Strange bedfellows

Anti-gay voters in Madison, Wis., could help elect the nation's first open lesbian to Congress.

Published November 2, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

--> MADISON, WIS. --Visitors to this liberal, lake-front college town and state capital might think that Tammy Baldwin had already wrapped up the race for an open seat in the 2nd Congressional District. Baldwin signs are on display throughout the center of Madison, the district's only large city. By most accounts, Baldwin is fantastically popular with the 40,000 students of the University of Wisconsin. Last Saturday at the weekly farmers' market, which draws crowds from all over the county and beyond, Baldwin, 36, was shaking hands and handing out stickers to a stream of well-wishers. Around the corner, an unstaffed table for Baldwin's moderate Republican opponent, Jo Musser, offered only a modest stack of Musser yard signs.

In spite of these appearances, this complex race is widely considered too close to call. And in the background is an issue everyone knows about, even though both sides seem eager to downplay it. Baldwin, a six-year veteran of the state assembly, who is campaigning for Congress on a progressive platform that includes universal health care and education reform, is an open lesbian. If she wins, she'll become the first openly gay nonincumbent ever elected to Congress. (Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., came out while already serving.) Baldwin is part of a national triumvirate of lesbians running for Congress that includes Grethe Cammermeyer, a Washington Democrat, and Christine Kehoe, a California Democrat.

But is Baldwin's sexual orientation, even in a relatively tolerant district, a factor in the election? It seems a gay-rights backlash could affect the outcome -- but it might not hurt Baldwin.

Staunch backers of Baldwin -- who usually call her simply "Tammy" -- insist her sexual orientation won't hurt her. "Tammy has been an out lesbian throughout all of her political career, and it has never seemed to be an issue," says Baldwin's campaign manager, Paul Devlin. Greg Speed, spokesman for the Wisconsin Democratic Party, agreed. "I don't think it's been that much of a factor. I really, really don't." Mark Pocan, an openly gay Madison businessman and Baldwin's likely successor in the state assembly, says the only voters likely to be bothered by Baldwin's sexual orientation would "have a problem voting for just about any Democrat." Most mainstream Republicans agree. Musser's campaign could not be reached for comment, but Rod Hise, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said he didn't think it was an issue.

But no one can reliably gauge the impact on gay candidates of voters' latent homophobia, especially before an election. Karen Henein, communications assistant for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advises and helps raise funds for gay and gay-friendly candidates, says, "Every openly gay candidate is essentially fighting two battles: one against homophobia and then the election itself."

Local numbers seem to bear this out. In March 1997, the Madison Gay & Lesbian Resource Center conducted a poll in which respondents were asked to rate whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement "I would vote for a qualified openly gay or lesbian candidate for public office." More than 80 percent of respondents said they strongly agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement, indicating a level of tolerance most parts of the country can still only aspire to. Nonetheless, 5.6 percent of respondents who said they tended to vote for Democrats strongly disagreed with the statement, and 10 percent of respondents who said they tended to vote without regard to party affiliation strongly disagreed. That could be enough to swing a close race.

Another complication is the fact that traditionally progressive Madison is surrounded by comparatively conservative -- and increasingly populous -- suburbs and rural communities. The district's outgoing congressman is a Republican, who in 1990 beat Democratic incumbent Robert Kastenmeier, who'd been in office since 1958. In the September primary, a firefighter-turned-preacher with strong anti-gay views came within 400 votes of being the Republican nominee to face Baldwin. And this past summer, an organization called Wisconsin Christians United rented billboards in and around Madison that stated, "Homosexuality is not a family value. Homosexuality is a sin." When the Madison city council voted in July to declare Madison a "city of tolerance," WCU upped the ante by renting a plane that flew over the city's gay-pride celebration pulling a "Homosexuality is sin" banner.

Some observers say those anti-gay voters could swing a close race in favor of Baldwin's Republican opponent, the straight but pro-gay, pro-choice moderate Jo Musser. Chad LaFlash, the former president of the Madison Gay & Lesbian Resource Center who oversaw the poll about voters' attitudes toward gay candidates, added, "There's always a latent uncovered opinion that you can never be sure about."

But a gay-rights backlash might actually hurt Musser, whose relative tolerance has alienated the party's Christian right wing. Wisconsin Christians United director Ralph Ovadal lives in Baldwin and Musser's district -- "regrettably," he says. Ovadal disagrees with those who predict that Baldwin's sexual orientation won't matter. "I think it's obviously an issue. There are people who are not going to vote for her because of being a professed lesbian. There's no doubt about that."

In an ironic twist, however, Ovadal said that conservative Christians strongly disapprove of Jo Musser, who supports gay equality and abortion rights. "I believe that a large number will still hold their noses and vote for her [Musser], but each election cycle there's less nose-holders because they don't feel like prostituting themselves. In the long-run, it lays the foundation for political reformation." Ovadal himself plans to boycott Musser. "I don't want to see Tammy Baldwin win. It's going to be somewhat of a breakthrough for the homosexual movement. But I can't vote for Musser." Ovadal estimated that 300 to 400 people in his community of 10,000 also will shun Musser at the polls. "If she loses, that's why she's going to lose."

Mainstream campaign strategists and observers on both sides may be right that sexual orientation won't be a significant issue in this generally tolerant district, and LaFlash warned against reading too much into it if Baldwin loses. "If she doesn't win, people may point to this as the reason, regardless of what the reason is," he said.

But if sexual orientation is an issue, the surprise is that it could actually help throw the election in Baldwin's favor. Misconceptions about sexual orientation could still hurt Baldwin's campaign, but the strength of anti-gay prejudice among core GOP voters could contribute to a loss in a close election for a moderate like Musser. In an electoral game of rock-paper-scissors, a levelheaded lack of interest in Baldwin's sexual orientation could trump Musser's refusal to join the extreme wing of her party in attacking it.

By Christopher Ott

Christopher Ott is a writer in Madison, Wis.

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