In February, an openly gay Republican candidate for Congress became the first in the history of either party to feature his partner in a campaign ad. The brief shot of the couple, hands interlocked, was followed by footage of the candidate holding a rainbow flag. “Who is this man?” the ads narrator asked. “Carl DeMaio.”
DeMaio, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is one of three candidates, including Republicans Fred J. Simon and Kirk Jorgensen, running in an open primary to unseat first-term incumbent, Democrat Scott Peters, in California’s 52nd Congressional district, which includes much of central and coastal San Diego.
DeMaio’s earlier political career was partly defined by his inability to gain the support of the LGBT community—despite a series of vicious homophobic smears against him. Now DeMaio is campaigning, at least in part, on his ability to survive those anti-gay assaults. But as two other gay Republican congressional candidates—Dan Innis in New Hampshire and Richard Tisei in Massachusetts—find themselves in the good graces of LGBT-centered groups, the question arises: Is it hard for gay Republicans to find support in the LGBT community, or is it just hard for DeMaio?
The race between DeMaio and Rep. Peters is highly competitive. A June 2013 10News poll showed DeMaio leading Rep. Peters by nearly ten points. To help close the gap, DeMaio is employing an unusual tactic: the openly gay candidate is trumpeting how much the LGBT groups hate him.
DeMaio, who looks about a decade younger than his 39 years, was born in Dubuque, Iowa, and moved with his family to Orange County, California in the late ‘70s. In 1990, DeMaio’s father abandoned his family. Two weeks later, his mother died. “At age 14, Carl was taken in by Jesuits and given the opportunity to earn his way to Georgetown University,” his website says.
After graduating from Georgetown, DeMaio founded two think tanks and served a term in the San Diego City Council. The end of DeMaio’s term on the Council in 2012 coincided with the retirement of Mayor Jerry Sanders. DeMaio mounted a campaign for mayor, running against then-Rep. Bob Filner.
Things got very dirty very quickly.
“To be really, frankly honest, I’m disappointed in the DeMaio campaign for the attacks against an organization they haven’t sought an endorsement from yet.”
Filner charged that DeMaio’s partner Jonathan Hale, the publisher of the San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, had contributed to vandalism at Balboa Park, where a water-gun fight got out of control, resulting in $19,000 in damage to a lily pond. Hale’s publication, Filner charged, had played up the water gun fight in the days leading up to the event. “Is it a lie that this event, illegal event, an illegal event which led to illegal captivity was promoted on websites that he controls and owns?” Filner said.
In an interview on Fox News this week, DeMaio said Filner “attacked my partner repeatedly in press conferences, just to point out the fact that I was gay.”
During DeMaio’s mayoral campaign, a political action committee formed to helped defeat him. The PAC, deceptively called Conservatives for Gay Rights Supporting Carl DeMaio for Mayor 2012, paid for robocalls and literature that reminded voters DeMaio is gay.
The voice on the PAC’s robocalls asked, “If you knew Carl DeMaio was the first openly gay man to be elected to our San Diego City Council, would you be more likely or less likely to vote for Carl DeMaio or does this fact make no difference?”
The literature the group distributed featured a photoshopped image of DeMaio standing near a man dressed in drag. They were allegedly sent to members of the African American community.
Gregory T. Angelo, Executive Director of the Log Cabin Republicans—which has endorsed DeMaio’s congressional bid—told The Daily Beast the incident is “an example of both gay baiting and race baiting.”
“If anyone on the right had put out a postcard against a gay Democrat with a photoshopped image of a drag queen next to them, and sent it to individuals specifically within the African American community, liberals would be howling, and it would become a nation-wide story…When we talk about liberal hypocrisy, and especially liberal hypocrisy within the LGBT community, this is what we’re referring to.”
(In 2013, the PAC was fined $7,500 by the San Diego Ethics Commission for violating campaign disclosure laws.)
And yet, despite the homophobic attacks, many LGBT groups either declined to endorse DeMaio or were openly hostile to him during the mayor’s race. The openly gay candidate was even booed at a local gay pride parade.
A major point of contention for the LGBT community during DeMaio’s mayoral campaign was his silence on Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment created by same sex marriage opponents, which banned gay marriage in the state of California. The initiative passed, but was ultimately ruled unconstitutional by a federal court. DeMaio did not publicly take a position on the ballot initiative.
“I was working on the Prop 8 campaign and called Carl to ask him to publicly oppose Prop 8. He told me he wouldn’t do that because it would hurt him in his city council race,” said Fred Sainz, Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Human Rights Campaign.
Sainz said DeMaio’s refusal to vocally oppose Prop 8 “speaks to his character and judgment… It was not a principled moment for him, which makes you wonder how many tradeoffs he makes every day if a position is not in his best political interest.”
One of DeMaio’s campaign contributors, U-T San Diego publisher Doug Manchester, donated $125,000 to Proposition 8.
Asked about the donation, a spokesman for DeMaio, Dave McCulloch, said “Carl DeMaio has had a broad-based donor base of well over 9,000,” and that all of his donors are aware of his support for marriage equality.
“He stayed silent,” Rep. Peters’ campaign spokeswoman, Maryanne Pintar, said. “And [he] took money from the leading backer of the Yes On 8 measure and would not stand with his community.”
DeMaio maintained throughout his candidacy that while he supported same sex marriage, discussing it during a mayoral race amounted to little more than political theater. It is not, after all, the job of a mayor to pass laws about unions between people—gay or otherwise.
The argument didn’t appear to work. Come election day, DeMaio was defeated 52.5 percent to 47.5 percent by Filner.
(Filner’s tenure as mayor was short and controversial. In July 2013, Filner announced he would be taking a leave of absence “to undergo two weeks of intensive therapy” following multiple allegations that he had sexually harassed female staffers. After he finally resigned, he pled guilty to false imprisonment and misdemeanor battery, and served three months house arrest.)
By then, DeMaio was in the middle of a new campaign—this one, for Congress—and once again being hit with brutal and personal attacks.
The Voice of OC reported DeMaio had been caught masturbating in a mens’ room during City Council meetings. “In the months before last November’s mayoral election, Ben Hueso, the City Council’s president in 2009, acknowledged to this reporter that he witnessed DeMaio engaging in the practice twice.”
The publication quoted Hueso as saying “DeMaio was masturbating. He jumped, caught by surprise. He jumped to the sink…saying ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry’ about six times. Then washed his hands, darted out.” The publication wrote that Councilwoman Marti Emerald had confirmed the account.
DeMaio responded to the “vicious rumor” by taking a polygraph test, which he passed. Hueso refused to take a polygraph test.
Asked by The Daily Beast why he thought two lawmakers went on record to lie about the event in the first place, McCulloch, DeMaio’s spokesperson, said, “By repeating a disgusting allegation that has been convincingly rebutted with facts, Daily Beast shows it is willing to help smear Carl DeMaio.”
This week, DeMaio was the subject of a piece by Fox News contributor Dana Perino which asked why the LGBT community has shown hostility towards the candidate.
“DeMaio has been the target of homophobic attacks. But where are those attacks coming from? It’s not always from the far right social conservatives you’d expect; rather, it’s been from DeMaio’s left—the liberal and Democrat-affiliated groups that you’d think would be proud that an openly gay successful businessman has decided to run for office."
Perino quotes DeMaio as telling her, “I’ve found more tolerance, acceptance and inclusion from social conservative groups who have to reconcile that I’m a Republican who happens to be gay…versus the intolerance the LGBT leaders see me as a gay man who happens to be a Republican.”
When the Victory Fund, a gay-friendly PAC, endorsed 2014’s other two gay Republican congressional candidates but not DeMaio, McCulloch said “we’re not surprised they’re not endorsing him in what national observers call the most likely seat to switch parties in the country…When it matters, the group is about a liberal agenda.”
But Victory Fund spokesman Stephen Thai said DeMaio’s camp has it all wrong. Thai noted that DeMaio did not submit to be endorsed by the Victory Fund for his congressional race, so they couldn’t have endorsed him even if they wanted to. (The group did decline to endorse DeMaio during his mayoral race.)
Victory, Thai explained, has a policy of not commenting on races in which they haven’t endorsed a candidate. “I’m making an exception on this, because to be really, frankly honest, I’m disappointed in the DeMaio campaign for the attacks against an organization they haven’t sought an endorsement from yet.”
So far in 2014, the Victory Fund has endorsed 104 Democrats and 4 Republicans.
With the exception of the Log Cabin Republicans and GOProud, no major LGBT organization has endorsed DeMaio. And so he is continuing his unorthodox strategy of portraying himself as the openly-gay victim of both homophobic smears — and of attacks from the left-wing, pro-gay lobby.
The latest iteration of that strategy came this week, when DeMaio appeared on Fox News. A photo of Rep. Peters flashed on screen as host Martha MacCallum explained to viewers that “an openly gay congressional candidate has become the target of attack ads from liberal groups who are supposed to be preaching about tolerance and understanding.”
Rep. Peters’ campaign did not appreciate the visual, which they believe could have led viewers to think Rep. Peters himself had waged homophobic attacks against DeMaio.
“It was egregiously misleading, and I was, frankly, really surprised that a news organization would do something that was so misleading…Whether that came from Mr. DeMaio himself or Fox News, I can’t say," Rep. Peters' spokeswoman, Maryanne Pintar, told The Daily Beast.
While homophobia from his opponents unquestionably plagued DeMaio during his mayoral campaign, it’s hard to argue his current opponent is somehow anti-gay. Rep. Peters has long been a supporter of LGBT rights. In 2000, when he first ran for the City Council, he publicly opposed Proposition 22, which restricted marriage for same sex couples. The Human Rights Campaign PAC has endorsed Peters for reelection, calling him “a strong leader and advocate for equality.” In the wake of the HRC’s endorsement, GOProud criticized the group, saying their endorsement “prevents an openly gay man from attaining office.” The freshman Rep. has not been directly accused of homophobia by DeMaio.
But regardless of how recent the attempts at character assaults, the very fact that they were ever lobbed by those on the left are, Gregory T. Angelo, Executive Director of the Log Cabin Republicans said, an indication that Democrats aren’t sure how to react to Republican’s encroaching on their LGBT territory.
“What I’m seeing is the Democratic party that is fearful that they are about to lose the stranglehold that they’ve had on the gay vote for decades… I see Republicans having much more to gain from a DeMaio victory and Democrats having much more to lose from a DeMaio victory, at the end of the day.”
Update: DeMaio's spokesman, Dave McCulloch, has responded to the Human Rights Campaign's Fred Sainz, saying "Fred Sainz's claim that Carl DeMaio refused to speak out on Prop 8 because of his City Council election is easily proven false. I guess Fred didn't check the timeline, because DeMaio actually won his City Council in the primary in 2008 and had already won his City Council seat by the time the Prop 8 campaign got underway in the summer of 2008."
Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated a June 2013 10News poll had been conducted in February.