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Anti-LGBTQ+ Calif. Congressman Changes Tune When Facing Gay Challenger

Ken Calvert and Will Rollins
From left: Ken Calvert and Will Rollins

U.S. Rep. Ken Calvert once spoke out against marriage equality and outed an opponent, but now he's being challenged by gay man Will Rollins.

A Republican congressman from Southern California is shifting from his anti-LGBTQ+ views -- at least publicly -- as redrawing of boundaries has put him in a more liberal district where he's facing a gay challenger.

Rep. Ken Calvert has a history of opposition to LGBTQ+ equality over his 30-year tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives, having racked up low scores on the Human Rights Campaign's Congressional Scorecard and once used a gay opponent's sexuality against him. Under the previous district map, his district, the 41nd, was heavily Republican. Now, with redistricting having taken place after the latest U.S. Census, his district is the 41st, with an even split between Democrats and Republicans, and includes the heavily LGBTQ+ city of Palm Springs. He'll face gay Democrat Will Rollins in the November election.

Calvert recently told the Los Angeles Times he now supports marriage equality, which he had previously opposed, and doesn't think the 2015 Supreme Court decision that established equal marriage rights nationwide should be overturned.

"It wasn't always my position," he said. "It's a different country than it was 30 years ago."

In California's primary system, candidates from all parties run against each other, and the top two finishers advance to the general election, regardless of party. In this year's primary, held in June, Calvert and Rollins led the field of five candidates with 44 percent and 36 percent respectively.

Rollins is a former federal prosecutor who has worked on cases involving the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and counterterrorism, counterintelligence, and white-collar crime cases. His partner, Paolo Benvenuto, often joins him on the campaign trail.

"It's poetic justice" that Calvert is facing a gay challenger, Equality California spokesman Samuel Garrett-Pate told the Times. "I don't think there's any other way to put it than what goes around comes around." Equality California has endorsed Rollins, as have the LGBTQ Victory Fund and a variety of other LGBTQ+, women's rights, environmental, and labor organizations.

Calvert's anti-LGBTQ+ baggage includes the fact that one of his backers outed Mark Takano, now a congressman, as gay when he was running against Calvert in 1994. "Calvert's campaign responded by sending voters hot pink and lavender mailers that claimed the Democrat had a 'secret agenda' and asked whether Takano, who had not yet publicly disclosed he was gay, would be a 'Congressman for Riverside [County] ... or San Francisco?'" the Times reports. Takano was elected to Congress from a different district in 2012.

Calvert "batted away the notion" that his record might hurt him, according to the paper. That record also includes voting for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 (something many Democrats did at the time as well) and more recently, opposing repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

"I've never had any animosity to the gay community," he told the Times. "I come out of the restaurant business, for goodness' sake. A lot of people who worked with me were gay."

Calvert also voted against certifying the Electoral College vote for Joe Biden as president, a vote that insurrectionists tried to stop. However, he now says he believes Biden is legitimately the president, although, post-insurrection, he sought and received Donald Trump's endorsement.

Rollins, for his part, told the Times he became a federal prosecutor in order to fight terrorist threats to the nation after the 2001 attacks. He would have liked to join the military, but DADT was in effect then. Now he's decided to run for office to fight a different threat.

"The threats that the country is facing have changed, and some of those threats now come from within," he said. "I didn't want to look back on my life and regret not stepping up when one of these House Republicans is right in my backyard and voted to undermine our democracy after January 6."

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