Out and Running

Will Richard Tisei be the first openly gay Republican to enter Congress?

Arizona state Sen. Steve Gallardo testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill April 24, 2012 in Washington, DC.

Arizona state Sen. Steve Gallardo testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 24, 2012, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Steve Gallardo wasted no time with his pitch. “I am in Washington, D.C., all week, introducing myself,” wrote the Arizona state senator in an email. “If elected I will be the first Gay Latino elected to congress in the United States.”

It had been only a few days since Gallardo could say that out loud. On March 5 the Democrat had gathered reporters in the state Senate caucus room and come out of the closet. He and fellow progressives had rallied the business community (and seemingly the entire political press corps) and convinced Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to veto SB 1062, a bill that codified the right of businesses not to serve gays. “After I stood up on the floor and argued against 1062,” he told the reporters, “as I’ve done on many bills before, I sat down and said, ‘Wow. This bill affects me. It affects me directly.’ ”

Gallardo had already entered the race to replace Rep. Ed Pastor, an 11-term Democrat from Arizona’s safely blue, Phoenix-based 7th District. A lot of ambition can build up in two decades; every Democrat with a donor list and a pulse had entered the race, and much of the early hype had gone to state Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Iraq war veteran and rising party star. And then Gallardo came out.

The gay rights movement has won so much so fast, after decades of marginalization, that openly gay candidates no longer seem to be taking risks. They intrigue donors, who don’t mind the idea of making history. Over the course of a week, I met with Gallardo, who’d be the first openly gay Hispanic member of Congress (“there aren’t many firsts left,” he joked) and with Massachusetts Republican Richard Tisei, who in 2012 almost became the first member of his party elected after coming out of the closet. Both are running in 2014, and testing how ready their constituencies actually are to elect gays.

When we met up in Washington, Gallardo had just wrapped a labor union meeting and was prepping for a summit with the Victory Fund, a group that supports openly gay candidates. “I’m the most progressive candidate in the race. I introduced ENDA before anyone knew what ENDA was.”

Gallardo introduced an Arizona version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act a decade before he came out. Gallardo, who’s 45, came out to his friends when he was 25 (“most of my friends are gay”) and to his family when he was 30. He’d brought his partners to Thanksgiving. He’d won re-elections, easily. No one, he said, had ever tried to out him.

“But during all the rallies,” said Gallardo, “while we were waiting for the governor to make a decision, there were two young ladies holding a sign. I forget what the sign said, but I remember them, together holding hands. They asked me: ‘Why are they doing this?’ I honestly could not even give them an answer. At that time I thought, you know, there’s a broader message here. I’m a Latino. I was raised in a strong Catholic family. To this day, my parents have never said the word ‘gay.’ They know about me. They’ve known since I was 30 years old—I’m 45 now. They never said the word. I think there’s a lot of people in a situation like that and it was time to send the message that it’s OK.”

Gallardo, who’d wanted to talk about this, lowered his voice. His eyes were dry when he’d started talking. They weren’t dry anymore.

“I had to tell my mother what I was going to do,” said Gallardo. “So I sat her down, and said, ‘I’m going to talk to everyone at the Capitol.’ First, she was like, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘I’m gonna come out. I want you prepared. It’s going to be in the news.’ Her response was ‘Why do you have to do this?’ I said, ‘I need to do it.’ So she said she had a meeting with the women’s auxiliary of the American Legion on Thursday. Could I do it Friday?”

Gallardo laughed and broke the tension. “I said it had to be Wednesday. You know, I think it goes back to the cultural thing. In the Latino family, it’s something you don’t talk about. It’s the same in pop culture. You have some prominent gay Anglos out there, but very few Latinos. They don’t see anyone on TV that’s openly gay.”

Richard Tisei, Massachusetts Senate Minority Leader.
Richard Tisei.

Photo via Wikipedia

But Gallardo was convinced that his announcement wouldn’t cost him net votes. “I lose some, I win some,” he shrugged. It was, he hoped, an afterthought, which was what Massachusetts Republican Tisei also insisted when we met at a restaurant near the House of Representatives. Tisei had just met with some of the people he might call “colleagues” in 2015. But he hadn’t met Rep. Randy Forbes, the Virginia Republican who’d called on the GOP to deny money to gay candidates.

“I haven’t bumped into him yet,” said Tisei with a half-smile. “Let me just say, I was surprised he would basically say he wouldn’t want anyone in the caucus who was gay. If you took out that word, ‘gay,’ and put any other word in there, I think most people would find that to be pretty inflammatory. Right after he made his comments, the entire leadership said we’re going to judge our members by the content of our character.”

Tisei’s theory, and his main point, is that his party was evolving too. He came out in 2009, when he was 47 years old and being considered as the GOP’s nominee for lieutenant governor. The revelation didn’t hurt him at all—he got on the ticket, which lost in 2010. Neither that loss nor his 2012 loss had discouraged him about the progress of gay rights or gay candidates. He’d been in the state Senate when the state supreme court legalized gay marriage.

“There was a tsunami of opposition,” he said. “I remember being in a room with perhaps 20 state legislators who supported the decision, and we knew it was going to be a steep mountain to climb. The calls were coming in 20–1 against the decision. But over the past 10 years, we’ve seen just a tremendous change take place in people’s attitudes. Five years from now, 10 years from now, it won’t even be an issue.”

Tisei said that to me in the first week of March, right after his state party had inserted a definition of “traditional marriage” into its manifesto. Days ago he announced that he’d boycott the state convention, to protest a platform from “the 19th century.” His campaign happily sent out the news of the intraparty friction. There just wasn’t any downside to being known for this, not anymore.