Rainbow Coalition

Minneapolis City Council candidates Scott Benson (left), Gary Schiff (center), and Doug Kress gear up for this fall's municipal elections
Craig Lassig

The Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, and those who subscribe to their philosophies would have a field day with this fall's Minneapolis elections. Not only are there four openly gay candidates for city council, there are gay candidates running for seats in all the major municipal races--for the school board, library board, park board, and tax board.

Covert operation? Nope. More like an interesting coincidence.

"I really hope people don't think this is a conspiracy," quips Doug Kress, candidate for the Tenth Ward seat being vacated by Lisa McDonald. "It was not a concerted effort."

In addition to Kress, the other openly gay candidates for council are Scott Benson, who is running for Doré Mead's 11th Ward seat; Dean Kallenbach, who is running for the Sixth Ward seat Jim Niland is leaving; and Gary Schiff, who is running in the Ninth Ward (incumbent Kathy Thurber dropped out of the race last winter). Schiff is managing the park-board campaign of John Erwin, who is also gay. And at the recent DFL endorsing convention in Minneapolis, no one even batted an eye when Patrick Peterson, during his speech for school board, announced that he is gay.

"I was at the convention on Saturday, and I could feel no resistance whatsoever to the candidates who were running as openly gay," comments Allan Spear, who retired from the Minnesota Senate last year after a 28-year tenure. Spear became the state's first openly gay legislator when he disclosed his homosexuality in 1974, two years after his initial election. He knows firsthand that gays have not always enjoyed such ready acceptance as viable political candidates.

"The fact that it's not a big deal is a big deal," he opines. "It's taken in stride now in Minneapolis. It's not at issue that gay people are electable."

Still, the seemingly sudden emergence of Minneapolis's gay candidates is remarkable. Of a half-million elected officials across the United States, only 197 are openly gay, according to the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a national group that helps qualified openly gay candidates get elected. Against that backdrop, one can't help asking, Why here? And why now?

The increase in the representation of gay candidates in municipal politics is one result of a generational shift, suggests Megan Thomas, chair of Stonewall DFL, the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender caucus of Minnesota's DFL party.

"We're getting into that generation of people who are more comfortable being out and open with their sexual orientation," Thomas says. "It wasn't a planned thing. We realized we had this interesting group of people. And in addition to being gay, they have a lot of experience in the areas they're running for."

Testimony to the acceptance of gay candidates is that most of those running in Minneapolis say their sexuality has little or nothing to do with their desire to run for office. They weren't propelled into politics solely by a wish to legalize gay marriages or win other equal rights, for example. Rather, they say, they are campaigning because their diverse public- and private-sector backgrounds give them the kind of experience that qualifies them for leadership--of the entire city, not just selected constituencies.

Most of the candidates would rather talk about their plans to increase affordable housing or reduce airport noise. Gary Schiff, for instance, prefers to discuss his ideas on urban planning instead of his sexuality. "It's not particularly interesting to me," he states. "Voters don't care what my sexuality is. They just want to make sure I'm not in bed with Target."

And that makes their messages that much stronger, says Mark French, a member of the board of directors of the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign, a political group that advocates for GLBT causes on the national level. French, a member of the local chapter, serves on the national board of directors. "They are candidates for political office who care about housing and the economy," he says. "And they happen to be gay."

Gay candidates have not always been so welcome. Over the past decades there have no doubt been scores of qualified, talented politicians who opted not to run for office, afraid that disclosing their sexuality would scare off voters. Others didn't run simply for fear of being outed.

When Scott Benson worked on former Minnesota Secretary of State Joan Growe's 1984 campaign for U.S. Senate, sexuality could derail a political career. "In those days it would have been an impossible barrier," Benson says. "I don't think I could have seriously considered running in the 11th Ward as a gay man in the 1980s. I don't think it's an issue today."

Not everyone agrees with this utopian view. Certainly Minneapolis may have a progressive political environment, but there are plenty of areas around the state where it would be all but impossible for a gay candidate to run for office, says State Rep. Karen Clark (DFL-Minneapolis), who is a lesbian. "It's easier than it used to be, but the prejudice is still in place," she cautions. "It's harder to win, just as it's more difficult if you're a woman or a minority. This is a deep change that needs to happen. We've made some progress, but we've definitely not arrived."

It's been a long progression, says the Human Rights Campaign's French, who credits the liberal, supportive climate, the active GLBT community, and the work of gay pioneers in Minneapolis. "Gains made through a lot of work that many people have done have made it accepted that a gay candidate can be a political candidate," he says. "There is a sense and feeling in Minneapolis that this is something that is possible."

Dean Kallenbach, who is running for the Sixth Ward council seat being vacated by Jim Niland, is quick to pay homage to his predecessors, including Spear, Clark, and Brian Coyle. Coyle was Minneapolis's first openly gay council member and held the seat Kallenbach is running for from 1983 until his death from AIDS in 1991. "This is a pretty progressive community," he says. "They don't judge people on sexuality. They judge people on content."

Come November, Minneapolis will see if it's progressive enough to have a city council that's nearly one-third gay--a percentage unmatched anywhere in the nation. "We have a chance to make history," Stonewall DFL's Thomas says. "There is more to gay politics, there are more advanced places in the country than just the East Coast and the West Coast."

But even as Minneapolis is poised to make such a splash, some say this is no time to stop pushing forward. Clark is quick to point out, for example, that although more gay men are running for office, there still aren't enough gay women campaigning. "That's a gap that I'd like to see filled a little bit," she says.

Still, political veterans such as Spear say it's heartening that candidates will no longer opt not to run for office simply because they are gay and fearful of public reaction. "Those days are really past us now, at least in Minneapolis. It doesn't really matter anymore," Spear says. "Of course, we still don't have a gay candidate for mayor. That's a few years off. But if Paris can elect a gay mayor, so can Minneapolis."

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