Political Notebook: GOP controller candidate Chen's embrace of religious liberty red flag for LGBTQ advocates

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday October 26, 2022
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State controller candidate Lanhee Chen. Photo: Courtesy the campaign
State controller candidate Lanhee Chen. Photo: Courtesy the campaign

Republican California controller candidate Lanhee Chen's embrace of religious liberty proponents is raising red flags for LGBTQ advocates. They question his sincerity in claiming he supports marriage equality when he has championed those using religious beliefs to litigate against LGBTQ rights.

On his Instagram account June 30 Chen posted an altered image of his campaign logo bathed in the colors of the rainbow flag. It included the slogan, "Love is Love."

"As Pride Month draws to a close, we honor the pioneers in the California LGBTQ+ community who have fought for and created a more inclusive society," wrote Chen.

Yet LGBTQ advocates point to his past comments in support of religious liberty, which has been used to fight against LGBTQ rights both legislatively and legally. Just last week Kern County Superior Court Judge Eric Bradshaw ruled that a Bakersfield baker can't be forced to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple if their marriage is counter to her religious beliefs.

The lawsuit stems from 2017, when Tastries Bakery owner Cathy Miller refused to make a wedding cake for couple Eileen and Mireya Rodriguez-Del Rio. Her attorneys had argued doing so would have violated Miller's religious beliefs that marriage should only occur between a man and a woman.

Attorneys with the state's Department of Fair Employment and Housing had argued that under California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, Miller could not deny her business services to customers based on their sexual orientation. But Bradshaw ruled they had failed to show that her denial of service was rooted in such discrimination.

"The evidence affirmatively showed that Miller's only intent, her only motivation, was fidelity to her sincere Christian beliefs," ruled Bradshaw.

On the August 25, 2017 episode of conservative weekend radio show Townhall Review, Chen had argued that while "the voices of white supremacy and neo-Nazi organizations and the KKK have no place in our society," there were "other credible voices on the political right and in America today that have been marginalized on college campuses and other venues across our country. I'm thinking of voices and organizations that advocate for the life of the unborn child or for religious liberty, which have been shouted down or categorized as hate groups."

On the October 22, 2018 episode of the show, Chen had praised Republican Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, then running for a U.S. Senate seat, for being a fighter "for religious liberty and constitutional conservatism." Hawley went on to win the race and became a prominent advocate in Congress for rescinding the national right to an abortion established by the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision.

The court's reversal of that ruling in its Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization issued earlier this year sent the determination about abortion access back to state legislatures. The decision has LGBTQ advocates worried it could lead to the rolling back of LGBTQ rights, such as marriage equality.

And they worry that should Chen be elected to the open state controller position, thus becoming the only Republican statewide elected officeholder in California, he would have a platform to promote the religious liberty argument while undermining both LGBTQ rights and access to reproductive services.

"I don't know how you reconcile the belief love is love with his support for Josh Hawley, who is not only an anti-LGBTQ extremist and also an anti-abortion extremist but someone who had visibly sided with the January 6 U.S. Capitol rioters against our own government and democracy," Samuel Garrett-Pate, managing director of external affairs for statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality California, told the Bay Area Reporter. "As we head into the final two weeks of the election, this is the biggest question on voters' minds: Which Lanhee Chen would we get as our controller? Is it pro-life Lanhee Chen who supported far-right Supreme Court justices and who has supported extremists like Josh Hawley? Or is it the Lanhee Chen who now says he supports abortion access and abortion rights, which is entirely opposite from his past record?"

State controller candidate Malia Cohen. Photo: Courtesy the campaign  

Democratic opponent
His Democratic opponent, former San Francisco supervisor Malia Cohen who is an elected member of the state's tax board, called Chen "a wolf in sheep's clothing" during an interview with the B.A.R. this week. She hopes voters will realize that Chen "is not this manufactured, made up version of an independent. He is a tried and true Republican and is a Trump Republican."

Cohen, who has flooded Bay Area airwaves with TV ads attacking Chen over his record on reproductive rights, called Chen "out of step" with California values.

"He supports Josh Hawley. He is crazy," said Cohen.

Asked about the criticisms lodged against Chen and where he truly stands on same-sex marriage, Chen campaign manager Matt Ciepielowski told the B.A.R. in a texted reply that, "Lanhee supports marriage equality and believes that every Californian deserves to be treated with respect, dignity, and equal justice under law."

Chen does have the support of one prominent LGBTQ elected official, lesbian Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Shubert, a former Republican turned independent. She endorsed Chen in July.

"Lanhee Chen is the only candidate for Controller who will ask tough questions of the Sacramento insiders and ensure accountability for our state's spending," stated Schubert, the sister of Frank Schubert, one of the masterminds behind Proposition 8, the now overturned California same-sex marriage ban.

All of the state's major daily newspapers have endorsed Chen's candidacy to succeed outgoing Controller Betty Yee, who is termed out of office. But Cohen and others worry that Chen could attempt as controller to withhold the disbursement of state funds for LGBTQ programs and reproductive services.

"Tax dollars fund a large portion of these services, and the controller is in charge of the disbursement of those tax dollars. She writes the checks," said Cohen. "If she doesn't believe in something, she can make up some excuse and prevent those tax dollars from flowing toward the services that people need. So the controller, with the wrong person with the wrong values, can be an obstructionist and be preventing those dollars from being spent."

Asked about the contention Chen's support for religious liberty proponents could be used as a basis for his blocking state funds for LGBTQ initiatives or abortion services as controller, Ciepielowski pointed to a statement the campaign released in June in response to the Dodds decision.

"As Controller, I will never restrict nor interfere with a woman's ability to get an abortion or access to abortion services. In fact, the Controller can neither lawfully impose such restrictions nor engage in such interference," stated Chen. "Even if I did have the power to restrict access to abortions or abortion services, I would not. California voters have spoken clearly on this issue."

He added that while Cohen "would rather talk about anything other than the dysfunction and mismanagement in Sacramento, my singular focus as Controller will be on standing up for taxpayers and bringing accountability and fiscal transparency back to California."

It isn't merely LGBTQ advocates raising questions about where Chen stands on various issues. Over the weekend Marc Ang, a prominent Asian conservative columnist from Orange County, attacked Chen for what he considers to be the candidate's pandering to voters by tailoring his positions for various groups.

In a screed he posted to his Facebook page under the name Marques Angus, which included an image of Chen's rainbow campaign logo, Ang called the currently on leave Stanford University professor "a snob, a core-less political creature and a total joke" who will "take on any position to angle for political power."

Ang is the founder and leader of Asian Industry B2B, a nonprofit business group that he said had backed Chen in the June primary. But he wrote in his post that he now intends to vote for Cohen on his November 8 general election ballot and predicted Cohen would win the race by 20 points.

In a phone interview with the B.A.R., Ang said, "Lanhee Chen will say anything basically for political advancement. He doesn't give a shit about the community."

Ang told the B.A.R. he is a straight ally but that he agreed with Chen's past statements about religious liberty. He explained that he had used Chen's Pride Instagram post to illustrate his flip-flopping on issues, questioning what the candidate had previously done to support the LGBTQ community.

But the breaking point personally for Ang, who said he did vote for Chen in the primary, was an interview Chen gave CalMatters in July. He had told the website that he hadn't voted for former President Donald Trump in 2016 or 2020 and that he supports "women's reproductive freedoms. And that includes access to family planning services, to contraceptives and abortions, as allowed under California law."

"I am pro-life. How dare Lanhee come out in that interview to bash Trump and walk back that position on abortion. He was going around during the primary and trying to act as conservatives' best friend," said Ang.

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on the San Francisco supervisor candidates' plans to preserve the city's LGBTQ culture.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @ http://twitter.com/politicalnotes

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

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