The gathering, held in a ground-floor meeting room at a Loring Park apartment building, was a modest affair. Fewer than a dozen people showed up--hardly enough to crowd a small tent, let alone the big canopy that has become the driving image of Republican politics since the November elections. Organizers, who had hoped for a larger turnout, speculated that the frigid weather kept supporters away. But Terrell Brown wasn't disappointed. "If we think we're going to change the party overnight, we're fooling ourselves," Brown says. "But I think things are coming our way."
Brown, a 45-year-old accountant and former marathon runner who has spent the past 20 years laboring in the trenches for the Minnesota GOP, says the time is right for his effort to reconstitute a Minnesota chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, the country's biggest and best-known organization for gay and lesbian Republicans. He acknowledges that for the past decade Christian conservatives have been a powerful force in the state GOP: "Some of those folks aren't going to like us, and that's too bad," he says, adding after a pause: "But the whole party's not like that. There's a pretty wide spectrum."
Nationally, the Log Cabin Republicans--named in reference to Abraham Lincoln's putative birthplace--came to prominence two years ago, when GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole publicly rejected a campaign contribution from the group. The organization, which has grown slowly since its inception in California in 1978, now lays claim to 50 chapters in 22 states. Until a few years ago, Minnesota had a chapter, too, but it failed to garner much of a profile within the party and few now remember just when and how it fizzled. Tony Sutton, the executive director of the state GOP, says merely, "I don't know anything about the history of the group."
"It was never really a force," says Ken Darling, a prominent DFL activist, political observer, and former columnist for Q Monthly. "I don't think the Republican Party took it seriously. And I don't think the gay community in Minnesota ever took the Log Cabin Republicans seriously." Darling is also skeptical about the new chapter's prospects, arguing that GOP right-wingers are more likely to tweak their stance on issues like abortion than to grant concessions on gay rights.
That's pure hooey, according to GOP political consultant Sarah Janecek. "I think that 10 years ago this would have been less well-received than it is now," says Janecek. "But I think Republican leaders of all stripes have become more inclusive. There's just not a big gay-bashing thing in Republican politics right now." Nonetheless, Janecek argues that Brown's time would be better spent working in existing Republican groups. The new GOP leadership in the state House, she notes, "has made it clear that a right-wing moral agenda is not in the cards."
Still, the Log Cabin agenda--which, along with boosting traditional Republican economic policies, will likely include efforts to stave off any legislative tampering with the state Human Rights Act and support for needle-exchange programs for AIDS prevention--is sure to put the group in conflict with powerful interests in the GOP. Aaron Hall, a spokesman for the conservative Minnesota Family Council, says his group's legislative priorities for this year include repealing a 1993 amendment to the Human Rights Act which afforded gays and lesbians explicit legal protections in housing and employment. The Family Council also plans to oppose any change to the state's sodomy laws. And GOP director Sutton says that while the party is committed to equal rights, it continues to oppose "special protection and special rights."
Steve Swonder, a longtime Republican activist with ties to the new Log Cabin chapter, suggests that Brown's ample political experience--he chairs the party organization in Minneapolis's Senate District 60--ought to ensure that the group will be more effective than its predecessor. But, adds Swonder, Brown's success will depend in large part on his ability to disprove an old saying about GOP politics in Minnesota: "The conservatives go to the caucuses. The moderates go to the Guthrie." Adds Swonder: "The world is run by those who show up.