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Former Dornan Aide Finds Support After 'Coming Out'

Reaction: Media attention greets Brian Bennett's announcement. Former congressman also fields calls.

May 09, 1997|JEAN O. PASCO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One day after publicly acknowledging he was gay, Brian Bennett was deluged with calls Thursday reacting to the news, from newspapers, radio stations and television programs, to well-wishers inside and outside the gay community.

The former chief of staff to former Rep. Robert K. Dornan was even invited to appear live on NBC's "Today" show this morning , but he declined, saying he was still struggling with all the attention.

One of the first calls of the day came from John Bryson, the chief executive officer of Edison International, who congratulated Bennett, a Southern California Edison executive, for his courage in telling his story to The Times.

"It's really overwhelming," said Bennett, who admitted to being "frankly a little scared" by the attention. "I've been so overwhelmed by the emotional friendship and support I've gotten from 50 phone calls so far and 12 pages of electronic mail. I have not gotten one negative phone call."

Meanwhile, Dornan, Bennett's boss from 1977 to 1989, was fielding interviews of his own all day at his Garden Grove home. One of the most vocal opponents of homosexuality when he was in Congress, Dornan was upset Bennett decided to go public with his private life.

"This is all Brian's self-indulgence," Dornan said. "No one would know who he was if not for Bob Dornan. He was dating women the whole time he worked for me. When he left, he was dating a general's daughter."

Dornan said he saw some good in Bennett's action.

"What he's done is outed the filthy lie that Bob Dornan is homophobic and doesn't treat people as individuals, and I guess I can thank Brian for that," he said. "I don't hate anybody. I condemn the lifestyle that has killed 500,000 young men in the prime of their lives."

Bennett told The Times that he struggled with his homosexuality the entire 12 years he worked in Dornan's office--the last six of which he served as chief of staff. He said that when he finally worked up the courage to tell Dornan in February 1996, Dornan hugged him, kissed him on the cheek and said, "I've loved you like a son for 20 years. Did you think this would make any difference?"

Still, Dornan insisted that Bennett could beat his homosexuality if he attended Mass in the Catholic Church each day and predicted that if he did not alter his lifestyle, Bennett would sacrifice his career in politics.

Civic and political leaders say only time will tell how Bennett is accepted within Republican, conservative circles and within the gay community. He told his family and selected friends he was gay beginning in 1995.

On Thursday, George Urch, a close friend and Democratic Party activist, said he was shocked by the news because Bennett dated many women, even Fawn Hall, Oliver North's secretary.

"I'm very worried for Brian about this," Urch said. "This takes a lot of guts. I am just hopeful that people will continue to look at him through the merits of what he's achieved."

Frank Ricchiazzi of Laguna Beach, founder of the Log Cabin Club for gay and lesbian Republicans, welcomed Bennett but warned him of liberal Democrats with vastly different political views who might exploit him to promote an image of nonpartisanship. Bennett said one of the reasons he spoke to The Times was because he will be installed this month onto the board of the nonprofit group that runs the Gay & Lesbian Center of Long Beach.

"It usually doesn't take long before the Republican on boards like these say, 'I don't really belong on this board,' " Ricchiazzi said. "I hope that if he wants to be helpful to himself and the Republican party, he'll get involved with Log Cabin."

Jack Newby, executive director of the Long Beach group, said his nonprofit board should reflect all segments of the community and praised Bennett for his professionalism.

"The conservative viewpoint is something we need on our board," he said. "The fact that he worked for Robert Dornan and is coming out, I can only respect him more for that."

Jo Ellen Allen, vice chair of the Orange County Republican Party, who now works for Bennett at Edison in Orange County said "only time will tell" how he is accepted within party ranks, especially among those who don't know him.

"There will be some people, like me, who'll say that as a Christian and an advocate of traditional family values, I have problems with that lifestyle," she said. "But I love Brian as a friend and that doesn't change. I'm not his judge, I'm his friend."

Some in the GOP said Bennett would have a tough time running for office or convincing others that he's a committed conservative living as a homosexual. Others said he would make a good future political candidate.

Sam Roth, public affairs director for the Orange County Medical Assn., said Bennett was considered for support by the association when he briefly announced for a state Senate seat in 1993 and "we'd do it again." Bennett bowed out of the race before the election.

"He's a viable future candidate for public office," said Roth, who met Bennett in the 1980s when Roth worked for former Assemblywoman Doris Allen of Cypress. "Brian has always been viewed as a pragmatic conservative. He's among the best at what he does. All this will do is let Brian know who his real friends are."

Republican political consultant Eileen Padberg said Bennett is a solid political strategist who always has been viewed as an independent conservative not beholden to the county's GOP power structure.

"His being gay doesn't bother me in the least," said Padberg. "Brian will overcome all of this and continue to be successful in life."

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