Political Notes: Attacks ramp up in gay Palm Springs House race, now seen as a toss-up

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday July 24, 2023
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Congressional candidate Will Rollins, right, is withstanding increasing attacks from supporters of his Republican opponent in the race for a Palm Springs House seat. Photo: Courtesy the candidate
Congressional candidate Will Rollins, right, is withstanding increasing attacks from supporters of his Republican opponent in the race for a Palm Springs House seat. Photo: Courtesy the candidate

As the 2024 contest for a Palm Springs House seat tightens, the attacks on the gay challenger in the race and the Republican incumbent are heating up months before voters will cast their first ballots for who they want to represent them on Capitol Hill.

Attorney Will Rollins, who now lives in the LGBTQ retirement and vacation mecca with his partner, is again running to unseat Congressmember Ken Calvert (R-Corona) from his 41st Congressional District seat. The political newcomer and former federal prosecutor had fallen short by several thousand votes in flipping the House seat from red to blue last November.

That strong showing by Rollins has brought him significantly more support from the Democratic Party and donors this year as he wages his second campaign for the seat. As the Political Notes column reported last week, he recently netted a record-breaking haul of $875,000 in donations for his bid.

Meanwhile, Calvert reported raising more than $900,000 in the second quarter of 2023 and is sitting on more than $1.5 million in his campaign coffers. Nonetheless, the Cook Political Report on Thursday, July 20, moved the race from "Lean Republican" to "Toss-up" as Democrats now hold a +3,000 registration advantage in the district.

"Our race in CA-41 is officially one of the most crucial pickup targets in the 2024 election," Rollins declared in an email to his supporters.

The news came as Rollins faces increasing attacks from backers of Calvert. Fox News reported July 18 on his receiving financial support from Reid Hoffman, with the story noting the LinkedIn founder's ties to the late financier Jeffrey Epstein, who died by suicide in 2019 while in custody awaiting trial on sex trafficking and conspiracy charges.

Two days later the California Republican Party pushed out the story to reporters in the state, highlighting in an email that "when asked for a comment by Fox News about his major support from a buddy of Epstein's, Rollins' campaign 'did not immediately respond.' Yikes."

Calvert's campaign last week had also pushed out the story, which plays into the homophobic trope of painting gay men as pedophiles that Republicans and conservatives are increasingly using to attack out candidates and elected officials. The GOP representative called Rollins a "failed soft-on-crime" candidate in his email blast.

At the same time as he was attacking Rollins, Calvert was being lambasted for his recent vote for an amendment to a Transportation Department funding bill that cut $3 million for three LGBTQ-focused community centers — one in Massachusetts and two in Pennsylvania — and prohibited funds from being used to fly Pride flags or to "take discriminatory action" against anyone who speaks or acts in accordance with a belief that marriage is between one man and one woman, as Politico reported on July 18.

"Calvert's attack on the LGBTQ+ community is as hateful as it is wildly out of touch with his constituents. Californians want a leader who will work to build livable, welcoming and affordable places for their community, not bigots like Ken Calvert who attack our neighbors because of who they are," stated Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson Viet Shelton.

In his own news release in response to Calvert's vote, Rollins called his backing of the amendment "unfathomable" for someone who represents "one of our nation's most vibrant LGBTQ communities." It is one more reason why new leadership is needed in the congressional district, argued Rollins.

"Government is about priorities. Most of us in this district — Republicans and Democrats alike — want pragmatic, smart leaders focused on solving real problems. Targeting vulnerable LGTBQ folks might help rile up a far-right fundraising base, but it sure as hell doesn't make the 91 freeway any less congested in Corona," stated Rollins.

He added that "Ken's bigoted, misguided vote is not only a stark reminder of why we need to expand LGBTQ representation in Congress, but also why we need a new generation of leaders focused on the right priorities — instead of culture wars — here in Riverside County."

Both Rollins and Calvert are expected to survive the March primary, where the top two vote-getters regardless of party affiliation advance to the November general election. Their race is seen as a key pickup for Democrats if they want to win back control of the House next year, so voters in the district can expect the heated rhetoric from both sides to only increase over the coming months.

Gay UC Irvine law grad ends Michigan U.S. Senate bid

Gay attorney Zack Burns has ended his candidacy for an open U.S. Senate seat in his home state of Michigan. The first-time candidate and 2018 graduate of the UC Irvine School of Law was facing a tough bid to succeed Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow.

Following her decision to not seek reelection in 2024, Burns had launched his bid for the congressional seat and moved from Boston to Ann Arbor in the spring. But Burns, who has an infant son with his husband, told the B.A.R. on July 20, a day prior to his 35th birthday, that he had decided to end his campaign.

Congressmember Elissa Slotkin (D-Lansing) is seen as a frontrunner in the Democratic primary that will be held in August 2024. Dearborn businessman Nasser Beydoun also pulled papers to seek the party's nomination for the Senate seat, as did "CSI: NY" and "The Good Doctor" actor Hill Harper, who jumped into the race earlier this month.

Burns, albeit briefly, was the first known gay U.S. Senate candidate from Michigan. He works for Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a law firm headquartered in Palo Alto with offices in San Francisco and Boston, where Burns is an associate. He had taken a leave when he started his campaign.

The Political Notes column will return Monday, August 7.

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Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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