In endorsement showdown, D.C. gay activists stand by Phil Mendelson
The District's leading gay Democrats, charged with endorsing a candidate in the at-large council race Monday night, were faced with a dilemma -- supporting the straight man who delivered the gay community's top legislative priority, or the accomplished, energetic challenger who could become the council's third openly gay member.
The debate among members of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club -- the city's best-known political organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents -- did not hew exclusively to gay issues, but the question of the night was clear: Do we support one of our own? Or do we stand by one of the best political friends we've ever had?
Incumbent Phil Mendelson offered a simple pitch: "I delivered the marriage equality bill," he said in his opening remarks, a statement that hinted at years of legislative efforts that laid the groundwork for last year's climactic marriage vote.
Challenger Clark Ray, the former city parks and recreation director, has had to sell gay activists on a different proposition -- I'd be just as good on the issues, and, hey, I'm also gay.
Ray, running a spirited campaign against the three-term incumbent, has supplemented his citywide door-to-door canvassing with a strong push for gay support. He wrote in a recent Washington Blade op-ed that he "understand[s] first hand what it means to be a part of the LGBT community." Ray and supporters marched in Capital Pride and the Palisades 4th of July parades wearing shirts reading "another seat at the table" -- a reference to possibly joining David Catania (I-At Large) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) on the council dais.
On several occasions, Ray told the crowd he wasn't asking for their support simply because he's openly gay. Rather, he told the crowd, "I want you to vote for me because I'm qualified, I'm experienced, I have new ideas, I have the energy, and I have the desire to lead."
But Ray also repeatedly reminded club members that he was in fact one of them. In his opening remarks last night, he said, "I am not only a friend of the GLBT community, an ally of the GLBT community," he said, "I'm a member of the GLBT community." He proceeded to introduce his partner, Aubrey Dubra.
Ray also tried taking on Mendelson from other angles -- in particular, that after 12 years in office, Mendelson had grown out of touch with city neighborhoods. "You've got to come out from the Wilson Building; you've got to go into the community, and then you've got to see if what in fact you passed is taking place," Ray said.
That was a theme picked up by Carlene Cheatam, a longtime activist who spoke to club members on Ray's behalf: "He is in the community. He knows how to take the information that is spoken about on the city council and make it real in the community," she said, praising his "new ideas and new leadership." Dubra also addressed the crowd, speaking to his partner's commitment to the community.
But Mendelson's supporters, out in full force, pushed back at the suggestion that their man should be sent packing.
Stein Club member Barbara Helmick spoke on Mendelson's behalf: "Our commuity is going to grow and take on bigger issues, and we need our straight allies," she said. "So when they are with us, we need to be with them."
And Bob Summersgill, another longtime activist with close ties to Mendelson, put a finer point on it: "This is not someone we want to fire, which is what Clark Ray's campaign is about. ... Phil is someone we want to return to the council, and we want to send a message to anyone who supports marriage rights, we will support you and we're not going to dump you just because someone gay comes along."
Mendelson won the club's endorsement with 62 percent of the vote.
The club also endorsed in the chairman's race -- a contest that was not nearly so close. Candidate Vincent Orange found it difficult to escape comments opposing gay marriage he'd made while Ward 5 council member -- including saying in 2006 that candidates who supported same-sex marriages were not "morally fit" to serve as mayor.
But Orange told of a late conversion to support for equal marriage rights during his time as a Pepco executive after leaving office. And, he argues, he may have said bad things about gay marriage, but he never actually did anything to obstruct it. "There is no one in this room today who can point to any public act that Vincent Orange took against this community," he said, later adding: "I'm not perfect. I never said I was perfect, but what I can say is that I will work hard for you."
His opponent, current at-large council member Kwame Brown, won 80 percent of the vote.
July 13, 2010; 11:14 AM ET
Categories: Campaigns , DCision 2010 , Kwame Brown , Phil Mendelson , Vincent Orange
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