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Ballot box trail

Ballot box trail


Even in superconservative states and the most hostile legislatures, out politicians are making a difference every day

One of only 13 Democrats in Idaho's 70-seat legislature, Nicole LeFavour is used to being the odd one out when it comes to liberal politics. "I grew up in Idaho," she says. "Not great ground to be pretty progressive-minded." But LeFavour, now 41, expressed her political opinions early on, going so far as to make anti-Ronald Reagan posters when he was a presidential candidate. A writing teacher and former owner of a small business, LeFavour has been an openly gay advocate for equality for years, fighting antigay initiatives since 1994. Even as one of the newest members of the state legislature (she was elected in 2004), she is credited by many activists as the sole reason Idaho has not moved forward with a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. "A lot of what I did was in my own party," she says. "They were very fearful. The most important thing I could do was explain how this could play out and how it could be bad for Democrats." LeFavour, who has been with her life partner for five years, not only got six Democrats to vote against putting the amendment in front of voters, she helped convince eight Republicans to join them, getting two more than the 12 votes needed to kill the motion. She credits much of her success to building relationships with her new colleagues and also to the simple concept of visibility. "It makes so much difference when the issues come up and I'm sitting in the room," she says. "That's pretty powerful." But LeFavour hopes her influence in helping gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Idaho residents goes beyond blocking amendments. She says the ability to deal with the complexities of the law, and making sure include GLBT people are included in even the most modest legislation, can have an impact."Over time," LeFavour explained, "I will be able to make a lot of small changes that will make differences." LeFavour isn't the only out legislator who has dealt with such an amendment. Georgia state representative Karla Drenner faced the same issue last year, becoming her state's highest-profile amendment opponent, ignoring advice from friends and colleagues who urged her to keep quiet. Drenner, who is separated from her partner, says her two children inspired her to get involved in the amendment fight. "I didn't want my kids' lives to be impacted," she says. "Too many people walk around being afraid. And I stood there very confidently in who I knew God made me to be." The amendment passed by an overwhelming margin, but Drenner says the political cost was negligible. If anything, the fight seems to have helped her. A native of Charleston, W.Va., Drenner got an early sense of politics from her mother, who held a number of government jobs and ran an unsuccessful campaign for state representative. "I was involved in her campaign," says Drenner, currently the sole out state legislator in Georgia. "There were always political types [of people] and those kinds of conversations going on in my house." An environmental science professor, Drenner was first elected in 2000, after beating in the primary a four-term incumbent whose husband ran the Democratic Party in DeKalb County. While campaigning in a predominantly African-American district with 26 Baptist churches, Drenner faced skeptics, including her mother. "She didn't think I could win," she says. "I hadn't done my time, in her mind: I wasn't a native Georgian, and I wasn't a member of civic groups." Drenner is a leader in the legislature on issues such as renewable energy, but she doesn't shy away from the role she played in the amendment fight, and she doesn't think it has hurt her standing with her constituents. On the contrary, she notes, it has been an asset. "I never got a single piece of hate mail or any derogatory phone calls from inside my district," Drenner explains. "I attribute that to the fact that I never hid that I was gay, and I was literally and figuratively out and about. What I heard [from constituents] was 'We expected you to do that.' And if I hadn't done that, they would have thought there was something wrong."

As out elected officials serve longer, they are getting chances to serve in leadership positions and move on to larger constituencies. Jennifer Veiga has gotten the chance to do both. After the Democrat served four terms in the Colorado house of representatives, she reached an impressive milestone for any legislator, let alone an openly lesbian one: She was elected by her peers in 2003 to be the House minority leader. But soon after she took the position, a vacancy committee for the Colorado senate named the downtown Denver resident to that body. Veiga, who won the senate seat outright in 2004, says there are differences between the two bodies. "There's a larger constituency," she says of the senate. "It's more time-consuming." But with a smaller group of lawmakers--35 senators as opposed to 65 representatives in the statehouse--Veiga describes the working environment as "more congenial" and "less contentious." But best of all, with the Democrats taking control of both legislative bodies with the 2004 election, Veiga now finds herself in the majority, which she calls "another beautiful thing. It is so much more enjoyable." A Long Beach, Calif., native who went to college in Colorado, Veiga got involved in politics with former U.S. senator Gary Hart's failed 1984 presidential bid. After finishing law school in Washington, D.C., in 1987, Veiga returned to Colorado, where she became active in the local women's bar association--and local politics. "I just always loved public policy," she says. "I love the thought process: that you can take an issue and problem-solve and advocate." Veiga, who lives with her partner of 11 years, says part of that process is carrying a civil rights bill that would protect Colorado gays and lesbians. And with the new Democratic majority, she says, the bill has "a good chance of making it to the governor's desk." But politics is not all-consuming. Veiga still supplements Colorado's 120-day yearly legislative session with a law practice. "I love the job," she says. "I've been so fortunate. But I've always been one to balance my life." Other out politicians are getting into the game after spending years gaining experience through working for other politicians. Sam Adams, who was once the ultimate insider in Portland, Ore., had to adjust when he finally ran for city commissioner after working as a political staffer for 20 years, including an 11-year stint as chief of staff for a mayor. "I went from being the behind-the-scenes person to the guy with his name on the bumper sticker," Adams says. "It's surreal to see my name on the door rather than somebody else's."

Adams, now 41, began his 2004 campaign as an underdog, an insider who had worked for an departing mayor who wasn't all that popular. But he says that because he communicated a message, he was able to overcome a 15-point deficit in the primary to win the runoff. "One of my tasks was to present myself as a human being," Adams says. "My motto was 'Tough, smart, real.' It was more about telling my life story and the challenges I've overcome. It helped humanize me to the public." Adams, who was born in Montana and grew up on the Oregon coast in a town of 6,000 people, says his family always discussed current events. But Adams stresses that he doesn't come from a privileged political background. "I'm a product of subsidized housing and food stamps," he says, explaining that years ago he had to declare bankruptcy after a medical emergency, something that could have derailed less astute politicians. "I decided to handle it by being blunt and up-front." In Portland, commissioners are elected citywide on a nonpartisan basis. For Adams, who has been out publicly since 1995 and is currently single, an "identity politics" approach to running would have been a disaster. Just as voters in Portland would disdain anyone running as the Latino or woman candidate, they'd "have little tolerance for who someone who ran as the gay candidate," he says. "They wanted someone who had a vision that was broad in scope." For some gay elected officials, sexual identity has never been a part of their public persona. But in a world where homosexuality is no longer a career killer and media coverage is making it harder for people to keep quiet about being gay, more politicians are coming out. In 1990, Paul Koering was milking cows when a neighbor called to ask him if he wanted to go to a farm bureau meeting. Within five months Koering was on the bureau's board of directors, which lobbies politicians on agricultural issues. After hearing the first President Bush speak, he took a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C. Koering then decided to run for state senate in his rural, conservative district as a Republican against a 28-year incumbent. After getting 47% of the vote in 1996, then 49.5% in 2000, Koering beat his opponent, by then the president of the Minnesota senate, in 2002 by 138 votes. Not bad for a mere high school graduate. Koering initially immersed himself in agricultural, education, and health care issues, but on April 13 he made national headlines when he announced that he is gay. The sole Republican to vote against a recent motion to force a marriage amendment bill out of committee to the senate floor, Koering found whispers about his sexuality became something of a roar. Instead of letting the gossip continue, he came out. "They can't do anything to me anymore that is going to hurt me," he says of his opponents. "I feel better, but I still contend that somebody's personal life is just that." Koering may have made some enemies in his party, but some GLBT activists are disappointed that he supports a referendum on the amendment and thus the concept of marriage for straight couples only. "I don't know how I can deny my constituents the right to vote on it," he says. But Koering, who is 40 and single, stresses that he will abandon the bill if it includes limits on other legal protections. When asked if he will run again and stay a Republican, Koering gives a traditionally Minnesotan response: "You betcha," he says. "I'm just a farm boy, you know. All I've ever wanted to do in my life is to know I've made a difference." A letter recently arrived from a high school student who wrote that he had been beaten up and called names for being gay but that Koering's coming-out had helped him. Despite all the anxiety and media attention, Koering says, letters like that meant it was worth it to have come out so publicly. "If I died tomorrow," he says, "my God, I feel I really made a difference in somebody's life." A number of other out politicians across the country are making names for themselves as they fight for GLBT equality. In Connecticut, state senator Andrew McDonald, the cochair of the senate's judiciary committee, was one of the lead architects of the state's new civil unions law, which was signed by the governor on April 20. Despite criticism from the Right, who said he was pushing a measure that was really a step toward same-sex marriage, and the Left's insistence that he was selling out the opportunity to win full marriage equality, McDonald was able to pass a bill that will help protect thousands of lesbian and gay families. In January, Illinois became the 14th state to make sexual orientation a protected characteristic in its nondiscrimination policy, with help from state representative Larry McKeon, who after years of resistance was able to finally get the bill out of the Illinois senate and to the governor's desk. "Contrary to our opponents' claims, it does not create special rights for any individuals or groups," McKeon says of the bill. "Instead, it guarantees that the law treats everyone the same. To most Illinoisans, that's a pretty uncontroversial idea." For some politicians, the act of coming out is more than just a personal statement. Just days after Kansas became the 18th state to approve a constitutional marriage amendment, Mike Rundle, the departing mayor of Lawrence who was returning to the city's commission, announced at an April 19 commission meeting that he is gay. "It is with dignity and pride that I acknowledge that I have been Lawrence's mayor and in all likelihood Lawrence's first gay mayor," he said to applause from meeting attendees and fellow commissioners. Other elected officials are helping to fight for equality by speaking up. In Texas, state lawmakers have been debating a ban on allowing adoptions by out gays and lesbians. Houston city controller Annise Parker, who has two adopted children, has been speaking out against any changes in the law. "The issue should be whether they're providing safe, loving homes for foster kids," she told KHOU-TV on April 20, "and if those kids are thriving in those homes. And beyond that, it's not the state's business whether the parents happen to be gay or lesbian." Other public officials are helping to promote equality just by serving. In San Diego, Republican Bonnie Dumanis beat out her opponent in 2002 to become the country's first openly lesbian district attorney. Last year, voters in Dallas County, Texas, dumped a corrupt "good ol' boy" incumbent to make Lupe Valdez sheriff. Valdez became not only the county's first lesbian top cop but also the first female Latino to win the post, a daunting task. But Valdez was never intimidated. "When did I ever have it easy?" she said in an April 5 interview with Ivanhoe Newswire. "Was it when I tried to learn English? Was it when I was working my way through college? When did I have it easy? So why start now?

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