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Openly Gay Candidates Close In on House Seats

May 27, 1998|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — History is about to be made, and you can be part of it.

That's the pitch on a flier recently used to lure people to a fund-raiser for Christine Kehoe, a candidate for San Diego's 49th House District. And the brink-of-a-breakthrough enticement is not just hype.

Kehoe, who is about to become the official Democratic nominee to run against Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-San Diego), has a shot at becoming the first acknowledged lesbian to be elected to national political office. And she's not alone.

Kehoe is one of four lesbians running for Congress this year. Together with two gay men seeking reelection to the House and a third gay man running as a challenger, they comprise the largest group of openly gay candidates to make a serious run for Congress.

Their candidacies have turned the 1998 midterm elections into a potential watershed for homosexuals.

"This is a breakthrough election," said Charles E. Cook, a political analyst. Most of the gay candidates "are running very, very competitive races."

The two gay House members--Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.)--did not reveal their sexual orientations until after they had been reelected several times. So, if any of this year's homosexual challengers wins, they will be the first to enter the House as openly gay.

"To break that barrier, to change the face of Congress, will mean the gay and lesbian community will have advanced another huge step in attaining our full civil rights," Kehoe said.

Financial Edge for Gay Candidates

The strength of the campaigns most of the gay candidates are running is a tribute, in part, to a paradox of gay politics: Despite the potential political liabilities of their sexuality, gay candidates enjoy access to a national fund-raising base that can give them a financial edge in their races.

As of March 31, Federal Election Commission records show, three of the four lesbian House candidates each had raised more than three times the national average for congressional challengers. Kehoe, who faces no Democratic opposition in California's Tuesday primary, has even outdistanced Bilbray, surmounting the renowned advantages of incumbency.

She and the other promising gay candidates are the beneficiaries of significant contributions by gay-rights political action committees and individuals around the country who support gay causes.

Still, none of these politicians are running a campaign centered on sexual orientation. Instead, they offer themselves as candidates who happen to be gay.

"They are great stereotype breakers," Frank said. "These are lesbian candidates who look like any other candidates in America."

Three have traditional political credentials, having run for elective office at the state or local level. Kehoe is a member of the San Diego City Council. Tammy Baldwin, one of three leading Democrats for an open House seat in Wisconsin, is a state legislator. Susan Tracy, one of a pack of Democrats running for an open seat in the Boston area, is a former state legislator.

The fourth lesbian candidate is a former member of the military--with near-celebrity status. Retired Army Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, expected to win the Democratic nomination to oppose Rep. Jack Metcalf (R-Wash.), became a hero of the gay community after she was discharged from the military in 1992 because she had revealed her homosexuality. A television movie was made about her.

Along with Frank and Kolbe, the other gay man running for Congress is Democrat Paul Barby, who is opposing Rep. Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.) for a second time.

Kehoe, Baldwin Have Best Chances

Of the gay challengers, analysts said, Kehoe and Baldwin have the best chance of winning. Cammermeyer and Barby face steeper odds because they are running in more GOP-leaning districts. Tracy is running in a liberal district in which the Democratic nominee will be the heavy favorite but a very crowded field is seeking the party's nod.

Kehoe, given her City Council post, already enjoys high name recognition in the 49th District, which encompasses the northern half of San Diego. The district includes military bases, universities and the city's high-tech and biotech industries, and in recent years has been one of California's most competitive.

Bilbray won the seat in 1994 from Democrat Lynn Schenk, then a one-term incumbent. In winning reelection in 1996, Bilbray polled only 53% of the vote, causing analysts to peg him as vulnerable. Still, he may be hard to topple because of this year's strong pro-incumbent climate.

In Wisconsin, Baldwin is running for an open seat now held by Republican Scott L. Klug, who is retiring from office.

The Madison-based district leans Democratic, so her toughest fight could be the September Democratic primary, in which she is competing with two other popular Democrats.

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