Political Notebook: Gay-friendly Republican challenges Pelosi
by Matthew S. Bajko
John Dennis, an anti-war, gay-friendly Republican running in San Francisco's 8th Congressional District, is hoping he can attract disgruntled Democrats and independents to his effort to defeat Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this fall.
"Pelosi needs to be challenged on things. She is vulnerable on a number of issues," said Dennis. "I just love the idea of an anti-war Republican taking on Pelosi."
Part of his strategy is to target LGBT voters who are increasingly upset with Democrats' inability to pass pro-gay legislation despite their controlling both the House and the Senate. After Congress sent President Barack Obama a pro-gay hate crimes bill last fall, the rest of the gay community's legislative priorities have stalled in either the House or the Senate.
LGBT activists have been particularly irked this summer with Pelosi for so far failing to call a vote on extending federal workplace protections to cover sexual orientation and gender identity.
Just this week about 50 local activists picketed Pelosi's offices in San Francisco while several members of the group GetEqual were arrested inside the Capitol's Rotunda. Both demonstrations were meant to pressure Pelosi to schedule a vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which she promised LGBT leaders in May would happen this year.
The actions came after Pelosi once again hedged on the timeline for passing ENDA during an appearance this past weekend at the Netroots Nation conference in Las Vegas.
Asked by moderator Cheryl Contee when she would schedule the vote, Pelosi said, "I can't give you a time. But I can tell you that it is a priority and it had been our hope to do it this year. We have to finish 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and hopefully we can do both this year."
Sensing an opening, Dennis, 46, recently campaigned in the Castro, going on a pub-crawl with Dan Brown, the president of the local chapter of gay GOP group Log Cabin Republicans.
"When people got over the shock of a Republican campaigning in the Castro it was okay. Some people were a little rough," said Dennis, who lives with wife Heather and daughter Devan in Pacific Heights. "My positions are not traditional Republican positions."
During a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter , Dennis said he is in favor of repealing both the military's anti-gay DADT policy as well as the federal anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act. He voted against California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, yet he doesn't consider himself a marriage equality supporter.
"I don't think marriage is a federal issue. It certainly is not a government issue," he said. "I am for people having equal rights and the same tax credits. Now if the right way to resolve that is whether through marriage or not is another matter."
He also has concerns about ENDA and the unintended consequences it might bring.
"In principle I agree with it. People shouldn't be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation. But you have to be careful about it; it is a two-way street," said Dennis. "I don't think a gay business or employer should be forced to hire a homophobe. Should black business owners be forced to hire Klansmen and keep them? There are complicated issues there."
Before Dennis gets to explain where he stands on gay issues, he faces the bigger hurdle of convincing LGBT voters to abandon Pelosi for a Republican when there is little chance of the GOP pushing forward any pro-gay legislation should they reclaim the House.
"If I pull off the political event of the century, I wouldn't drop these issues. I would push for them," said Dennis. "I am a good fit for the gay community and gay voters. I am strong on gay rights and building the economy. I am a different kind of Republican and a different kind of candidate for this city."
His gay friends say Dennis's stances are not an election year ploy. Dan Vazquez, a gay events producer from Miami, has known Dennis since 1986 and was a groomsman at his wedding.
"Knowing his best friend is gay, he understands my views and my political views. He supports them," said Vazquez. "While he is a Republican, he has never challenged me. He is quite liberal versus some other Republicans."
Vazquez, who is a Democrat, told the B.A.R. that while he was surprised to hear his friend wanted to run for Pelosi's seat he is supporting him. He said Dennis is smart to go after LGBT voters.
"A lot of the gay community is not happy on what has not been done, like with ENDA," he said, adding a vote for Dennis would be "a clear message from the gay community they are not getting what they are expecting from their Democratic Congress."
This is Dennis's second stab at elective politics; he ran for the Republican County Central Committee two years ago and came in dead last. This year he not only received the most votes to win a seat on the local party committee but survived a bruising GOP primary battle for the congressional seat against party-backed candidate Dana Walsh , coming in first with 55 percent of the vote.
He has no delusions that defeating Pelosi will be easy.
"I know this is going to be difficult but I am running to win," said Dennis, who has lived in San Francisco 20 years and started Foundation Real Estate, a local investment company.
It is a Herculean task. Since Pelosi beat former gay Supervisor Harry Britt for what was then the open 5th Congressional District seat in June 1987, she has had little reason to worry about her re-election campaigns. And this year seems to be no exception.
One look at this year's June primary results helps explain why: 12,860 Republicans voted compared to the 78,343 Democrats who cast ballots, with less than 1,200 picking a write-in candidate over Pelosi.
Known for her tenacious political skills, Pelosi has remained resolute that her party will remain in the majority with her as speaker despite polls showing voters upset with the direction of the country and Democrats' leadership in Washington.
"I remain more confident than ever that Democrats will keep control of the House, so long as we stand together, work together, and fight together in these final 100 days," Pelosi wrote in a fundraising appeal to supporters this week.
Another clear indication that the only electoral doubts surrounding Pelosi is whether she will remain speaker come November or see Democrats returned to minority status is where the two national parties are spending their money.
The only local race Democrats are worried about is the re-election of Congressman Jerry McNerney in the state's 11th District running through the East Bay and Central Valley. The party has reportedly secured television ad time on behalf of McNerney.
Dennis has yet to see any largesse from Republicans in D.C. According to his latest campaign finance reports, he has not received any money from national Republican committees.
"When we make our own way and success, then they will get involved," said Dennis, who reported having raised $600,000 so far and loaned his campaign $50,000.
According to the July 15 report, he had less than $58,000 in cash on hand. Dennis hopes to raise up to $1.7 million by the November 2 election in order to get his message across to voters.
"I suspect I will attract votes from people who feel Pelosi abandoned them," he said.
Interviews with people protesting Pelosi this week indicate Dennis has his work cut out for him.
While union organizer Sarah Sherburn-Zimmer , who identifies as queer, doesn't plan to vote for Pelosi, she isn't inclined to cast a ballot for a Republican.
"She has horrified me on her lack of leadership on [ENDA]. This is the most important bill I can think of when it comes to gay rights," she said. "I am definitely not going to vote for her because of this. I probably will not vote for a Republican, but I will organize people to vote against her."
Masen Davis, the executive director of the Transgender Law Center, said he is still hopeful that Pelosi will come through on ENDA this year. While he declined to say how he will vote come November, Davis said he has heard growing consternation among LGBT voters.
"There is a lot of concern that legislation to protect all aspects of the LGBT community are not being prioritized. Certainly, we are hearing supporters asking what can we do to hold our policymakers accountable," said Davis, who lives in Pelosi's district.
Should the House not vote on ENDA before it adjourns in October, Pelosi can expect some political fallout locally.
David Waggoner, co-president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, said, "It is a safe bet if Pelosi doesn't bring ENDA for a vote in September, the Milk Club will not endorse her."
Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings around 10 a.m. for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reports on the local gay politico promoting PG&E's disputed SmartMeters.
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Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail mailto:.