Roy Ashburn was smitten by politics as a kid on the Central Coast. At 12, he was pedaling his bike to Ronald Reagan's gubernatorial campaign headquarters in San Luis Obispo, hanging out and helping out. He would grow up to be a Kern County supervisor for a dozen years, then an Assembly member and a state senator for another 14 years, representing some of the most conservative turf in California and casting some of the most conservative votes in the Legislature. Ashburn will be termed out come December, but his life as a "family values" politician all but ended months ago, in the early morning hours of March 3. He was arrested for DUI after he'd left a gay club, and soon thereafter acknowledged that he was gay. His DUI cost him his driver's license for a time and put him back on a bike, pedaling his life in an altogether new direction.
How different has your life been since your arrest?
Totally and completely. Obviously I stopped drinking. All of my normal routines were stopped because of no driver's license, no car, the penalties that are proper for my offense, and I'm going through those step by step, but I guess the bigger change is within me, and that's one that I'm learning as I go.
For decades you worked so hard to keep your sexual orientation under wraps. This must have been a torment, but in another sense, was there an element of relief?
I'm sensing relief now. I had not consciously decided to come out, but there's no doubt looking back that I had become increasingly bold about attending gay events, like pride festivals, and going to dance clubs and bars. Last year I attended Las Vegas Pride and San Diego Pride.
Were you looking over your shoulder?
A little more in San Diego than Las Vegas.
You've been obsessed with politics since you were 8.
I asked my mother to take me to San Luis Obispo to watch Richard Nixon on the back of a train as he campaigned for governor, doing what they called a whistle-stop tour. I can remember vividly being in that crowd at the train station and seeing Nixon deliver a speech.
And when you were 12, you dragged your parents to register to vote for Ronald Reagan?
I watched the 1964 [Reagan] speech about why [Barry Goldwater] should be elected. I was totally captivated, so in 1966, when Reagan decided to run for governor, I asked Dad and Mom to go with me to San Luis Obispo to register as Republicans to vote for Reagan, in the campaign office there next to the mission. I used to pedal my bike to the campaign office after school [to work] for Ronald Reagan. He came to San Luis Obispo; the organizers of the rally asked me to be at the foot of the steps of the bus when he stepped off. I have a picture; it was in the newspaper. It was electrifying.
I never was interested in being a Democrat. I watched the Democrat conventions — in those days they were actually somewhat meaningful, and remember, they were gavel to gavel, play by play of what was going on in the convention hall. I watched all of the conventions, but from the very beginning, it was always Republicans.
At some point, you must have realized a public career was incompatible with being open about your sexual preferences.
Something happened that I guess caused me to realize that. When I was in sixth grade, the police had a raid in the sand dunes [near San Luis Obispo] and a bunch of gay men were arrested, probably charged with indecent activity. That sticks in my mind — the publicity and the shame around it. One of my teachers was one of the people. The talk among the kids, the talk among the adults, the talk in the community, the press — at that time the choice was pretty clear: If you were gay and open, it was a life of shame, ridicule, innuendo about molesting and perversion. It was a dark life. Given that choice of whether you come out or whether you're in secret, I mean, there really wasn't a choice.
You worked for members of Congress, then were elected to public office yourself from Kern County. Were your sexual preferences in the back of your mind, or did you just go about your business?
The answer is both yes and no. I was married and had children. And I had a career and a passion. I also had a huge secret. But given my circumstances and my responsibilities, it wasn't an overwhelming issue for me. The desires were always there, but my focus was primarily on — well, pretty selfishly — on me and my career and my family.
Barry Goldwater had a gay grandson and didn't think government had any business in anybody's bedroom. But the recent brand of Republicanism has championed anti-gay issues.