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For gay aspiring politicians, lessons in strategy

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PITTSBURGH — As a gay man running for City Council in Houston, which already has a lesbian mayor, Josh Verde figured he would have no trouble talking to voters about his sexuality. Then he came here, to a boot camp for openly gay candidates, and promptly flubbed his lines.

"I have a boyfriend," Verde announced during a mock interview with a campaign consultant posing as a reporter. Instantly, he regretted the words. "It sounded like high school," he said later, amending his language to say, "I’m in a relationship."

Verde, a 31-year-old law student and aviation consultant, was one of roughly three dozen openly gay aspiring politicians who spent last weekend in a hotel conference room here for a crash course in campaign strategy. Run by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which works to elect gay men and lesbians from both parties to public office, the three-day session offered stark evidence of how far gay politicians have come — and how quickly.

Thirty-five years after Harvey Milk captured America’s attention in San Francisco as an openly gay politician, dramatic shifts in public opinion are prompting gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people to seek, and win, public office as never before. The trend has produced all sorts of questions for gay candidates like Verde who feel comfortable talking about their sexuality — and want voters to feel comfortable with it, too.

Here in Pittsburgh, where trainees included one mini-celebrity — Daniel Hernandez, the 21-year-old congressional intern who helped save the life of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords when she was shot in Arizona — a team of strategists schooled the participants in the nuts and bolts of running for office, including developing a message and hiring staff.

They dealt with issues like the importance of knocking on doors ("One way to break down barriers is to get introduced," advised Joe Fuld, the strategist running the session), how much money they must raise (twice as much as straight candidates, Fuld said) and what kind of photographs to use in campaign pamphlets.

"It’s always the family, the kids," one would-be candidate lamented. "If you’re a gay person who’s single, do you put a picture with your dog?"

That gay politicians are even having such discussions is significant in itself. Not so long ago, elected officials like Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., were closeted; Frank did not come out until 1987, seven years after winning his House seat. Now there are four openly gay House members, and the talk is of breaking glass ceilings.

In Houston, Mayor Annise D. Parker, elected in 2009, is running for a second term. In New York, Christine C. Quinn, the speaker of the City Council, is on the short list of potential Democratic candidates for mayor. In Washington, Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., is said to be considering a race for the Senate, a prospect that created buzz here among those eager for the first openly gay senator to be elected.

Modeled on Emily’s List, the political action committee that works to elect Democratic women, the fund, with a budget of more than $5 million culled largely from gay donors, is a powerful force behind this trend, raising money, providing strategic advice and endorsing candidates like Baldwin, one of its rising stars.

In 1991, the year the fund was founded, it endorsed two candidates. Last year, it endorsed 164. The fund also helps closeted officials come out, and, through its Gay and Lesbian Leadership Institute, runs boot camps like the one in Pittsburgh several times a year.

The idea, said Chuck Wolfe, the fund’s president and chief executive, is to build a "back bench" of politicians who can win at the local level and work their way up. Across the country, only five statewide officeholders are openly gay. Wolfe says he believes U.S. voters would accept a gay candidate for president, though he expects it will take an additional 20 years to produce a credible candidate.

"It could be a progressive, it could be a conservative," he said. "I don’t have any predictions on the demographics of who it might be."

(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)

The Pittsburgh trainees came from across the political spectrum, from Marisa Richmond, a 52-year-old transgender historian who sits on the county Democratic Party’s executive committee in Nashville, Tenn., to Seth Kaufer, a 31-year-old gastroenterologist running for Republican ward leader in Philadelphia. ("I think it’s an asset," he said of being a gay Republican. "I like to break stereotypes.")

Most, though, were Democrats, and most were young. Hernandez, now a student at the University of Arizona, is eyeing a school board seat.

John Campbell, 23, is about to become the new city treasurer of Harrisburg, Pa.; he raised $10,000 to beat a 58-year-old opponent in the Democratic primary last month and is running unopposed in the general election.

Campbell said the training — particularly Verde’s flub — resonated with his own experience on the campaign trail, where he found himself making subtle changes to his speaking style and appearance. He ditched his form-fitting Guess jeans for looser ones to avoid looking like he was hitting the clubs. And he "made a very conscious effort" to use the word partner in describing his companion.

"People saw that as something more valid than boyfriend," he said.

Sixty-two percent of Americans now say a candidate’s sexual orientation does not matter to them, up from 51 percent four years ago, according to survey published last week by the Pew Research Center. Of the estimated 500,000 elected officials in the U.S., 495 are openly gay, up from 49 about 20 years ago, according to the Victory Fund.

Despite the increasing public acceptance, obstacles remain. Bruce Kraus, a gay member of the Pittsburgh City Council, told the trainees about the bricks thrown through his campaign office window a couple of years ago. Offensive language was spray-painted on some of his signs, and anti-gay literature was passed out at Catholic churches, Kraus said.

Still, he said, "it’s gotten infinitely better, and the proof in the pudding is I’m in public office."

Fuld, whose company, the Campaign Workshop, often advises gay candidates, said his clients often describe running for office as "coming out all over again." He gave trainees a list of 13 questions they should be prepared to answer, including, "How long have you been gay?" and "How long has your family known?" When one candidate asked how to describe his sexuality in campaign literature, Fuld pointed to Parker in Houston.

"She put on her literature that she was the LGBT police liaison," he said, using shorthand for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. "You need to put it out there in some way, but it doesn’t have to be the ‘Joe the Gay Candidate."’

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