hurting the campaign,” Bennett says. “Everyone I talk to tells me they want a legislator who will roll up their sleeves and deliver.”

Optimism may be a political requirement for candidates, but both Szekeres and Denis Dison, the communications vice president for the Victory Fund, sound a more cautious note.

“Sexual orientation is still an issue in many places,” Dison says. Szekeres adds, “Many parts of America are still homophobic and not ready to elect an out candidate.”

Progressive areas like Baltimore and Missoula offer the best chances for gay political newcomers to succeed in November. Bennett is banking on not only the frustration of his potential constituents but their open-mindedness.

“Montana had the first woman in Congress, and we’re one of the few states to pass medical marijuana laws,” Bennett says. “We’re a live-and-let-live kind of place.”