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Irreconcilable Differences

The culture war over gay marriage exploded just as Patrick Guerriero took charge of the country's most prominent organization of gay Republicans. How did he survive the bitter conflict between left and right?

June 12, 2005|Johanna Neuman | Johanna Neuman is a Times staff writer based in Washington, D.C.

The Massachusetts Statehouse, across from the Boston Common on Beacon Hill, has seen its share of history. Sen. John F. Kennedy gave his farewell address to Massachusetts voters there as he departed for Washington in 1961, the first Catholic to win the presidency.

But it is doubtful that the Statehouse, completed in 1798, has ever hosted an event that joined politics and religion like the one that Patrick Guerriero, a candidate for lieutenant governor, attended on Jan. 15, 2002.

The acting governor, Jane Swift, was about to give the State of the State address, with an eye toward keeping her job in the November election. But her reputation was eroding with disclosures that she had deployed state workers to baby-sit her daughter. It did not help that the two jets that had flown into the World Trade Center towers four months earlier took off from Boston--a historic lapse of security on her watch.

In the audience, among other dignitaries there to lend gravitas to the occasion, sat Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston, who was embroiled in a scandal involving a cover-up of sexual abuse by priests in his diocese.

Another intriguing character in this scene was Guerriero, the intense, doe-eyed son of an immigrant bricklayer, the product of Catholic schools and suburban politics, and a walking contradiction. Years before, as a graduate student, Guerriero had lunched with House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. "Let me get this straight," O'Neill had said. "You're the son of an immigrant, you're Catholic, you're from Massachusetts and you're a Republican?" When Guerriero nodded, O'Neill murmured to no one in particular, "Where the hell did we go wrong?"

As cameras focused on the chamber's podium, Guerriero joined the guests in the front row. What on earth, onlookers wondered, could the first openly gay candidate for state office possibly be saying to Cardinal Law? Guerriero smiled to himself. What he said to his old friend was this: "I'm praying for you during these difficult days."

Within a year, Swift bowed out of the race, Law was forced to resign and Guerriero left Massachusetts for Washington to run the Log Cabin Republicans, the nation's top political organization for gay conservatives. He had no idea that the career move would put him at the center of a wrenching national debate over gay marriage, that he would face off with a GOP administration leaning harder than ever to the right, that he would ultimately borrow strategies from the evangelical movement, of all things, to build support for gay issues. He was 34 years old.

Guerriero was charged with building the strength of an organization that had long been viewed by more muscular liberal gay groups as the Uncle Tom of the movement, a weak apologist representing a minority of the gay population. The Log Cabin Republicans had endorsed Bob Dole for president in 1996 even after he returned a $1,000 campaign contribution for fear that accepting it would alienate mainstream Republicans.

"Absolutely, we were looking for somebody to take us to the next chapter," recalls William Brownson, chairman of the group's board of directors.

Opportunities to do just that came early--and often. Looking back, Guerriero describes the hectic year leading up to the 2004 presidential election as a "perfect storm to create a culture war," with both cold and warm winds blowing.

In April 2003, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania compared homosexuality to bigamy, polygamy, incest and adultery. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the anti-sodomy law in Texas. In November, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decreed that excluding same-sex couples from marriage violated the state constitution.

And in December, Guerriero went to a Christmas party at the White House. The president was there. White House political strategist Karl Rove was there. Guerriero talked to them both. He thanked Bush for uniting the nation after Sept. 11 and then asked him not to divide the country over the issue of gay marriage, to leave the Constitution alone. "He was gracious, as he always is," Guerriero says. "But I walked away realizing that this issue was not going away." He then buttonholed Rove. Surely he could engineer a reelection without alienating the 1 million gays and lesbians who had voted for Bush over Al Gore?

"The impression I got in the room that night was that the polling made it a very easy political decision [to run against gays], and the only question was whether the president would have the stomach for it," Guerriero recalls.

As 2004 unfolded, Bush began to distance himself from his gay constituents--he gleaned an estimated 25% of the gay vote in 2000, slipping to 23% in 2004--and more solidly embraced the 4 million evangelicals whom Rove believed had stayed home four years earlier, making the 2000 election a cliffhanger.

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