Is Calling a Gay Candidate 'Weak' a Homophobic Dog Whistle?

Chris Pappas and Maura Sullivan

A Democratic candidate for Congress from New Hampshire is being accused of making a homophobic “dog whistle” comment against a gay rival.

Maura Sullivan, one of 11 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. House in New Hampshire’s First District, sent a campaign mailer last week that said opponent Chris Pappas has “no real backbone” and is “not a real progressive,” Manchester TV station WMUR reports.

Pappas is gay, and his supporters say the implication that he is weak plays into a homophobic stereotype. “Suggesting that a gay man is weak or spineless is among the nastiest attacks I've seen in any primary and no New Hampshire Democrat, especially those of us who fought for marriage equality, transgender equality, and a conversion therapy ban, should stand for these smears,” State Sen. David Watters told the station.

The LGBTQ Victory Fund, which has endorsed Pappas, also called the statement homophobic. “Throughout this campaign cycle, when opponents of openly gay candidates go on the attack, they nearly always appeal to the tired homophobic stereotype of gay people as weaker than others,” Victory Fund senior political director Sean Meloy told WMUR. "Maura Sullivan now joins the ranks of candidates willing to engage in homophobic dog whistle politics for their own gain, further proving she is not the progressive in this race.”

Sullivan’s mailer contended that Pappas is not truly progressive because in 2016 he was endorsed by the National Federation of Independent Business, a conservative group with ties to the Koch brothers, in his run for reelection to the New Hampshire Executive Council, a state administrative body.

“The fact is, Chris Pappas welcomed with open arms the endorsement of the NFIB, which is a Koch brothers front group that wanted to repeal Obamacare,” Sullivan campaign manager Whitney Larsen told WMUR. “That is a fact, and it should raise very serious concerns for New Hampshire Democrats, especially when Chris tries to claim he’s a progressive on health care issues.”

The campaign also released a statement from Kyle Ridolfo, a gay man who supports Sullivan. “Chris Pappas needs to answer for the support he welcomed from a Koch brothers-backed organization three times, plain and simple,” he said. “As an openly gay man and as someone who grew up in New Hampshire, it is absurd that Chris Pappas and his supporters are trying to twist this examination of Chris’s record into some sort of attack, that in no way is something I have ever associated with my sexual orientation. This is unfortunate, but I guess Chris Pappas must be desperate.”

Pappas himself called Sullivan’s mailer “beyond the pale” and defended his record. “As someone who grew up gay, you grow up questioning your place in the community, whether or not you’ll be accepted,” he told WMUR. "You feel marginalized and you grow a strong backbone as a result. And I’ve demonstrated that backbone during the fights I’ve taken on at the State House, whether it’s standing up for women’s health, expanding Medicaid, going toe to toe with the governor when need be. That’s the same fight that I’ll bring to Washington, D.C.”

New Hampshire’s primary election is today. The incumbent from the First District, Democrat Carol Shea-Porter, is retiring, leaving the seat open. Pappas, endorsed by both of the state’s U.S. senators, is “a rising star and part of an old New Hampshire family,” according to FiveThirtyEight.com, which says Sullivan, who worked in the Obama administration and is a relative newcomer to New Hampshire, “is waging a strong outside challenge.” Another First District candidate who’s attracted substantial media attention is Levi Sanders, son of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The elder Sanders, however, has not endorsed his son, saying he wants to avoid “dynasty politics.”

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