The pink elephant in the room

It's a Thursday afternoon at the White Wolf Café on North Orange Avenue, and over the clanking of plates and the piped-in strains of John Lennon's "Imagine," Eddie Mehnert is trying to justify himself. Rather intensely.

Mehnert, campaign manager for 36th district Florida House hopeful Greg Reynolds, is attempting to explain how a gay-friendly equality platform can be wedged into an increasingly conservative Republican agenda. During lunch with Reynolds and Audra Montgomery, the county coordinator for the Orange County Campaign for Liberty (an outgrowth of Ron Paul's libertarian "revolution"), Mehnert makes it clear that being gay doesn't preclude somebody from identifying with the political right. It's just a matter of degrees, really.

"I don't think you're ever going to see Republicans screaming ‘equality, equality!'" he says. "It's just not part of the conservative nature. We're individualistic individuals with personal responsibility who take care of ourselves."

In short, standard "gay rights" don't really fit in, at least not in the manner we've come to expect. There are no rainbow flags with Mehnert, no parades ("Would you personally be disappointed that there wasn't `a` parade or circuit party at the capitol steps `if equality measures passed`?" he asks), just a tamped-down libertarian take on personal-identity issues as reflected in the larger body politic. Equality should be for everyone, not just the gays.

"I believe that there is a certain level of intolerance within the gay community. It's almost an absolute intolerance," Mehnert says, somewhat suspiciously. "`Democrats` haven't been successful themselves, and the reality is, in Florida, the Democrats can't do it by themselves. You just can't rely on them. You're not going to go anywhere."

It is no small quibble. Gay Republicans are quick to point out that President Obama ran on a platform that included an executive order to repeal the military's anti-gay Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, but has yet to deliver. In Florida, Democratic legislators have been largely unable to garner any traction for major statewide equality measures like gay adoption — a situation that's likely to get worse should the majority party in the legislature become veto-proof in November. Their disillusionment is almost palpable.

This year, Mehnert, a slight man in shorts whose appearance makes him look even younger than he is (he's 26), has been handed the considerable task of selling a Republican candidate to a Democratic district, one that already boasts a straight LGBT ally in State Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando. But he has a secret weapon: His candidate, Reynolds, is gay.

Reynolds' campaign literature doesn't explicitly detail gay policy, instead making blanket references to things like "liberty" for all, though he says he supports civil unions (not marriage) for gay people. The philosophy, one shared by most gay candidates presumptively playing for the other team, is to "win over hearts and minds" incrementally from within the state's majority party, because that's the only way progress will be accomplished. Apparently — and expectedly — that doesn't sit well with everybody.

"I would say there is more resistance from within the LGBT community from those who are activists than there is from the Republican party," Mehnert says.

Set against the cacophonous backdrop of a shifting political gay reality locally — a human rights ordinance has come out front and center in the mayoral stakes; the recent court ruling against Florida's gay adoption ban has awoken the sleeping giant in the state races — the gay Republican issue has taken on a new, unprecedented life. The local Log Cabin Republican chapter drew close to 40 people to its re-launch event in March, and the mayor's race between Republican Teresa Jacobs and Democrat Bill Segal has engendered a rift in the party, if Internet noise is to be believed.

And it's happening everywhere. In August, Ken Mehlman, former campaign chief for President George W. Bush and chairman of the Republican National Committee, stepped out of the closet to fight more effectively for gay-marriage rights within the Republican party. In September, Gov. Charlie Crist, an avowed Republican up until his current bid for U.S. Senate, released a nine-point position paper outlining his support of civil unions, gay adoption and the end of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. Last month, it was the gay Log Cabin Republicans who successfully challenged the constitutionality of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (though Senate Republicans blocked a repeal of the law soon after). The Log Cabin Republicans also welcomed such staunch conservatives as U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, to their annual D.C. fundraising gala in September. By all appearances, the tent is getting bigger in a very gay way.

But appearances can be deceiving.

Cornyn's appearance at the Sept. 22 Log Cabin event drew criticism from both the right and the left, a challenge the senator publicly countered by saying that the party needed to expand its ranks wherever it can following two failed election cycles. On the surface, it looks to some like gays are being used.

"That criticism has always been around since the beginning of Log Cabin Republicans," says local gay attorney Patrick Howell. "It's always been the opinion that you're a dog and pony show, that they trot you out for certain events."

Eight years ago, Howell was at the center of his own show. Chosen by the state Republican Party as the perfect antidote to the blond ambition of then-Democrat Sheri McInvale (McInvale notoriously swapped parties four years later only to lose her seat), Howell was handed $200,000 by the party to make a bid for the 36th district state House seat in an area that had been redistricted to the Democrats' benefit. If he were to win, he would become the first gay state representative in Florida; moreover, he would do so as a Republican. The strategy set off a firestorm, largely from the left. Former local Democratic Party Chairman Doug Head vocally decried supporting the Howell candidacy, comparing it to a "Jew voting for Hitler." Brows were cocked, emotions stirred and battle lines drawn.

"What have the gay Democrats done? Nothing," Howell told the Orlando Weekly in 2004. "They've rolled over. We've shown a lot more courage."

Howell didn't win — he lost by 8 percent, due in some part to the presence of an independent candidate coincidentally named John F. Kennedy — but the campaign inspired him to resurrect the dormant local Log Cabin Republican chapter, which he led until earlier this year. He has since handed the reins over to Reynolds and Mehnert.

The intervening years between then and now have seen a marked evolution in the gay Republican cause: some positive, a lot negative. The high-profile downfalls of New Jersey Republican Gov. Jim McGreevey in 2004, Florida U.S. Rep. Mark Foley in 2006 and Idaho U.S. Sen. Larry Craig in 2007 cast a shadow of doubt over the notion that a credible gay person could exist within the confines of a party that actively campaigned against equality. But those were cases of closeted officials within the GOP acting out policies of apparent self-loathing. The case of Howell — and other openly gay Republicans — is a little less binary, a little harder to dismiss. Their spoken mission is one of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism (to a point): effectively, they're the new moderates at a time in which extremism is the flavor of the day. And they're white men, mostly, who like nice things.

"There is absolutely no easier position to be in if you're gay than to be gay and liberal. That is so easy, because everything is in alignment," Howell says. "To be conservative and gay is more difficult. Someone will say, ‘Why don't you just be a Democrat?' And you say, ‘OK, let's pull out the platform.' And you start marking off the things that you don't like."

For many, that list includes the deficit, naturally, in addition to healthcare reform and open immigration borders. According to Howell, that puts gay Republicans largely in line with their party, despite the knee-jerk appraisals of some who believe it's an exclusive club for anti-gay social conservatives.

"It's almost like the term ‘moderate' has changed from having something to do with social issues to having everything to do with fiscal issues and maybe even immigration," Howell says. "So when someone says ‘I'm the conservative candidate,' I think you have to peel the onion back a little bit and say ‘what does that mean?' Well, OK, they would rather die than raise taxes, or they want an Arizona-like `immigration` bill. It doesn't have anything to do with social issues."

But even Howell admits that's not entirely true. Recent Delaware Republican Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell has gone on record as saying that gays are psychologically defective as recently as 2006 (though her sister is gay). Nevada's outspoken conservative Senate candidate Sharron Angle won the endorsement of anti-gay lightning rod Phyllis Schlafly for her positions against gay adoption and domestic-partner benefits. The Tea Party contingent — with which many conservatives identify — for all of its libertarian self-promotion, is comprised largely of conservative Christians rattled with anger. There's no denying the extremes.

"I think that over the years, we've been able to grab onto some examples and say, ‘Not all Republicans are bad,'" Howell says, referring specifically to moderate Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown. "And we're trying to pick examples and we're trying to make that the norm. It's a very difficult fight."

Orange County Republican Executive Committee Chairman Lew Oliver encouraged Howell to run back in 2002 and is actively supporting Reynolds' candidacy. Though Oliver says he did not actually recruit Reynolds to challenge the sitting Democrat this election cycle, he's noticeably chuffed at the idea of having a gay Republican in his deck.

"I obviously knew he was gay," he says, "and I thought that was a good match for the district and would appeal to broad numbers of voters in the district, including Democrats who might be interested in crossing party lines in order to vote for him."

Oliver is an ends-justifying-the-means kind of guy. He's not in the policy business. He's just here to get Republican candidates elected. Nonetheless, he's seen a morphing in his ranks, most notably with the 2007 infusion of Ron Paul-era Tea Party enthusiasts, something that two years ago he was publicly rankled about. The radicals momentarily upset his perceived power balance. Now, like most of the Republican Party, Oliver is embracing the diversity the Tea Party has delivered.

"Those things have changed the complexion of the party a little," he says. "I think it would be overstating the case to say ‘dramatically.' I don't think that's the case. I think it's an incremental evolution."

It's also a stretch to directly connect the aggregate of the current Tea Party with a genuine push for civil liberties, but Oliver does, claiming that the libertarian influence has been one primarily focused on fiscal matters, not social ones. Nonetheless, Oliver seems content with the Republican standard of holding personal identity close to the chest for fear of alienating potential voters.

"Do you think `Reynolds` should put that in his campaign materials?" Oliver asks. "I want you to think about this. Do you think straight candidates have an obligation to say that they're straight?"

"Don't most straight campaign materials include the old wife-and-kids portrait?" I counter.

Only the ones with a wife and kids, he says.

"It's a very peculiar double standard to say that gay candidates somehow have an obligation to advertise it or else the default assumption is that they're afraid of it, hiding from it or ashamed of it," he says.

By Oliver's logic, sexual identity only makes up a portion of who a person — or a candidate — is. Yet he's completely comfortable with handpicking gay candidates for gay-leaning districts, black candidates for predominately black districts and Hispanic candidates for Hispanic districts. In other words, identity politics are fine on the receiving end.

"People like to vote for folks that they think can understand their point of view," he says.

As for Oliver's own point of view, that's a matter of speculation. In an e-mail, Mehnert wrote, "If you are not aware, it is well known within OCREC `Orange County Republican Executive Committee` and the community that `Oliver` is gay."

Confronted with the suggestion, Oliver says, "I don't believe I should say. I'm used to it. I'm not taken aback by it, insulted by it or any other thing. I just don't think it's appropriate for me to comment … The only way that that question makes sense is if it is your personal philosophy that if you happen to be gay, you have some sort of either obligation or uncontrollable need to have your issues — on whether somebody is pro-gay, not-gay or something else — be the single most important determining factor in your engagement in public life. And that to me is bizarre."

On Sept. 22, House Republicans released their "Pledge to America," an 8,000-word legislative dissertation predominantly focused on fiscal affairs. However, in its preamble the document does pull one social punch: it makes a pledge to "honor families, traditional marriage, life, and the private and faith-based organizations that form the core of our American values." It's the kind of language that would typically send gay-rights activists out into the streets, but for R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the national Log Cabin Republicans, it was a small victory. According to the Washington Post, "Cooper said the ‘pledge' was a ‘win' because it did not highlight measures against gay rights." The paper goes on to point out the same phrase was also considered a win by the conservative Family Research Council.

This Stockholm Syndrome mentality isn't limited to gay Republicans. The national Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest gay lobbying group, regularly endorses gay candidates on both sides of the aisle. (Mehnert sits on the organization's local political committee.) However, in response to the pledge, Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese takes the gloves off. "The lengthy record of anti-LGBT efforts during a decade of Republican control of Congress speaks volumes," he said in a press release. "LGBT should see this pledge for what it really is — a promise to try to turn back the clock on LGBT equality on Capitol Hill."

At the state level, gay activist group Equality Florida toes a similarly non-partisan line. In an e-mail, Equality Florida executive director Nadine Smith is diplomatic in handling the discussion about whether Republicans are capable of being effective allies, gay or straight: "I believe that if our issues were voted on anonymously, they would all pass," she says, "but too many Republicans allow themselves to feel they are hostages to far-right primary voters in districts expressly drawn to favor maintaining an ultra-conservative legislature.

"To be clear, Democrats have fought harder for our rights in Florida by far than the Republican Party has," she adds. "That's not a partisan statement, just a statement of fact. But we are seeing more Republicans stepping forward on equal rights."

As for the possibility that gay Republicans are getting lost in conservative rhetoric, Smith says, "Working within the party isn't the problem. The problem comes when blind loyalty to the party makes anyone incapable of challenging their party, or makes them an apologist for bad behavior in their party, or someone who mindlessly attacks the other party, never challenging their own candidates to step back from their anti-gay rhetoric or utter indifference."

In 2004, John Dowless, a longtime Republican operative who now works on Teresa Jacobs' campaign for Orange County mayor, was outed in gay newspaper The Washington Blade. At the time, he was working for Mel Martinez's U.S. Senate campaign, which advertised Martinez's opponent as "the new darling of homosexual extremists." Prior to that, Dowless worked as director of Florida's Christian Coalition and publicly opposed GayDays in Orlando.

Reached for comment, Dowless issued the standard "no comment," saying only that there were some inaccuracies in the portrayal of him in the Blade article.

Mehnert, meanwhile, was working for the Katherine Harris U.S. Senate campaign in 2006 when a report surfaced in the Miami Herald that he had planted a question at a campaign event in which an audience member was to ask Harris' opponent, Will McBride, if his "real name was Rodriguez." It's a charge he denied on the Herald's website, but an especially peculiar one as he is himself of Dominican descent. If true, then it says something about Mehnert's ability to detach more than one part of his identity from the task at hand. That same year, Harris told the Florida Baptist Witness "I have not supported gay marriage and I do not support any civil rights action with regard to homosexuality."

Reynolds also worked for the Martinez campaign in 2004 as its regional finance director. Last month, Reynolds spoke at a Rick Scott gubernatorial campaign stop at the Orlando Executive Airport, trying to drum up some of Scott's grassroots, and saying, "I'm looking forward to working with him." This comes after Scott voiced his objection to the recent court ruling in favor of gay adoption, or even gay foster parenting.

"Rick Scott has spoken out against the ruling ending the anti-gay adoption ban, so my first concern is that no one mistake him as a supporter of equality because a gay candidate spoke at his event," says Equality Florida's Smith.

And this is where the lines blur. Is it fair to work within a big tent that consistently abuses your own identity in service of its own political interests? Can you say that somehow the ends justify the means?

"You're actually strategizing to hurt gay people when you're gay," says Ted Maines, a local Democratic host committee regular and co-founder of the Orlando Rainbow Democratic Club. "There's got to be a certain amount of self-loathing going on. That's not a healthy gay person."

Democratic pollster Jim Kitchens — who currently consults with Alan Grayson, Bill Segal and the Democratic side of the Florida legislature — compares the recent Republican gay candidate grab to similar machinations by the party in the 1970s. Back then the target was African-Americans.

"The ultimate test in politics has to be where the policy is going," he says. "What is your vision of America and what do you want it to look like? And the Republican Party does not want gay citizens as full citizens participating in their society. They don't. It is very clear from everything: their party mantra, their platform for presidential campaigns, everything they put out — it is very clear."

According to Kitchens, who considers himself a fiscally conservative Democrat in line with Bill Clinton and Harry Truman, the idea of running as a gay Republican is little more than a gimmick, a "bizarre" one that serves the party and even the candidate, but not the greater good of the population.

"You have to look, too, at the ego of the people who do that. It is a way for them to be unusual, to stand out, to get attention," he says. "If you know you're gay and you want to be in politics and you want to get noticed quickly, you do something unusual. And that's an unusual way to go."

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