As Ken Mehlman’s revelation that he is gay ripped through the blogosphere late Wednesday afternoon, he boarded a plane bound for his home base, New York City. Mehlman had first discussed his coming out story with Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic, but he had reached out to The Advocate in advance of its publication and made a point of offering his second interview on the matter to an LGBT news outlet.
Shortly after arriving in New York Wednesday evening, Mehlman, the former Republican National Committee chair and campaign manager for Bush-Cheney ’04, made good on his promise.
The Advocate: Tell me about how you got involved with this fundraiser you’re putting together to help support the legal challenge to California’s Proposition 8.
Ken Mehlman: 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 [CEO of the hedge fund firm Elliott Management Corp.] Paul Singer. He and I have been friends for a long time and we talked about this. He indicated his interest in the cause and I indicated my interest in the cause and we talked together about how we might work on it.
So he’s someone who deserves tremendous credit and is going to make this a truly outstanding event.
The fundraiser – we literally haven’t really even sent out the invitation and just by pre-selling it we are now at about $750,000.
I know you’re focused on the fundraiser right now, but do you have your sights set on any other LGBT issues that you really want to work on moving forward?
I have a lot to learn. I would say a couple things — one is, I’m not in politics anymore. I’m a private citizen and as a private citizen there are a number of ways you can help, the same way I’ve been helpful in other causes I believe in, whether it’s education reform or supporting the college I attended, etc. I think that you look to raise money, you look to provide strategic advice and you look to help bring other folks into the effort.
But in terms of particular causes, I think it would be premature because I have a lot to learn. I want to talk to folks that are involved in the effort and figure out where I can be constructive.
What was the turning point for you when you came to terms with being gay yourself – made peace with it yourself?
I always thought that it might be the case and was probably the case but I wasn’t sure and it was something that, to be honest with you, was kind of hard and you go through a period – at least I did – where there’s probably some denial and probably things you’re worried about and I’m just glad it’s behind me.
You were asked about your sexuality in the past and, for instance, there’s a lot people who are quoting the time you said that those stories “did a number” on your dating life. Is there anything you want to say about what went through your mind when those types of questions were asked?
I think that I was someone who hadn’t accepted this part of my life and it’s taken me 43 years to do that and that’s what that answer reflected. And I completely understand that a lot of folks will look to that and say, that doesn’t – that’s not something that I liked [inaudible]. But I hope that they’ll reflect on their own possible journey and perhaps offer some understanding.
I know you’ve been having these conversations over the last several months, is there anything you would be willing to share about some of the responses you’ve gotten?
They’ve been awesome. One of the things I’ve been really strengthened by and has been really important to me is the fact that I have a lot of friends and colleagues who have been very supportive and who have been wonderful in the process. I shouldn’t be surprised – I know that they’re such good friends – but it was a really nice thing to be reminded of it.
People are very aware that the Republican Party has skewed pretty conservative on gay issues in the past. Do you think that this could help win over some hearts and minds, that you could have conversations that you didn’t have in the past?
Well, a couple thoughts. One is, Republicans have lots of different views on this issue. I would argue – and I’m arguing it now, I didn’t argue it before and I should have – that in fact if you are a believer in individual freedom and leaving people alone and you’re a believer in strengthening families that, in fact, supporting issues like the right to marry would be consistent with that. I think those are conservative positions.
But again, I’m not in politics anymore. I think it would presumptuous for me to speculate on what my impact might be but I certainly look forward to having conversations with people who I hope even if they don’t agree with me will respect me and give me a fair hearing and, ya know, we’ll see what happens.
I also think there’s a demographic change occurring and, look, there’s an evolution occurring at lots of levels and that evolution is [happening] thanks to the extremely good work of a lot of folks who have been working on this issue for 20 years. If you look at the legislative progress that has been made, if you look at the other judicial cases that are out there, there clearly is a changing attitude and that attitude is changing because people have worked hard and because, frankly, a lot of people went up to their family and friends and did way earlier in life what it took me too long to do.
I’ve said this before, I think if you look at the 11 states where there were marriage amendments on the ballot in terms of numbers, [Bush’s] relative improvement versus the 2000 campaign was less than in the other states. I think President Bush won, in my judgment, because of most importantly national security. I think it was a national security/leadership election, and I think that’s what was ultimately decisive in the outcome.
There’s a lot of gays and lesbians and other people who are still angry about the 2004 election and the fact that that those 11 amendments were on the ballot. Is there anything that you would like to say about that in particular?
Look, I have a lot of friends who ask questions and who are angry about it. I understand that folks are angry, I don’t know that you can change the past. As I’ve 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.
But I understand the anger and I talk to friends about it – it’s something that I hear from a number of friends.
As the strategy developed, did it ever make you uncomfortable?
There were a lot of people, including people that supported the [Federal Marriage Amendment], for example, that worried about this being divisive.
I obviously found it particularly challenging to deal with and, because I wasn’t in the place I am today where I’m comfortable with this part of my life, it was really hard and it was particularly hard because there was really nobody who knew this about me and so there was no one I could even talk to about it. So it was a period that I’m very glad is over.
I think like a lot of people, there are a lot issues that are important to me – free enterprise and lower taxes and less regulation, a strong national defense, education reform, immigration reform – these are all things that are important to me. [Marriage equality] is also an issue that’s important to me, but I’m someone that tries to find the totality of the issues and support candidates based on the totality of the issues.
Secondly, one of the things that interesting to me about one of the things that’s happening today is, you’re seeing a lot more focus on what I would describe as “size of government” issues than you are on, for example, the issue of the freedom to marry. So if you look at the salience of issues, in other words, what motivates people the most – the way I look at politics today is, what motivates people the most are things like: the size of government, levels of spending, levels of taxes, more than some of these other issues.
And from the perspective of, what I care the most about, first, and second of all, someone who’s trying to build support in the party for these issues – or at least discourage opposition – I think that’s a good thing.
Do you think it’s particularly difficult on the conservative side to do this, to come out?
I have found that my friends and former colleagues – and they are friends, people I worked in the campaign with and the White House – have been wonderful and incredibly supportive and have been encouraging. So I blame me that it took me 43 years – it had nothing to do with political philosophy.