- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 14, 2010

WOONSOCKET, R.I. (AP) — Laure Rondeau, an 82-year-old Catholic, supports Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline for Congress because the candidate wants to get the troops out of Afghanistan and says Washington is losing sight of what’s happening to regular people.

The sexual orientation of the openly gay mayor doesn’t figure into her decision.

“That doesn’t bother me at all,” Ms. Rondeau says. “He’s been a good mayor of Providence, and I think he’d do well in Congress.”

Just three of the 535 members of Congress are openly gay, but two candidates hope to inch that number up to five this year: Mr. Cicilline, who is running to succeed Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, a fellow Democrat, and Democrat Steve Pougnet, who’s trying to knock Rep. Mary Bono Mack, California Republican, out of her seat.

The races have drawn intense interest from gay advocacy groups, which are excited about two candidates who could help push for legislation to institute hate crime protections, prevent discrimination and advocate for same-sex-marriage rights.

“There are so few people on the Hill who can speak authentically about what these things mean in their own lives,” said Denis Dison, spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a group that works to elect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender politicians. “We are vastly underrepresented.”

Sexual orientation and gay marriage are not the flashpoints in this midterm election that they have been in the past. There are no statewide ballot measures this November on gay marriage, which both Mr. Cicilline and Mr. Pougnet support, and polls have shown a growing acceptance of same-sex unions. Five states now allow gay marriage, including Rhode Island’s neighbors, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

That has bolstered the hopes of advocates, who would like to see the number of openly gay members of Congress increase.

The Victory Fund and the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights group, has poured money into both races. The California seat also has been targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” program as one of the seats it sees as having the best chances of moving from Republican to Democrat, although analysts say it could still be tough in what’s expected to be a Republican year.

The three openly gay House members are all Democrats: Reps. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Jared Polis of Colorado. Mr. Polis said gay candidates must show they’re looking out for everybody, the way Sen. Barack Obama did when he ran for president.

“He didn’t win by being known as the black candidate. He won by being known as the candidate for all Americans,” Mr. Polis said.

In Rhode Island, Mr. Cicilline is the best-known and best-funded candidate in Tuesday’s four-way Democratic primary, having raised more than $1.3 million, about three times the amount of his nearest Democratic rival and of the leading Republican.

He had about $450,000 in his account as of August, according to federal filings, after going on a TV-ad spending spree with commercials on seniors and jobs — an important issue in Rhode Island, which had the fourth-worst unemployment rate in the country in July at 11.9 percent. The expected Republican candidate, state Rep. John Loughlin, had just $67,000 in his campaign account. There have been no reliable polls in the race.

Mr. Kennedy for eight terms has represented the 1st District, which stretches from blue-collar communities around Providence in the north to the opulent seaside mansions of Newport in the south. Mr. Cicilline’s sexual orientation has not been an issue in the race so far, and voters don’t seem to care. Mr. Cicilline, who is single, has been attacked by his opponents, but for his record as mayor, not his personal life.

“People are really focused on the issues that are important in their own lives, and what they think the individuals running for Congress can do to respond to the urgent challenges that their families are facing,” Mr. Cicilline said in an interview. “I think the sexual orientation of candidates in this race, including mine, have been irrelevant to voters, and I think that’s progress.”

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