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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.

By Mike DeBonis  |  July 13, 2010; 11:14 AM ET
Categories:  Campaigns , DCision 2010 , Kwame Brown , Phil Mendelson , Vincent Orange  
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Was Rev. Willie Wilson's endorsement of Clark Ray an issue in the vote?

Posted by: KCinDC1 | July 13, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

I'm happy to side with Mendelson. I don't think it serves our (LGBT) interests well if dump a long track record of support for a new person just because that person is a member of the community. What other straight politician will stand up for us if they know that we'll toss them aside for a new face?

Clark Ray seems like a great guy, and I wish him well in the future. But I'm not going to kick a politician to the curb who listens to us.

Posted by: DCCharles | July 13, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

Clark Ray touts his previous employment with the Clinton Administration, and keeps dragging out those former officials at his campaign events.

Please tell me exactly what did Clark Ray do to stand up to the Clinton White House when the President:

signed the (so called) Defense of Marriage Act into law, and then aired campaign ads bragging about that fact;

Signed the HIV immigration ban and travel restrictions into federal law;

Developed and signed Don't Ask, Don't Tell;

and refused to lift the federal funding ban on clean needle exchange programs.

Where were you, Mr. Clark Ray??? What did you do? Keep your mouth shut while courageous activists like Bob Hattoy spoke up, and spoke out?

Posted by: actupdc | July 13, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Phil Mendelson was just about the only Councilmember to question Fenty and the only one to stand up to him early on when Fenty was untouchable. Phil showed courage in doing this and not that many elected officials can be counted on to do the right thing. I don't always agree with him, but he has proven that he will stand up for what he believes in.

Posted by: tacard1 | July 13, 2010 7:43 PM | Report abuse

This was the right choice. It's beyond me why Clark Ray (or Peter Rosenstein) decided to challenge Mendelson in this race. The fact that he (they) chose to challenge Mendelson should have lost them this endorsement right off the bat - attempting to remove the best straight ally the community has in the District is in and of itself damaging to the movement. Plus, this does not seem like a good sign for the Ray campaign and it's got to take the wind out of their sails. How wrong can one's political calculation be? Glad Mendelson won the endorsement - he deserves it. Now let's move on.

Posted by: KyleMilsaps | July 14, 2010 7:37 AM | Report abuse

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