NEW YORK (AP) — Of the four openly gay members of Congress, the two longest-serving stalwarts are vacating their seats. Instead of fretting, their activist admirers are excited about a record number of gays vying to win seats in the next Congress — and to make history in the process.
When the oaths of office are taken in January, Congress could have its first openly gay Asian-American, Mark Takano of California; its first openly bisexual member, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona; and its first openly gay senator, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.
In all, eight openly gay candidates are running as major-party nominees for the House of Representatives, the most ever, including the two incumbents who are favored in their races — Democrats Jared Polis of Colorado and David Cicilline of Rhode Island. There’s one gay Republican in the group, Richard Tisei, who is waging a competitive campaign for a House seat from Massachusetts.
A common denominator in all the races: Neither the gay candidates nor their rivals are stressing sexual orientation, and the oft-heard refrain is, “It’s not an issue.” If anti-gay innuendo does surface from lower echelons of a campaign, there are swift disavowals — even conservative candidates these days think twice about being depicted as biased against gays and lesbians.
“People know that bigotry is bad politics,” said Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton who is trying to oust one-term Republican Rep. Nan Hayworth from New York’s 18th District in the Hudson Valley.
Mr. Maloney, who would be the first openly gay member of Congress from New York, has assailed Mrs. Hayworth for not supporting federal recognition of same-sex marriage, but he says voters are focused on economic and health care issues, not on gay rights.
“The voters in my district care more about why my opponent wants to end Medicare and defund Planned Parenthood than about who I love,” said Mr. Maloney, who is raising three children with his partner of 20 years.
The veterans departing from the House are Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, perhaps the most powerful gay in elective office, who is retiring after 16 terms, and Ms. Baldwin, who is vacating her House seat after seven terms to run for the Senate. Recent polls show her running slightly ahead of her GOP opponent, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Mr. Thompson has not made an issue of Ms. Baldwin’s sexual orientation and said it was “a mistake” for his political director to have sent emails with a link to a video of Ms. Baldwin dancing at a 2010 gay pride festival.
Chuck Wolfe of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which recruits and supports gay political candidates, said Mr. Thompson’s response epitomized the changed atmosphere in which Republicans are less inclined to use sexual orientation as a wedge issue and anti-gay attacks are becoming taboo.
“We still have them happen in local races, but in the federal races we hope we’ll get through them without seeing these kind of attacks,” Mr. Wolfe said.
Ms. Baldwin’s decision to run for the Senate prompted another openly gay Democrat, state Rep. Mark Pocan, to enter the race to fill her seat from the 2nd District, which is based in Madison, the liberal home to the University of Wisconsin. Mr. Pocan won a four-way Democratic primary in August and is a heavy favorite to win on Nov. 6.
In Arizona, Ms. Sinema and Republican Vernon Parker are squaring off in a newly reconfigured district in the Phoenix area that both parties view as winnable.
Ms. Sinema, 36, has been a staunch gay-rights advocate during eight years in the Legislature and is at ease acknowledging her bisexuality. But she responded sharply during her primary campaign after being told that her Democratic rival had suggested that a bisexual couldn’t win the general election.
“It’s true that I’m openly bisexual,” she told the Washington Blade. “I have been my entire adult life, and I’ve managed to win four elections, and, meanwhile, he’s lost two, so perhaps it was being straight that was the problem here.”