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Rainbow Wave In Connecticut: GOP Fields 6 LGBTQ Candidates For Legislature In General Election

Daniela Altimari
Contact Reporterdnaltimari@courant.com

Shortly after Ken Richards announced he was running for state representative, the 35-year-old gay Republican from Groton had an unsettling encounter with an old friend.

“He literally said to me, ‘I can't believe as a homosexual man you’re going to run for a party and then vote to take your own rights away,’’’ said Richards, the married father of a 4-year-old son and the foster parent of an infant. “I have some socially progressive LGBT friends who say there is no way I should do this.”

Richards is one of six openly gay Republicans running this year for seats in the General Assembly, a record for a party that currently has no openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender legislators.

For LGBTQ candidates whose mere presence on the ballot signals inclusivity, running under the Republican banner in the age of President Donald Trump requires some complicated calculations.

“As a person, I think he's pretty despicable,’’ Mary Fay, a 57-year-old married mother and West Hartford resident, declared of Trump. “I don’t like his style and his rhetoric is over the top. But some of his policies are clearly working: the economy is doing really well. GDP is up and businesses are confident."

In addition to Fay, and Robert Smedley of New Britain, who is running for the state Senate in the 6th District, the four other candidates are gay men from Eastern Connecticut, a part of the state that has trended increasingly Republican in recent election cycles. The list includes Richards, AJ Kerouac, who is 31 and lives in Brooklyn, Shaun Mastroianni, a married health care director from Stonington running in the open 43rd District, and John Scott, 48, of Mystic, who is seeking to return to the House after losing his seat in 2016.

Richards also acknowledges some discomfort with Trump: “I'll be honest with you, I really think someone needs to take his phone away. He tweets way too much.”

But like Fay, Richards, the administrator of an ambulance company who is married to a submariner, supports Trump’s economic agenda. “Some of the policies are starting to work for me and my husband,’’ he said. “When I look at our retirement plan, we’ve never made this much money.’’

Trump has moved to curtail LGBT civil rights, including pushing to ban transgender people from military service. His vice president, Mike Pence, who has long opposed marriage between same-sex couples, is also problematic for many gay Republicans.

The LGBT Republicans running in Connecticut say they do not believe Trump — or anyone else — will invalidate same-sex marriage after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that barring such unions is unconstitutional.

“That’s something I would hate to see move any step backward, even an inch, even a centimeter,’’ Fay said. “It took a long time to get there and I'm proud that Connecticut was one of the first adopters. But I think it would be very challenging to overturn that and I’m not so sure the rhetoric matches up with what’s really happening. I don’t feel threatened by Trump in that regard.”

Neither does John Scott. “I just can’t imagine the logistics of undoing the millions of same-sex marriages that exist across the country,’’ said Scott, who married his partner of 20 years on Christmas Day in 2015. “How on earth would that work? As much noise as people want to make … I think it would create a legal nightmare for the court system."

Scott was serving in the legislature at the time of his wedding and when he returned to the House chamber for the start of the 2016 session, House Republican Leader Themis Klarides formally recognized his marriage and led members in a congratulatory standing ovation.

“I think that says a lot about Connecticut Republicans and how we're different,’’ Scott said. “Democrats like to paint the Republicans into a corner that we’re anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-everything and that’s just not true. The Republican caucus in the House already has the most women and, depending on what happens in November, it could have the most gay men as well.”

Klarides, who has long championed gay rights, said same-sex marriage has been settled law in Connecticut since the state Supreme Court ruled on it almost a decade ago and there’s no willingness among Republicans leaders to change that. “I believe people should be able to love who they want to love and if they want to join in a union that is their right,’’ she said.

Democrats have sought to tie local GOP candidates to Trump, Pence and other socially conservative national Republican leaders. They also point to a small faction of Republicans in the legislature, which Democrats have dubbed “The Hateful Eight” for its votes in 2017 against a bill to ban the controversial practice of gay conversion therapy.

Liz Kurantowicz, a Republican consultant who is working to help the party win control of the Connecticut House, said the presence of five gay Republicans on the ballot this fall undermines the Democrats’ argument.

“Connecticut Democrats can’t win on ideas,’’ Kurantowicz said. “Voters have rejected their failed tax-and-spend policies. The only thing left in [their] playbook is identity politics and we’re taking that off the table for them too.”

Christina Polizzi, spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party, points out that Connecticut Republicans recently nominated state Sen. Joe Markley, who has won the backing of the socially conservative Family Institute of Connecticut, as their candidate for lieutenant governor. At the same time, the party rejected Erin Stewart, New Britain’s millennial mayor and an LGBTQ ally, for the lieutenant governor nomination.

“If Republicans want voters to believe that they’ll protect LGBTQ rights, they’re going to have to show us policies that reflect that,’’ Polizzi said. “Instead, Republicans have nominated the most right-wing ticket in Connecticut’s history and consistently defended the Trump/Pence administration’s open hostility towards the LGBTQ community."

Asked about appearing on the ballot with Markley, Fay said she believes he’s “a man of integrity,’’ although she disagrees with some of his views.

While Markley is generally seen as a cultural conservative, in recent years he supported two key bills promoted by gay rights advocates: the ban on conversion therapy and a measure that makes it easier for transgender people to obtain a birth certificate that accurately reflects their new gender, whether or not they have undergone gender reassignment surgery.

The Connecticut House candidates are part of a larger story: Across the U.S., more than 425 LGBTQ candidates are seeking office this year at all levels of government, including Christine Hallquist, a transgender woman running for governor of Vermont, and Sharice Davids, a lesbian and Native American pursuing a congressional seat in Kansas.

That’s a sharp uptick from previous years, according to gay rights groups. But like Hallquist and Davids, almost all of the candidates who make up this rainbow-tinged wave are Democrats seeking to tap into the anti-Trump resistance.

The LGBTQ Victory Fund, a bipartisan group that tracks, supports and trains viable gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer candidates, found that Republicans are significantly underrepresented: The group counts just 13 gay Republican elected officials nationwide, out of a total of 568.

Nationally, those numbers are unlikely to change much this year. “In terms of party diversity, Connecticut is an exception to the national rule,’’ said Elliot Imse, spokesman for the Victory Fund, which has endorsed Scott. “Across the country we’re seeing just a handful of Republican LGBTQ candidates running for office.’’

Thirteen states have no gay legislators; in Connecticut, where former Rep. Joe Grabarz made history in the early 1990s as one of the nation’s first out gay state lawmakers, the number of LGBTQ legislators currently stands at two: Sen. Beth Bye from West Hartford and Rep. Jeff Currey from East Hartford. Both are Democrats running for re-election. Democratic state Comptroller Kevin Lembo is the only gay candidate on the statewide ballot this fall. Democrats have also nominated two LGBT challengers for the legislature.

One of those Democrats, Raghib Allie-Brennan of Bethel, said he sees the spike in gay GOP candidates is an encouraging sign. "It shows we are there on both sides of the aisle,'' said Allie-Brennan, who has also been endorsed by the Victory Fund. Like his GOP counterparts, he said he’s "not running as a gay candidate, I’m running as a candidate who happens to be gay."

Imse also views the surge of gay Republican candidates in Connecticut as a mark of progress. “LGBTQ equality should not be a partisan issue,’’ he said. “We know that when LGBTQ [politicians] are in the halls of power it humanizes their lives and changes the legislative debate and it leads to more inclusive policies and legislation. That is why representation in elective office is so important.”

Regardless of political party, tailoring a message that focuses on issues important to all potential voters is essential for LGBTQ candidates, Imse said. “We represent four to eight percent of the population so we’re never going to win just by running on LGBTQ issues."

That’s the strategy adopted by Scott. “I’ve never hid my sexuality,’’ he said. “I think it’s important to serve and I think change has to come from within.”

But, he added, “I don’t think [voters] care about my sexuality. They just want to know that I’m going to go to Hartford and do my best to make life more affordable here in Connecticut.”

None of the candidates said they faced open hostility from voters regarding their sexuality. But as Republicans, they were subject to certain assumptions regarding their politics. To illustrate that point, AJ Kerouac recounted a recent confrontation in a coffee shop in Putnam. “I was asked flat out if I was a self-loathing homosexual,’’ said Kerouac, who came out at age 14 and founded Windham County’s first gay-straight student alliance. “As a gay man, I’m part of a social minority that’s generally progressive … but as a Republican in Connecticut, I’m also part of a political minority."

Mary Fay rejects the notion that LGBT candidates have a natural affinity with Democrats. “I think there's a general assumption that if you are part of a disenfranchised group, the Democratic Party is going to be more helpful and supportive,’’ she said. "Republican values are still freedom, independence and success for everybody, but we value equality, too.’’

Fay, who has an 8-year-old daughter, initially gravitated to the Democratic Party. She was raised among the blue collar Democrats of East Hartford; John Larson, the future Congressman, was her basketball coach, and she became involved in some of his early campaigns.

But as she grew older, Fay said she found herself increasingly out-of-synch with the Democrats. “It got too far to the left, quite honestly,’’ she said. “When I got older, I saw the disaster of the finances.”

Fay, who serves on the West Hartford Town Council, officially switched parties a couple of years ago and said she received a supportive welcome from local GOP leaders who weren’t concerned about her sexuality.

Her journey to the Republican side mirrors that of Richards, who spent most of his life as an unaffiliated voter. He said he was partly prompted to run as a Republican out of concern for his young son’s future.

“I’m running because I’m 35 years old, my husband is in his late 20s. We’re a military family and we’re literally being driven out of the state because we can’t afford to live here anymore,’’ he said. “When we adopted our son, I realized, one day all this debt is going to be his responsibility. I hope he's a doctor or something so he can make enough money to pay what the taxes will be.’’

Klarides said she’s proud of the gay and lesbian candidates running for House seats this year. “It’s great to have diversity and I’d be proud to have the largest number of LGBTQ caucus members,’’ she said. “But at the end of the day, people are people and they want to help fix the state.”


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