BANGOR, Maine (WOMENSENEWS)--The gay vote may prove to be an important factor in a closely watched Democratic primary for an open Maine congressional seat, as state Sen. Susan Longley seeks to capitalize on her status as a rising star on the national gay political scene.
Political observers have identified Longley as one of a few non-incumbent Democrats who have a good chance of winning a seat in Congress this year. If Longley wins her June 11 primary and the general election, she would join Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin as the second openly gay woman to be elected to Congress.
"It's rare when an opportunity comes along to increase gay representation at this level, so it's important for us," says Jason Young, a spokesman for the Washington-based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a political-action committee that has endorsed Longley and supports openly gay candidates running for everything from school board posts to the halls of Congress.
"This race has created a real buzz because it's an open seat, it's a swing district and Susan Longley is a very strong candidate," Young says.
Despite actively campaigning for donations from gay-rights organizations, Longley refuses to discuss the political aspects of an openly gay candidacy. Her campaign Web site does not mention her support of gay rights or her strong sources of national support, including that of the Human Rights Campaign, which endorsed her last week in part because she is openly lesbian. Earlier this month Longley attended a number of meetings and a fund-raiser in Washington with gay supporters.
"It's part of who I am," Longley says. "My candidacy is about the issues that are important to the 2nd district, not about my personal life."
Gays Seen as Effective Grassroots Campaigners
The congressional race is crucial nationally because control of the House of Representatives hangs in the balance. With incumbent Rep. John Baldacci vacating his post to run for governor of Maine, the Democratic and Republican primary races are crowded. Maine's 2nd district is one of just a few congressional seats with no incumbent, and the district's electorate is neither reliably Democratic nor Republican.
Each of the district's six Democratic candidates has a different calculus about building a winning plurality in the sprawling, rural district, the largest east of the Mississippi River. But gays have been involved in several referenda related to gay rights in recent years and are considered an important base of grassroots organizing power in a competitive race.
Longley, 46, chairs the Maine Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, and emphasizes health care reform, child care incentives and protection of reproductive rights as hallmarks of her eight years. As chair of the Judiciary Committee in the past, she played a central role in defeating attempts to limit access to abortion.
Now term-limited out of the Maine Senate, Longley says her priority is to bring some of Maine's innovative approaches to health care to the national level. In recent years, the Legislature has passed laws putting some price controls on prescription drugs and expanding children's access to basic health care services.
"There are 600,000 people in the 2nd District, and sexual orientation issues are probably not important to most of them," says the Victory Fund's Young.
Gay Candidates Face a 'Delicate Balancing Act'
Still, the politics of sexuality remains an important issue to gay-rights groups. The Human Rights Campaign made the maximum $5,000 political-action committee contribution to Longley and will send a staff member to the district to help turn out the vote in the days before the primary, a spokesman says.
Young says it's still rare when a candidate runs for Congress as openly gay and notes that three of the four gay incumbents in Congress only spoke publicly about their homosexuality when outside events more or less forced the issue. Baldwin is the only member of Congress who went to Washington already out of the closet.
One other openly gay congressional candidate, Democratic nominee Hank Perritt of Illinois's 10th district, is considered a long shot. Republican incumbent Rep. Mark Kirk is considered gay-friendly and has the support of the Human Rights Campaign. Nine others have been defeated in primaries or failed to mount serious campaigns, Young says.
Deb Price, a nationally syndicated columnist at the Detroit News who covers gay and lesbian issues, says that even as more openly gay candidates feel confident running for higher office, they also face some pitfalls.
"Openly gay candidates have to master a delicate balancing act so their candidacies aren't marginalized," Price says. "They need to ensure they're not seen as 'the gay candidate,' but that they can effectively represent their constituency on a whole range of issues just like any other politician."
Inside the state, Longley and a few of her rivals have worked vigorously for the support of the state's small but politically active gay community. Many activists have signed on with Longley, but former state Sen. Sean Faircloth, a progressive Democrat, has made targeted appeals to the activists who have labored hard in recent years on several referendum campaigns relating to discrimination against homosexuals.
"I have a solid record on discrimination issues and I want the support of the gay community," Faircloth says. "It's going to be important in this race."
Family Ties Offer Name Recognition
But not everyone believes sexuality is a significant factor in the race. Maine journalists have either ignored or failed to note Longley's status on the national gay political scene.
One key political asset that Longley has enjoyed since she first ran for office is high name recognition throughout the state. She is the daughter of Maine's late Independent Gov. James Longley and the sister of former U.S. Rep. James Longley Jr., a Republican. James Longley Jr. represented Maine's 1st congressional district in Southern Maine for one term when the Republicans won control of the House in the 1994 midterm elections.
Susan Longley's liberal politics are a stark contrast to those of her more conservative family. Still, early opinion polls indicate she has solid support among likely voters in the Democratic primary, though she has trailed in fund raising. In recent weeks, she has earned the endorsement of several national activist groups, winning access to valuable mailing lists and drawing more support from out of state.
Longley's rivals for the primary, which is just two weeks away, are three others with solid political foundations and significant financial backing and two political newcomers.
One is Faircloth, Longley's key rival for the progressive vote and constituencies in central and coastal Maine. Another is state Senate President Michael Michaud, who has the endorsement of Maine's major labor unions and who is the only Democratic candidate who opposes abortion rights. A third is state Sen. John Nutting, a dairy farmer whose political strength lies in the vote-heavy Southern part of the district and who has been the fund-raising leader in the race.
The other two candidates, Lori Handrahan and David Costello, are foreign affairs experts who recently have returned to the state and are largely financing their own campaigns.
Four candidates are vying for the Republican nomination. One is former Bangor Mayor Timothy Woodcock, who supports abortion rights and is a protege of former Defense Secretary and U.S. Sen. William Cohen, who also started his political career on the Bangor City Council. Another is Kevin Raye, a longtime staff member for Maine's popular Republican U.S. senator, Olympia Snowe, whose pro-choice and other financial backers are supporting Raye's candidacy. State Rep. Richard Campbell and state Rep. Stavros Mendros also have significant backing in the state, though they have trailed in fund raising.
Marie Tessier is a journalist who lives in Maine and covers national and international affairs.
For more information:
Susan Longley for Congress:
Project Vote Smart Nonpartisan Web site that provides
comprehensive information on candidates and issues:
The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund: